Friday, February 7, 2014

For All Mankind: A Look At Apollo 18

 Let me first start off by saying that I was initially turned off by the trailers for Apollo 18. While they were spectacular, they suggested that the film would be just another run-of-the-mill found footage experience. Perhaps, on the surface, they were right. Critics panned the film, comparing it to Paranormal Activity, and complained that it was tedious and devoid of any charisma. Naturally, when it came to Netflix, I had to see it. This, of course, was following my extensive examination of the entire Criterion library. What I discovered was that I enjoyed Apollo 18 for all the reasons the critics hated it for. Then came the comparison between it and For All Mankind.  Now, comparing the two seems almost disrespectful to Al Reinert. However, the two films share tone, presentation and theme, with the obvious similarity in filmmaking style. It is for this reason that I should suspect that Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego was, in some way, inspired by Reinert’s documentary.

Before diving into this, I should explain why I found the film to be enjoyable. It’s not perfect by any means, it did not exceed my expectations (they were very low), and it’s not a film that has a large replay value. With that said, save for a few weird instances, Apollo 18 nearly knocks the found footage genre out of the park. With tiring movies like V/H/S, Devil Inside, Frankenstein Theory, and the most closely related Europa Report, it’s nice to finally see a film that feels like a found footage documentary. It’s presented in 4:3 and not 16:9 (this is crucial because a lot of VHS-based films are all in widescreen and clearly shot on digital cameras), the film has grain, there are moments where the film is over-exposed, and, above all, there is actually a reason for why they are documenting everything. The characters aren’t moronic teenagers or hack filmmakers, rather intelligent young men having fun on such a captivating odyssey through space. I never hated any of the astronauts, and they all seem to evoke a sense of playful awe similar to their real-life counterparts as presented by For All Mankind. I’ll dive into detail as I continue.

 Now, for what I didn’t like. I may be scrutinizing this film a little too in depth but I digress. The fictional story behind Apollo 18 is that somebody obtained classified footage of the mission, cut it into a documentary and released it to the public. There are sound effects that are clearly non-diegetic but as I understand it, it’s as if the documentarian is putting us into the world of the film. Fine. For All Mankind does the same. Then, we come across the instance when we first see a dead Russian cosmonaut. As one of our characters ventures into a crater, he uses the flicker of his camera to illuminate his path. When the body flashes on screen, we hear a sudden spike in the soundtrack (a jump-scare) as if we were watching a regular horror movie. On a documentary aspect, this doesn’t make sense, as it seems to trivialize the death of the cosmonaut. It would have been scarier and far more effective if there were no sound, or perhaps just the non-diegetic sound of the camera bulb flickering. Next, there are one or two scenes where the film deliberately points out weird movement in the background as if we couldn’t see it before. I hated this. Background disturbances should not be zoomed in on or isolated via a video filter. Then again, I suppose it does make sense. The last instance is the strangest. One of the astronauts becomes infected by an alien life form. He pulls a cliché by taking the camera to record our main character sleeping, and then turns the camera to himself. What follows is… out of place. He begins violently shaking his head back and forth, which is clearly edited, while the film splices in frames with a negative filter over them. Aside from the scene being a glaring cliché, why would our documentarian do this? It serves no purpose. I think if they took out the filters, sound effects and kept it raw, it would have been a lot creepier. These are all nitpicks but they do take me out of story.

 On to the basis of all this nonsense! Let’s talk about tone, which will inevitably bleed into presentation. For All Mankind starts off introducing some of our colorful soon-to-be astronauts in training and mission preparation. It focuses a lot on their expectations, who they are, and the journey from training to actual flying. While Apollo 18 skips the journey aspect, it manages to present our cast in the same fashion: as all-American men with happy families, high expectations and an eagerness to embark on their assignment. What I love about For All Mankind is that it presents the lead-in to the moon landings as an eerie, inspiring, albeit desolate odyssey into the unknown. The whole mission of Apollo 18 is too different. However, we get to see our casts (both in Apollo 18 and For All Mankind) as playful, often fiddling around with gravity-defying tricks, playing pre-recorded memories on tape, and engaging in manly behavior. In both films, Houston is represented as a warm, friendly, reassuring voice that comforts them as they make their perilous journey. But, this is only a brief few minutes for Apollo 18. The real similarities occur when we finally land on the moon.   

Here is where we really get into things. When Apollo 18 lands on the moon, it’s business as usual. Our characters play around, they set up their equipment and collect rock samples, which will soon prove to be their greatest mistake. The same happens in For All Mankind, naturally. But how is the moon represented both aesthetically and character wise? For starters, in each film, the moon is shown as a bleak, uninhabited landscape with an eerie black backdrop to the infinite space that surrounds it. The hills and crater edges are monumental. The ground seems sun washed, and we get a real sense of total isolation for both our characters and our real astronauts. The character of the moon is… characterless. Our sense of wonderment isn’t so much as the moon itself but rather that we are truly on an alien landscape far away from our blue home. Both films capture this. Only difference: one is the real thing and the other is in a studio. Or for some of you, the latter may serve both cases.

In terms of actual documentary style, there is a lot to be said. Aside from some bizarre instances (as aforementioned), layered beneath Apollo 18 and For All Mankind there is an unsettling ambient score. While For All Mankind may actually have a theme and a real composition, Apollo 18 has a low-resonating ambient track that seems to suggest that a jump-scare is in the near future but, in fact, only adds to the film’s creepy atmosphere. This is what I was shocked about when I first set eyes on the film: it’s a slow burn movie, sure, but I was not expecting a mood-piece. The jump-scares are minimal and it focuses on character relations and tone rather than just the typical monster-movie formulas. And, for a movie that has aliens, it’s really tame in it’s presentation of the material. Similarly, For All Mankind is not so much about the wonderment, inspiration and thrill of the moon landings (ala Apollo 13 or The Right Stuff) but more about the strange, tranquil beauty of it (ala Moon). This brings me to the core story of Apollo 18, which may be been influenced by a specific piece of dialogue in From All Mankind.

I had one dream was very vivid. In my dream we were driving a rover up to the north. It was untouched. The serenity of it had a pristine purity about it. We crossed a hill. I felt ‘gosh we’ve been here before.’ And there was a set of tracks out in front of us. So we asked Houston if we could follow the tracks, and they said yes. And we turned and followed the tracks. Within an hour or so we found this vehicle. It looked just like the rover. Two people in it– they looked like me and John—had been there for thousands of years. 
– Charles Duke.

I suspect that Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego must have been watching For All Mankind, came across this scene and it’s imagery, and thought it would be terrifying if the description was real. In Apollo 18, our heroes come across a set of additional footprints that lead to a discarded Russian module. The instance is uncanny to Duke’s description. Perhaps this was the basis for the whole plot. The astronauts find a dead cosmonaut. They discover that something otherworldly killed him. Enter aliens. It only seems natural. The closer we examine the two scenes, the more we uncover the heart and theme that each film shares. From my perspective, Apollo 18 and For All Mankind is about man’s inquiry into the abyss of the unknown and the consequences that may arouse or disturb our senses.


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