Friday, October 03, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #1: Apollo 18

The found footage genre has one essential flaw. I don’t know if there’s a collective or cultural description for it, but let’s go ahead and make one. Let’s call it Just Drop The Fucking Camera And Run You Doofus Syndrome.

Prime example of JDTCARYDS: ‘Cloverfield’. Big monster stomps all over hipster party – drop the camera and run, you doofus. Guy touting camera sees girl he likes in a state of emotional distress – drop the camera and go be a gentleman, you doofus. Guy touting camera happily goes strolling through military installation – not one rifle butt to the head or instruction to drop the camera ensues.

All damn found footage movies suffer from JDTCARYDS, even when it’s popped on a tripod and left to record ghostly goings-on overnight, a la ‘Paranormal Activity’, although in this example it’s more a case of Just Quit With The Home Movies And Go Sleep In Another Room You Doofus Syndrome.

All damn found footage movies … except one. Because how about if the camera was built into your spacesuit and you were running anyway?

Ladies and gentlemen, ‘Apollo 18’. Granted, it has a concept that sounds like barrel-scraping of highest (or should that be lowest?) order: hey guys, no-one’s made a found-footage movie in space yet! How cheap can we build an egg-carton lunar module? But at a taut 84 minutes and boasting a genuinely imaginative approach to the sub-genre, it emerges as a claustrophobically tense piece of work.

Writer Brian Miller and director Gonzalo López-Gallego get things right from the outset by wearing their influences like badges of honour: this ain’t ‘Blair Witch’ in space; this taps into a more primal and visceral stratum of fear. ‘Apollo 18’ is about isolation, about claustrophobia, about not knowing who to trust, about the terrifying realisation that there will be no rescue party, no escape route, no-one to help you. ‘Apollo 18’ taps into the same strand of horror that informed ‘Alien’ and ‘The Thing’, and it’s clear that the creative team behind it knew exactly what they were doing.

The film starts in typical found footage style with a seemingly disconnected stringing-together of grainy clips: the astronauts in training for their mission, to-camera vox-pops, home movie footage of families and barbecues. What’s impressive is how quickly small scraps of information cohere into subtle characterisation. Likewise, standard mockumentary tropes suddenly give way to a fully-formed narrative where the stakes are about as high as they get. Miller and López-Gallego sneak things up on the viewer with such legerdemain and Swiss-watch precision that ‘Apollo 18’ is a joy to watch even while it’s scaring the crap out of you. (Although it would be remiss of me, as a reviewer, not to mention that the plot lurches into some pretty melodramatic territory for no other reason than to set up a rather needless twist.)

That said, because of how cleverly and subtly it’s done, I’m loathe to discuss the mechanics of plot. There are some movies you just don’t want to spoil, even moderately, for the viewer who hasn’t yet acquainted themself. Let’s just say that ‘Apollo 18’ plays its hand simply by having an object in the corner of the screen – an object that shouldn’t have any business with mobility – moving very slightly for a fraction of a second. It should be silly; it’s actually terrifying. The film quickly seals the deal with a set-piece involving the descent into a crevasse – the whole thing lit by intermittent flashes of light – that becomes a symphony of half-glimpsed horrors.

From just south of its halfway mark onwards, ‘Apollo 18’ starts ratcheting up the tension and doesn’t give its characters a moment to draw breath until the grimly inevitable denouement. It does a similar job on the audience.

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