Friday, January 6, 2012

Film Friday: Apollo 18 (2011)

I’m of two minds about Apollo 18. On the one hand, I’m glad I saw it. But on the other, I cannot recommend it and I never want to see it again. Why? Well, it has a solid story, ruined by its presentation. It had excellent effects, squandered by its presentation. It was simultaneously too long and too short, both because of its presentation. Put simply, this was a potentially excellent film ruined by a misused gimmick.

** spoiler alert **
The Plot
The last manned moon mission was Apollo 17 in December 1972. Or was it? In December 1974, the Department of Defense secretly launches three NASA astronauts to the moon aboard Apollo 18. Their ostensible reason for going is to install an ICBM detector on the moon to warn the US in the event of a Russian missile launch. But when they get to the moon, they discover a mystery in the form of an abandoned Russian moon-lander and a dead cosmonaut. Then things get worse.
Why This Film Could Have Been Excellent, But Wasn’t
When I first heard about this film, I was excited. After all, the plot description above is pretty stellar. It promises intrigue, mystery, action, science fiction and has tons of potential for terror. Imagine the horror of not being able to see or hear things approach, of not being able to breath outside of the suit or the capsule, of communications blackouts, and of the horrific unknown. Add in a trailer which appeared to show a dead astronaut walking around on the moon and this became one of the few films last year that I genuinely wanted to see.

Then it got released to universal derision. My hopes were dampened. Then I heard it was yet another “found footage” film and my hopes died. But it gets worse. Not only is this a found footage film, but they completely mishandled the already awful concept.

The concept of “found footage” films (e.g. Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity) is premised on the idea that someone has cobbled together a movie from film found at the scene of a mysterious tragedy, film taken by some amateur to whom the tragedy befell. This is actually a brilliant concept for several reasons. For one thing, it allows you to make movies cheaply because low quality film and cameras can be used. It also reduces the cost of special effects because any time something is too expensive to produce, the director just has the “amateur” photographer pan away from the action or drop the camera or something like that. Similarly, this approach gives great leeway in editing by allowing longer-than-normal shots with no cuts because audiences excuse the lack of multiple angles and Hollywood-style editing. It also allows jump cuts to skip over boring parts of the film because the director can simply pretend the amateur turned the camera off during that period or that the film was destroyed. This allows directors to skip from highlight to highlight while simultaneously allowing the director greater latitude in letting individual scenes develop.

But found footage films can be annoying for these same reasons: low quality images, the shaky cam effect, annoying jump cuts, and a tendency to over-tease the audience by revealing too little. All of these problems are present in Apollo 18 along with a new and truly annoying problem: aggressive, seizure-inducing edits.

Unlike most found footage films which rely on one camera, Apollo 18 involves at least five cameras which run simultaneously. Thus, it is legitimate to show scenes from multiple angles, which means more Hollywood-style editing can be employed -- this is usually not possible in found footage films.

Unfortunately, the director/editor took this way too far. Rather than doing something clever with the angles or some subtle manipulation, they pound your brain into submission with a never-ending stream of constant cuts, often settling on angles for less than a couple seconds. Even worse, to justify this constant hopping from camera to camera, each edit is preceded by fake interference to suggest the rest of that particular footage in that camera was destroyed. But this nausea-inducing style of constant quick cuts prevents you from ever seeing anything (like the special effects) and it starts to eat up considerable amounts of film time with nothing but annoying static.

Worse yet, the director/editor used these constant cuts as a way to hide a lack of story by trimming the dialog to short bursts of words. Thus, you will encounter large parts of the film which seem like a fever dream where the dialog only gives the impression of what is going on: “hold truths— [static/new angle] self-evident— [static/new angle] created equal— [static/new angle] perfect union.” Even the longer expositive scenes begin right as something is happening and end seemingly randomly before you have gotten all the necessary information to understand the scene: “That’s correct Bill, and the murderer is—” In many ways, the dialog is so disjointed it’s often like skipping ahead randomly in a film and only stopping for a few seconds at a time. What this does is take a story that seems compelling and make it meaningless. Indeed, the elements for a good story seem to be present, but they never show it to you, they only suggest it.

This approach also makes the film feel simultaneously too long and too short. At 85 minutes, the film is very short and it feels lightweight. It feels rushed and it feels like they took the easy route over and over again by cutting away every time you would normally expect something substantive -- not to mention a big chunk of time is lost to static. Yet, at the same time, this film feels far too long because the constant static and jumpcuts wear you down and make it impossible to get into the story -- because the story moves forward in random bursts. Thus, the story drags and feels laborious.

