It’s not NASA that launches Apollo 18‘s secret title-mission—it’s the department of defense, signaling that this is no mere movie about the space shuttle program (however serendipitously timed to its demise). It’s instead about the noble sacrifice honorable volunteers make for their country—on the orders of craven, corrupt civilians in control of our national (and intergalactic) safety. The movie’s three astronauts are, unbeknownst to themselves, American soldiers in space. Their enemy? Killer spiders from the moon.
There was a time when a movie with space poison-spreading arachnids would have taken its name from them, but Apollo 18 borrows instead from its conspiratorial revisionism. (Be afraid of moon rocks.) The Apollo program, in real life, ended with 17 trips, but, hey, it was the Age of Watergate—why not imagine the government to be tied up in some covert Cold War perfidy in deep space, too? The Soviets, though, are just a red herring; space-race aggression gets the Americans up in the air, but the movie’s lo-fi space-madness mystery goes deeper. The astronauts find human and extraterrestrial company in the place most likely to be without it: the cold, rocky surface of our only satellite.
More interesting than the movie’s plot twists, however, may just be its construction. Like so much found-footage horror, Apollo 18 is presented as recently unearthed film—in this case, classified 16mm gathered from the space crafts’ ubiquitous cameras, both mounted and hand held. The government’s documentary ethos seems aligned with our present Facebook age and yet out of line with the standard multiplex aesthetic: the movie is a frequently disorienting assemblage of unprofessionally shot, old-fashioned stock with significant stretches that border on the abstract, images blurring like an old TV set with its horizontal and vertical thrown off. It’s neat. Monitoring this trippy stream, the defense department comes off as sinister voyeurs, sending good men on a dangerous mission just to see what happens—and then refusing to intervene when it goes awry. It’s like they’re the audience at a horror movie or something.