Because "Apollo 18" did not screen for critics, we were unable to see it until this weekend. Here's a belated review. We didn't get around to "Shark Night 3-D," also not screened. Sorry. It was nice outside.
1. I'll confess, I'm a sucker for a found-footage movie. I think "Cloverfield" is the best film J.J. Abrams has ever been involved with, the "Paranormal Activity" movies scare the crap out of me and the first time I saw "The Blair Witch Project" in the theater remains one of the most riveting film experiences I've ever had. (I think the movie still holds up, too.) I know the whole genre -- if it even rises to the level of "genre" -- has a whiff of cliche about it now, but I still think it's sturdy: So much of film is set up simulate reality that there's something satisfyingly mysterious about a movie that sets up so many obstructions for itself just in the name of convincing you it's real. I'll always give a movie extra credit for at least trying.
2. Of the many reasons that watching "Apollo 18" is such a dreary experience, atop the list is that it wastes a rather rock-solid premise for a found-footage film. NASA went on a super-secret moon mission in the early '70s, the Apollo 18 of the title, but the astronauts never returned and no one ever acknowledged what happened, or that the mission ever existed in the first place. The opening credits tell us that the following footage was edited and posted to LunarTruth.com. (If you wanna know how much The Weinstein Company cheaped out on this film, note that they didn't even bother to buy that URL.) So we watch as three astronauts go to the moon and discover they aren't alone and (all together now) ... why we never went back. Great idea, but plodding, meandering, oddly disconnected execution: It's as if the filmmakers came up with the idea and then figured that was enough.
3. The actors are so drab and white-bread-crewcut-astronaut that, in true found-footage-movie fashion, the movie doesn't even list them in the credits. These aren't supposed to be actors at all; this really happened! (If you want to know how big of a disaster Hugh Jackman's ill-fated "Viva Laughlin" TV series was four years ago, the star of that show is considered sufficiently anonymous enough to be the lead character of a found-footage movie. Taking a role in one of these is a tacit admission by an actor that his or her career isn't going well.) None of the actors register as personalities (which would be by design) nor as people; I think one of them is married, one is divorced and one has undetermined martial status, and thus ends the information we learn about them or are even bothered to be shown. The movie puts out three men in a box, shovels some spooky sounds at them and then makes them yell at each other. I was never quite sure why. There is some sort of scorpion alien, I think?
4. One reason found-footage movies are so popular to make -- why they're more attractive to make than a more conventional monster movie -- is that they're supposed to look cheap: Our actors are supposed to be unknowns, keeping their price down, and the film quality is limited to whatever equipment our characters happen to have with them. (Here, Super 8 and NASA security cameras.) Darned if the movie, even with these limitations, still doesn't look sloppy and shoddy, so briskly slapped together that you can almost hear the Styrofoam crunch when the astronauts step foot on "the moon." It also constantly cheats found-footage perspective, speeding up the aperture and shock cutting whenever it's convenient. If you're going to make a found-footage movie, stick with the format. If you're just going to fall back on horror movie conventions just to get a jolt out of the audience, you might as well go ahead and make a horror movie. (Zooming in on something scary that's about to happen is an insult to the form.) "Apollo 18" tries to have it both ways; it'd be like if, in "The Blair Witch Project," the forest ghost lady kept jumping out from behind corners while lit from underneath.
5. The movie builds up to a mystery that it never does much to resolve, with its big set piece reveal consisting mostly of a couple of rocks moving. But even worse, once it has spent 84 minutes meandering around and betraying its own premise, when it ends, it tries to go back to being About Astronauts again, with patriotic music and "sad" newsreel footage about our fallen heroes. If you're gonna end like that, you gotta earn it. "Apollo 18" doesn't earn much of anything. It makes you wish someone would have put in the extra effort -- or any effort, really -- to take advantage of the film's intriguing concept. But with "Apollo 18," the only concept anyone was eager to explore was its inexpensiveness. It certainly explored that successfully. Now, like NASA, we can never go back.