Saturday, August 11, 2012

“Apollo 18,” and the Spiderz From the South Pole of the Moon, a “Bad Movie I Love”


Sometimes I think that maybe at some time or another, nearly every movie I love (or at least like a lot) has been HATED by some major critic—usually upon its initial release.

DVDs of Skidoo, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Todd Killings and gorehound-“found footage” pioneer Cannibal Holocaust all sit proudly on my shelf—and they were all treated poorly (by most “respectable” reviewers, if not all) when released, completely misinterpreted by their narrow-minded critics, but so unique in conception that audiences were unfamiliar with what they were facing and needed guidance—
But none was forthcoming…even to this day, some of those films are still ill-regarded.

Only time will tell if the critically-reviled Apollo 18 (2011; Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego) will end up on my shelf, but I just finished watching it again a few days ago, and dang! Even on a second viewing, it’s still a tense sci-fi/horror thriller-mystery, with plenty of effective—and well-earned—shocks, and some of the niftiest monsters I’ve seen in a while.



Apollo 18 a finely crafted sci-fi horror flick that seems especially made for astro-buffs, those kids who grew up watching the last of the moon launches, as well as subsequent Skylab and Soyuz-Apollo missions.
It is a damn decent B-movie that would be fun to catch on the “Late Show,” like Michael Winner’s Chato’s Land or Ted Post’s The Baby (both highly recommended, by the way)—genre filmmakers working at the top of their game making movies that weren’t expected to become “classics,” but are still unique products that are different enough to deserve “cults”—they are also the type of flick that’s perfect with a six-pack, if you ask me.

But Apollo 18 got awful reviews when it was released in late-2011—the rabid frenzy of hate it inspired was really surprising.
With so many critics flinging vitriol in its face, I knew that the movie must have done something right. 
But I was hesitant to see the film at first because, for some now-forgotten reason, I thought its plot had to do with the supernatural, like ghosts on the Moon, and that just didn't catch my interest.

But when the sci-fi site Io9.com and writer Annalee Newitz let the moon-rock-crab-spider out of the bag, and then some R&D turned up John Kenneth Muir’s praises (and excellent criticisms of and rebuttals to the A18 haters), I was hooked:
This movie was astronauts vs. moon-rock-crab-spiders! I was so there.
(In fact, it was a recent shout-out to Apollo 18 in JKM’s column that spurred me into quicker production for this post—gotta keep up with the zeitgeist!)

[See this picture at left? Put that guy in an astro-suit, and you’d have a good retro poster for Apollo 18. Many of the images around this article are older pulp sci-fi magazine or book covers, and all of them could be used as posters for the film, with the Max Ernst painting (below, right) for the Eastern European market.]

There are no credits at the beginning of the film, only titles telling us that the film we are about to see was compiled from 19 hours of (possibly stolen?) footage from 1974’s NASA/Department of Defense (DoD) secret moon mission, Apollo 18.

After a midnight launch, their mission is to place “PSD 5” sensor modules (according to the DoD, to monitor potential Soviet rocket activity) around certain craters on the Moon’s South Pole, where, one astronaut says, “[I don’t think] the sun shines ever in some of these places.”
Ominously, all previous Apollo missions had been in the Lunar Northern Hemisphere.

One stipulation from Mission Control is constant film coverage: the astronauts are to videotape or photograph everything they do, and cameras are everywhere on the capsule and lander.
Reportedly, director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego used lenses from the 1970s, and it certainly looks it. Super 8 film, 16mm, old-school B&W video, surveillance cam and more are all mixed together to good effect, a disorienting mixture of styles that I liked.

But equipment failures and moon rock sample bags mysteriously opening on their own are only the first signs of a broader problem for the lunar lander crew—and as the astronauts’ predicament grows, the editing gets more schizoid and frantic, like a bad LSD trip, matching the fevered nature of a crewmember who’s been infected.

There is no music in the film, except what’s in the scene that people are listening to, but a dense, disturbing sonic wall of electronic static, voices in the aether, hissing (oxygen tubes? Crabs?), and ominous ambience.
Shot in British Columbia, the production design is superb, with detailed recreations of period spacecraft, and an eerie and depressing lunar landscape that soon becomes highly malevolent.