All and all, this could have been a tense and superb film. It had tremendous potential. The concept is solid, though not original. The premise, the setting, the effects, the ambiance are all top notch. The potential for mystery and horror are obvious throughout. Even something more deeply philosophical could have been done, e.g. what if they found something Biblical? But to pull that off, the film needed to be shot in a traditional manner where these things could have been exploited, or at least the found footage approach needed to be done more cleverly and less obtrusively, by for example, revealing the footage through a briefing where the pace could be controlled better and the mysteries better maintained.

But that didn’t happen and that’s too bad. This is a good film ruined by a gimmick.

49 comments:

Individualist said...

Andrew

{chirp beep gkZZZZ) waqs a very goo... {GKZZZZZZZ}

..I like your analysis ... {GKZZZZZZ}

.... this film

Thanks

Anonymous said...

Are you kidding? The story was idiotic from the get go!

A 300 foot rocket is "secretly" shot towards the moon? No one sees it? All the Apollo communications were tracked by the British and the Russians. They wouldn't hear this mission?

An ICBM tracker on the moon? 240,000 miles a way instead of a regular satellite 200 miles away? What would be the point?

OK, let's suspend our disbelief on the technical issues. Why not just launch a regular "science" mission and give the astronauts the extra ICBM detector and tell them not to mention it but just pretend to bring back some more rocks, preferably ones that don't sprout legs.

DUQ said...

Andrew, I don't like any of these gimmicks, the shakey cam, the found footage films, etc. I can see moments where they work, but basing whole films on them just ruins the films.

AndrewPrice said...

Indi, LOL! Nice. That's kind of how the film comes across. You can still basically get what's going on, but it's hard to watch.

AndrewPrice said...

Anon, I'm not saying it was perfect nor that there aren't things I would change story-wise, but I think the film itself is solid. And if I had complaints about the believability of the story it wouldn't be what you point out.

spoilers

For one thing, launches are kept secret from the public all the time. As for being kept secret from the Russians or the British, the film doesn't imply that at all. Clearly, the Americans knew about the Russian launch, which is why they sent the mission -- they just didn't tell the astronauts. And there's no doubt the Russians were listening or they wouldn't have patched through DOD toward the end of the film, they would have played some politics with it and not told the Americans.

Also, there was no way they could launch a public "science" mission if their intent was to abandon the astronauts if they found what DOD suspected they would find. Instead, they went with the cover-up fiction that it was just too expensive and too pointless to send more people to the moon.

AndrewPrice said...

DUQ, I don't generally like these either and I hate the shaky cam, but next week I'm going to review a movie that I thought was totally fantastic even despite the shaky cam.

CrispyRice said...

Ok, I wanted to see this, so I skipped the spoilers, then I saw that it's putting everyone else to sleep in the comments. Hmmm, maybe I should take a pass??

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, If you can get over the constant edits, the shaky cam, and the choppiness of the story, it's an entertaining film. It's not going to change your world and I would certainly have done some very different things if I had written it, but it could be a fun movie if you can overcome those problems.

CrispyRice said...

Shaky cams make me sick. Blah! I tend to avoid those on principle. We'll see, I guess. Thanks for the heads-up!

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, Me too. I basically won't see shaky cam films, though I did see a good one the other day.

Apollo 18 isn't really a shaky cam movie, though some of the effects shots are briefly. It's more a matter of all the edits and the static between. The problem here is the constant edits.

Kelly said...

I admit, I did like it, but it felt too simple for me. I think you're onto something with the problem being they used the found footage device as a way to skip anything difficult in the plot. I also think the monsters were kind of lame in the end.

AndrewPrice said...

Kelly, I would definitely have gone a different way with much of the film, but I can't fault it for what it is. This was always going to be a simple horror story and never anything deeper. And in that light, I thought they did a pretty good job with the film... except for the editing issue.

ScyFyterry said...

Excellent review! I saw this in theaters and I was almost alone when I went. It just didn't excite me. I see where the story could have been good, but it really never felt like they tried very hard.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - In this one instance, I'm going to read your review after seeing the film based on your first paragraph. As you say, worth seeing once . . . .

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Terry, I think that's definitely the consensus that there's something lacking. I think the overall problem was that the gimmick obscured everything else. Though, as I've said above, I would also have made some plot changes.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, No problem! There aren't a lot of spoilers in this because I didn't need to delve too deeply into the substance of the film, but it's still probably best to see it without any foreknowledge of what is to come.

Please let me know your thoughts after you see it! :)

ScyFyterry said...

Andrew, Care to share some of the plot changes you would make?

