At the movies: ‘Apollo 18’: Houston, we have a conspiracy |

At the movies: ‘Apollo 18’: Houston, we have a conspiracy

Andy Bockelman is a member of the Denver Film Critics Society, and his movie reviews appear in Explore Steamboat and the Craig Daily Press.

Strolling around in darkness can be scary enough. Walking inside a crater with only the occasional flash of light is even worse, especially if you see the kinds of things the men in "Apollo 18" have to glimpse.

In 1970, NASA scaled back its Apollo space missions because of budgetary concerns. Four years later, the newest space flight, Apollo 18, is a go once again.

However, the lunar mission is kept under strict scrutiny compared to previous projects, with the U.S. Department of Defense insisting on secrecy.

The crew involved is uninterested in publicity as long as they're able to be part of something important on behalf of their country.

Once astronauts Ben Anderson and Nate Walker (Warren Christie, Lloyd Owen) reach the surface of the moon, they are in awe of the empty, silent world that most people on Earth have only seen from hundreds of thousands of miles away.

But, as they begin taking samples of moon rocks and photos of the landscape, they uncover something that makes them wonder why they were really sent into space.

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As time passes, the more burning question is whether they will even make it back home.

Christie's clean-cut look brings to mind the likes of John Glenn, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, but Anderson's fellow astronauts never had to deal with quite the same threat he faces.

The discovery of an abandoned Soviet craft makes him wonder if the Space Race of the 1950s is truly over, but a few more findings have him concerned that maybe there are worse things than sneaky Russian cosmonauts.

Like a combination of John Hurt in "Alien" and Jack Nicholson in "The Shining," Owen descends into madness after a violent encounter with an unseen foe leaves Walker injured and unstable. His bloodshot eyes are only the tip of the iceberg, as he takes a hammer to the cameras in the lunar module in a fit of paranoid fury against NASA.

Speaking of cameras, the scene shifts from the stillness of the ground crew to the revolving weightlessness of Anderson and Walker's man in the sky (Ryan Robbins). It gets a little disconcerting, though it only adds to the authenticity.

Ranging from the shaky-cam handheld shots on the moon's surface to the surveillance recordings of our heroes slumbering, the constant presence of film made to look like it was shot with 40-year-old technology looks worthwhile even if the reasoning for its use isn't. Certainly nobody's buying the disclaimer at the beginning about the following events being authentic found footage, unless we're talking about the same people who thought "The Blair Witch Project" and "Paranormal Activity" were real.

The uphill battle in these kinds of movies is to suck the audience in and create an atmosphere that truly lends itself to some good scares. On the Terror-ometer, "Apollo 18" charts somewhere between startling and shocking, but the use of effectively subtle sights and sounds to get under the skin of viewers makes it work better than you'd think.

However, the most terrifying moments are reserved for the conclusion and have nothing to do with moon lifeforms.

The style of "Apollo 18" is the only thing that really keeps it grounded. We've seen too many horror movies lately presented as 100-percent true stories, and the gimmick is wearing thin.

Then again, with the miniscule amount of money studios spend on these features, it's no wonder they want to keep them going since the box office returns have proven to be out of this world.

Now playing:

“Apollo 18”

2.5 out of 4 stars

86 minutes

Starring: Warren Christie, Lloyd Owen and Ryan Robbins.