As the film progresses,
the sense of being totally, absolutely, horrifyingly trapped grows omnipresent—and who knows, maybe too oppressive for some; most people don’t like their horrors so uncomfortable.
There’s also a sense of bleakness from the get-go: these are nice, decent men who are doomed, and this film is their message in a bottle.
The actors on the Moon put on a great two-man show; trained professionals under attack, and cracking up from the stress.

But this film’s good qualities are accentuated during the flick’s third act, when the mission is going to hell in all sorts of ways, and we “finally” meet the source of the astronauts’ woes face to face: moon-rock-crab-spiders!
I love monsters, especially new and truly unique ones, and seeing Apollo 18 for the second time, there are moments where you realize these lonely explorers are surrounded by the beasties, all of whom are camouflaged excellently: when they stand still, they look just like rocks.

For me, that ability to “transform” from something seemingly harmless, into negative-empathy animals that humans are already scared of (crabs, spiders, insects), makes these organisms truly the stuff of mutating, trans-dimensional nightmares—and because the film is basically humorless, almost grim, it develops a hard-boiled, pulpy quality to it, as if Robert Heinlein had been hired to create a story in the style of Lovecraft (who, while supernatural, tends to broader, more cosmic and unnerving themes than a mere ghost story).

Adding to the horror, we’re given the indication that the critters are more than just if ill-tempered “dumb” beasts—which would be scary enough, but their patterns of violence and attack show signs of developed intelligence: Beyond animalistic territoriality, it is an active dislike of the humans. (Why not; we are the alien invaders!)

Apollo 18’s critters are like the nasty watchdogs for the Great Old Ones sleeping in the Moon’s core: scorpion-like shoggoths, preprogrammed to attack all intruders. (Design-wise, the moon-rock-spiders are cousins to the nasty parasites that fall off the giant creature’s back in Cloverfield.)

Hey, what if the moon-rock-crab-spiders are there to guard the monolith from 2001?
Even more geek-o-riffic: Since they both evolved in the vacuum of space, maybe the moon bug-creatures are the virus from The Andromeda Strain after billions of generations of multi-cellular growth, change and adaptation.

Meanwhile the creatures’ desire to enter human flesh does not seem like a genuine biological drive, such as hunger or breeding—wouldn’t warm, wet flesh be anathema to a creature used to living in an arid vacuum—or would it be scrumptious? Or, is infecting the humans part of some larger plan?
I’m not sure, but questions like this aren’t a bother to a genuine nerd; this is fun!

The nightmare is as much a mystery to the astronauts; they are the victims of a conspiracy that is only using them as bait. The PSD-5 equipment is supposed to rile the moon-bugs up.
The cameras are there to record the terrifying results. When the going gets weird, the astronauts keep filming because that’s how they’ve been trained (which makes more sense than a teen keeping the camera at shoulder level while running from a monster).

Before the Americans arrived, it seems the Russians had already landed on the South Pole—presumably because the US had “claimed” the north—but its crew got eaten by the moon-rock-spiders  (the Americans only find one body, but I get the feeling there were more).
(For images of both a moon-thing and a dead Russian, see below, at the end of the post)

The US found out about the mishap, and needed to test the hypothesis—just to make sure. If semi-intelligent rock-crab-spiders are in charge of the Moon, NASA and the DoD want to know.

The movie’s only about 80 minutes, not counting the credits, but with some judicious trimming, Apollo 18 could be one of the "Best Outer Limits Episodes Never Made"—I’ve commented on this phenom HERE and HERE, but long story short: some films, if they were cut down to the appropriate length, could make perfect episodes of the sci-fi action anthology show The Outer Limits
and Apollo 18 fits the template.
Interestingly enough, JKM has astutely pointed out that Apollo 18 is essentially a remake of The Outer Limits’ episode “The Invisible Enemy,” where astronauts on a Mars with a breathable atmosphere must battle with hungry sand-shark puppets (I think they look cool).

Honestly, though, I think Apollo 18 only needs about five to ten minutes excised to make it perfect—cut down to 50 minutes might make the flick too relentless and intense, not that that’s a bad thing….