AndrewPrice said...

Good question Terry. Let me give it some thought and I'll get back to you in a little bit.

Doc Whoa said...

I hadn't heard about this. Like you I am intriqued by the idea, but the found footage aspect leaves me concerned. The only found footage film I like was "Paranormal Activity," which was really excellent actually. But they didn't do what you describe here with all the quick cuts.

Doc Whoa said...

I checked Rotten Tomatoes and it got a 24% rating. That's not good.

AndrewPrice said...

Doc, I saw that it had horrible ratings and it made very little money. But in fairness, it did make many times it's $5 mill budget.

I should review Paranormal Activity soon as well. Christmas was good for films as it gave me a chance to catch up on quite a few.

Doc Whoa said...

Andrew, Do you think they chose the found footage device because of the low budget?

AndrewPrice said...

Doc, I think that's probably the case. A $5 million budget is nothing in Hollywood these days and yet they still found a way to create very believable effects probably by limiting what you can really see. So I would expect that was probably the reason. Of course, they could have gone the other way and just shot the film in narrower confines -- either method works to hide a small budget. But this method probably was chosen because you never get a great look at anything that would have been expensive to design.

LawHawkRFD said...

Guess I won't be watching this one any time soon.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I think it's unfortunate because I do think there's a good movie in there and it's certainly the kind of movie that sparks the imagination.

Ed said...

Andrew, I'm sorry to hear this wasn't a great film. I love everything space-related and I had high hopes for this when it first came out, but everyone did pan it. So I figured I would wait to see what you said. I'll still see it because you yourself note there's a good film in here, but I guess I won't expect too much?

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, Go in with an open mind. If you can get over the constant cuts and static then I think you'll enjoy it. I had a hard time with that, but I did enjoy the film itself.

Ed said...

Andrew, I will. I try to see anything science fiction and that requires a lot of open mind viewing because so much of it is garbage. I guess it's no worse than any other genre, but it sure feels that way some time.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, I think we've talked about this before, but it seems to be a sad fact that many filmmakers think that the mere fact they're dealing with science fiction means they can skip the story and just blast you with images and action scenes.

tryanmax said...

I might chase this one down because I don't mind a movie that could have been better (as opposed to just plain bad). It gives me something to muse over: how I might have done things differently.

As for the found footage genre, I actually enjoy it quite a bit. I liked Cloverfield more than Blair Witch or Paranormal, but I tend to lean more scifi than horror, so... I was very disappointed to learn that Super 8 was not a found footage film. Very deceptive title, that.

* * *

Something that I would like to see in a found footage film that I haven't come across yet is cobbled found footage presentation. That would be, found footage from multiple sources in relation to the same event that have been pulled together to produce a coherent story. To make it work, I think one or two, at most three, primary sources would need to be relied upon, but rather than skip ahead due to "missing footage," it would get filled in from a different source and perspective. This would limit the writer's/director's ability to avoid difficult scenes with "missing footage" but it wouldn't eliminate it entirely. In other words, they could use it on occasion, but no longer as a crutch.

The visual cues could be neat, switching from a crisp 16:9 HD digicam to an awkwardly angled security camera, maybe throw in a few still photos where video was not "available" and then back to HD. Just playing around with all the different resolutions and aspect ratios that we are confronted with these days could be an extraordinary visual experiment.

* * *

This conversation puts me in mind of a British film called Monsters (2010) that is not a found footage film, but it somehow feels like one in a good way. I highly recommend it.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, That's actually something they do here (switch films) and it gets very annoying. You will see that sometimes the film is good quality, sometimes it's not, sometimes it's letter boxed, sometimes it looks almost like unprocessed film, etc. The shapes, sizes and quality all change. I see where this could seem clever on paper, but it really becomes a distraction here. Maybe it would work if they switched back and forth less often. In fact, I think one of the keys to this kind of film is to use the gimmick less as the films develops to let the audience get drawn in.

I can't recommend this film because it just wasn't that great, but I will say that it left me thinking... though I was thinking more about its potential than what it actually achieved. I promised Terry above that I would give some different ideas, but just haven't had the chance yet. I think this is a stellar idea but it could use some really solid development work which wasn't done here.

In terms of the same event from multiple perspectives thing, that's been done many times (first time I know of is Rashomon. I think it's a great idea, but it's rarely handled well. Maybe this would be the way to do it? I'm not sure how to tie it all together though. Perhaps with an investigator piecing the footage together so they can explain the differences?

I haven't seen Monsters, is that about some people who get attacked while they're driving a minibus in Nevada?

tryanmax said...

