The problem with the cinema verite scare genre ushered in by The Blair Witch Project and revived by Paranormal Activity is that if the movies — with their loose plots, mundane chatter, and purposely bland acting — aren't scary, they aren't anything. They barely exist as movies. The latest specimen, Apollo 18, isn't egregiously inept. It just never lives. It's 80 minutes of dead air.
In concept, this thing must have leapt off the page: "Get ready for Blair Witch — on the moon!" A prologue explains that while the Apollo missions supposedly were scrapped after number 17, footage has been leaked that reveals a final, covert lunar trip, its launch disguised as a payload, its catastrophic fate covered up.
What follows is a mixture of drecky Cold War sci-fi, Alien-like paranoia, and new-style faux-documentary montage. Two uninteresting astronauts land on the moon while one uninteresting astronaut orbits it. The two on the moon hear a bump the first night: "What was that?" And then: "Shit. What was that?" And then: "How did that rock get there? I bagged and tagged at it." "What the hell ... ?" By this point in The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, and Cloverfield, you're feeling something for those dull people — you're there with them, in the moment. But in Apollo 18, the attempt at realism — the spacesuits, the fuzziness of the images — ends up a barrier to intimacy. You want to fast-forward to the monster, if there is one. ("These tracks ... aren't human.")
The noises are kind of fun, like someone played an old haunted-house sound effects LP through a fuzzy shortwave radio. But after a while they're as hard on the ears as the purposely grainy, over- and under-lit, mismatched footage is on the eyes. I caught Apollo 18 at noon at my neighborhood movie house (it wasn't shown to critics in advance), and maybe midway through the projector failed and the screen went black. The only other patron, an elderly man, told the young woman at the refreshment stand that it did seem like a long time without a picture or sound but he thought it was part of the movie. I didn't, but I wasn't in a hurry for the problem to be fixed. The darkness and the silence felt nice.