The only concession I’ll grant the haters is
I’m not sure seeing this film in a theater is actually the best way. The picture seems made specifically for a smaller screen, and I wonder if the herky-jerky camera movements were maybe too much when projected large in a theater.

Then there’s the uphill battle any genre flick has to wage when the critics have their bayonets out over “found footage”—blah, blah, Blair Witch, [REC], Paranormal Activity, Trollhunter, The Last Exorcism, yakkety-yak, since we need another excuse to slam this movie, we don’t like it.

Just to let you know, I am a fan of “found footage,” always have been (back to the first (I think): the fake newsreel at the start of Citizen Kane), and I consider faux-documentaries—I loathe the term “mockumentary,” except for comedies—to be part of this group.
Personally, the “found footage” genre reminds me of the epistolary novel or short story, one that is told through letters, a diary or even newspaper clippings.
I don’t consider it some stylistic anomaly; it’s a subgenre of its own, with Venn diagrams intersecting specific and related genres. Like gore can move between horror to westerns to kung fu movies, “found footage” crosses lines from comedy to horror to action. It’s just another way to tell the story, and will not be going away soon, not when social media is introducing new ways to record footage, and the resulting technological drops are accepted by the public.

From Spain, director Lopez-Gallego helmed the highly recommended 2007 suspense film El Rey de la Montana (The King of the Hill), a particularly ruthless entry into the “Most Dangerous Game” genre.

From these two films, I am now a big booster of Lopez-Gallego, and look forward to his next, Open Grave, which has quite the gnarly set up: According to IMDB, “A man wakes up in the wilderness, in a pit full of dead bodies, with no memory and must determine if the murderer is one of the strangers who rescued him, or if he himself is the killer.”
Currently listed in post-production, Open Grave is scheduled to be released later this year.

It’s really too bad that Apollo 18’s lack of financial success means there won’t be a sequel, because it should be set on Earth, with the moon-rock-spiders getting loose.
Of course I would cheese it to the max, making sure to rip-off—uh, borrow ideas from some classic 1950s sci-fi, like The Monolith Monsters (really worth a look if you like old-school science fiction) or Attack of the Crab Monsters: not only would the silicon beasts grow to gigantic size when it rains (and if blown up, the pieces, which are all little crabs waiting to be born, start to grow), they absorb the brains of the humans they eat!
Y’know, that would’ve been awesome.

Returning to the Apollo 18 haters: So, how could a film that generates this much food for thought be considered a “Bad Movie”?

I just can’t help but think that so many mainstream critics—and those who wish to be so much like them—have allowed themselves to become so intellectualized, so deadened, that anything outside their standard quasi-artspeak parameters is unacceptable.
Their suspension of disbelief is nonexistent, and their sense of wonder is defined by others.
Meanwhile, a strong infection of class snobbery is in effect, too: this sort of film is beneath their contempt.
Meaning genre flicks are usually verboten.

Since these are the films I love, their opinions mean nothing to me—and when I did listen to them, they lead me down the wrong path too many times (do they really think Dogtooth is a good film?)—but when they can impact a film’s finances detrimentally, and spew unnecessary venom, all I can do is write a positive notice to add cyber-karmic balance.

[So why write about Apollo 18 now? I am a big fan of the reoccurring feature “Bad Movies I Love” at the wonderful film blog Rupert Pupkin Speaks, where guest bloggers compile their own “hated” faves, and recently sent my own list to RPS (as yet unpublished; but don’t worry, I’ll be promoting it when it is).
And about two minutes after I sent my email, I was kicking myself really fucking hard for forgetting to include Apollo 18.]

2 comments:

  1. Ivan,

    It warms my heart to see you sign your name here to the growing and dedicated Apollo 18 admiration society.

    The movie sure was despised and hated by a lot of "very important" people...as you say, so it must be doing something very, very right.

    I appreciate how you landed the movie in a kind of pulp sf historical context here, including the shout-outs to The Outer Limits, specifically. Your post's illustrations also do a good job of tagging Apollo 18 as part of that tradition.

    Personally, I don't get all the hate, either for the rock monsters or the movie in general, and so your post struck just the right note with me this Saturday morning.

    Thanks for the shout-outs, and for a great read.

    Long live the moon monsters...

    best,
    John

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