Well, now I am intrigued to see this, because I really like the sound of that idea on paper. Though I wouldn't envision it with static between every shot. I can tell that is annoying before even having seen it.

Your reference to Rashomon tells me that my meaning got somewhat lost. I wasn't thinking so much of constantly shifting angles to see every moment from multiple sides. In my mind, a dominant perspective is absolutely essential to make the concept work. As though some guy with a reasonably good camera got 90% of the footage, but every here and there, somebody shot a better angle (and the researcher happened to get hold of it), so that gets shown instead. Or maybe during the 5 minutes when the camera is out of commission, 5 minutes of cell phone footage maintain the continuity.

I actually had this idea the first time while I was in the theater watching Cloverfield. I thought the conceit that a complete drama happened to play out in view of a single lens was a little too convenient and overextended. I would have believed it more if the camera were abandoned at some point and a different devise took its place. Conversely, if the camera were abandoned by one party, and then found and employed by another, I would have believed that more as well.

* * *

Monsters is actually set in South America and is about a couple of Americans who were trapped there when "monsters" came from space and all of MezoAmerica was quarantined to contain them. The film is in the aftermath of these events as the pair are taking the dangerous journey to get back home. It's a very intimate and human story and yet it is very scifi, too. A real find.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Ah, I have heard of that (Monsters). I do want to see that. I saw a trailer for it in October and was really impressed by the whole thing.

On the static in Apollo 18, I think they use it for two purposes. First to give you a reason why they can't just continue showing you what happens from that camera angle. Secondly, I think they thought it would increase the tension because the static is a proxy for "something evil is lurking." But it really doesn't work. It gets old very fast and they way over use it. Plus, they'll switch away from one camera and then come right back to it 5-6 seconds later, so it ends up being silly.

In the Rashomon-like idea,
I'm not sure what switching cameras would give you in that context? Other than just switching cameras how would it change the narrative of the story?

tryanmax said...

I just thought of the right way to explain this idea. You know how some Victorian novels are written as a series of letters and diary entries and news clippings that are inexplicably compiled? Think of the video equivalent of that.

AndrewPrice said...

It's an interesting idea, but without a plot-specific reason, I'm not sure what it provides to a film? I see potential, but I'm just not sure exactly what the purpose would be except to provide seemingly contradictory evidence?

tryanmax said...

I don't mean to say that it should just be imposed on any ol' script. It would have to support the story. I'm just surprised that it hasn't been done and I'd like to see such a thing.

I think in order to work, it would have to be almost like a mockumentary, though not necessarily a comedy. Sort of like: "we don't know what really happened, but we found all this video from different sources. We think it goes in this order. Watch for yourself and see what you think." It might be an effective way to do a disaster movie. Something with a fairly straightforward narrative, but plenty of opportunity for unexpected incidents.

Without a specific story idea in mind, I'm thinking it could perhaps center around some mysterious heroic character who didn't shoot any of the footage himself, but turned up in several other people's footage. Maybe it's a character development storyline, where the brief interactions reveal a personality and the motives for his actions are revealed as you add them up. So the driving intrigue becomes, "who is this guy and what is he up to?"

I'm even thinking so far (again, without an actual story in mind) as to intentionally/accidentally get the order of the footage "wrong" at a couple points--with strong hints to the "error" of course--as a tension building device.

I know it is really abstract to toy with the idea without a story in place first, but the more I swish it around in my head, a story is almost starting to write itself. Now that I've written this much (and I'm gonna leave it) I'm thinking this could be the perfect found-footage approach to the super hero genre.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, NOW you have intrigued me....


"We think it goes in this order. Watch for yourself and see what you think."

That is the hook. I would actually go serious rather than comedy, and I would do it as something like a cop or investigator trying to piece together what happened. Then the key would be to write video in such a way that it can be assembled in 2-3 different ways with each seeming correct.

In the end you can get the clue you need to solve it or you can even leave doubt as to which version is ultimately the correct version.

That could be a heck of an intriguing story if you can write it correctly.

tryanmax said...

One more thought: I don't know if the device really can contribute to the narrative itself, other than to lend and air of authenticity. But what it can do is create a level of intrigue.

When I approach a creative project, I try to put as many constraints as possible on it (either self-imposed or drawn from the client). I work best this way, and frankly, I think everyone does.

This device could, with strong arms, hold the writing process back from excessive exposition, as one example. It would certainly drive an emphasis on action and dialogue. From a cinematic perspective, it would force creativity in finding excuses for a) the camera to be there and b) for the camera to capture the relevant action/dialogue.

Of course some liberties would betaken, and a few are always allowable. Example, not entirely explaining how the footage was gathered. I could let that go if the story holds me.

This approach would also allow for the combining of the amateur found style with a more professional documentary style such as TV news reporting.

And again, ideas come as I write. I thought of a way to explain the compilation. Intro on a closeup of a person's face shot with a built-in laptop webcam. She explains that she's been following these stories and rumors about some guy called (insert superhero name here) and she's pulled all this footage together online. What's this guy up to? And roll-em!

Hey, that could be the premise of a web-series.

tryanmax said...

Ha! We were writing very similar things at the same time! Now you have the feeling that I have about the idea. The possibilities for intrigue are enormous. And if there is one feeling that is lacking in recent cinema, it is intrigue.

BTW, my captcha says "peanut" instead of a random string.

tryanmax said...

Now I'm thinking about twists where you start out believing that the mysterious guy is some kind of good Samaritan/vigilante hero who just wants to stay anonymous, but in the end you find that he's a crazy narcissist who staged everything and wanted to be captured by everyone's cameras and make the news and whatnot.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I think it has enormous potential as a way to dole out information to the audience in a way that manipulates the audience in a way that they will accept. Thus, you can do all kinds of things you couldn't do in a straight up story without the audience groaning at your heavy-handedness.

I think particularly the potential of telling multiple versions of the story is really high using this idea. I'm surprised no one has tried it. I suspect it's just too hard for most writers to get down and few directors outside of a (Tarantino or Nolan) would want to try it.

T-Rav said...

Sorry to be late; I was gone all day yesterday and then when I got back, the site was down. Anyway, I was curious about this movie and had plans to see it, but never did. As usual.

So it sounds like it combines the worst aspects of Armageddon and Cloverfield. Winning combination, that.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, In many ways I thought of comparing this film to Cloverfield. It wasn't anywhere near as shaky, so it didn't have that kind of annoyance, but had a similar feel in the sense that it had a really neat idea that was dominated by its gimmick.

tryanmax said...

I managed to sit down with this. I was afraid that I'd be paying special attention for static because of your review, but instead I was given a different reason to pay special attention to the static. The prologue states that the film was edited together from 80 hours of footage. I couldn't help but think that, even if this is supposed to be amateur, it's the worst editing ever. I was actually more distracted by it in the early part of the film that the later part.

Andrew, I can see why you weren't immediately taken with my idea because this film does almost what I was thinking. The trouble is, it over does it, especially in the beginning, and the story isn't all that great. But, in terms of eye candy, it was neat to see the various aspect ratios and film qualities cobbled together.

The other problem is that, in spite of the static at the end of every shot, the cuts were too Hollywood. I would have bought the internet leak angle more if the individual shots were all longer. Not to much longer, but just enough to make the average viewer say, "this doesn't feel like a Hollywood movie." I think the filmmakers could have also bolstered this with a few more periods of audio with no video and vice-versa.

I was extremely disappointed with what they were sent to find on the moon. (I won't issue any spoilers.)

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, Yeah, I think the ending of the story is very soft. It starts with such promise but ultimately becomes very, very generic. But given the other problems with the film, I think that was the least of the issues. And while the "reveal" did stink, I thought the story had a lot of potential right up to that point as a story.

I think you're right that the edits never feel authentic. For one thing, as you note, there's no reason a good editor would edit the film this way. The idea that the footage is somehow compromised and thus they need to switch cameras falls apart when you realize how they seem to be able to just jump around from camera to camera to recreate Hollywood-style editing. And you're right that it does destroy the sense that this was cobbled together from 80 hours of footage because it feels like it was edited to be a music video rather than any sort of documentary of what happened to these people.

I'm glad you see why I had reservations about the different types of film quality. I absolutely get where the idea could be a good one, but the way they used it here was not only ineffective, it also felt pointless and was a huge distraction.

I think the reason the reason the edits didn't bother you as much in the second half of the film was that they began to cheat and they just injected normal Hollywood editing without all the gimmicks attached -- though they did just keep skipping from highlight to highlight. I think that made the film flow better at that point.

In the end, it's too bad this failed because I do think the film had a lot going for it in terms of effects and the overall idea.

tryanmax said...

I just saw a promo for a film called Chronicle. It looks like it might be using the idea with the characters all filming each other with their cell phones. Judging only by the promo, it looks like the kind of film with a good premise that is likely to fail on the execution.

AndrewPrice said...

Yeah, the Wikipedia says it's another found footage film.

Anonymous said...

Well... I kinda liked it...

AndrewPrice said...

Anon, That's a very fair reaction to this film. :)

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