Silver Screen: Shark Night 3D 1/2* -- Apollo 18 **

Silver Screen: Shark Night 3D 1/2* -- Apollo 18 **
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Silver Screen: Shark Night 3D 1/2* -- Apollo 18 **
Bryan Miller

While Contagion asks big questions by tinkering with a genre convention, two more horror movies are sticking close to the formula-- yet still managing not even to achieve the basic pleasures of the form.

You only need to hear the title Shark Night 3D to get a good idea what's heading your way. The slimmest possibility that either the shark or the night in question might be metaphors or at least references to something a little less blatant is instantly crushed by the 3D, which is essentially a punctuation mark that means, “Yes, exactly what you thought.” So there will be sharks, and it will be night, and most likely the sharks will be coming right out of that night toward you. Got it.

So how exactly does a movie with such modest goals manage to be so disappointing? Turns out, a lot of different ways. Start with the fact that Shark Night 3D is rated PG-13, which means the gore will be minimized and the nudity will be nixed. Imagine being forced to drink a bottle of non-alcoholic vodka and you get the gist. Add to that a pretty dire lack of sharks, minimize the “night” part of the equation, and toss in a superfluous set of additional villains-- because apparently the man-eating sharks weren't enough-- and you're on your way.

Poppet-faced Sara Paxton stars as Sara, a somber bikini babe who decides to lead her college friends on a fieldtrip back to the lake house where she was nearly murdered by her racist ex-boyfriend (Chris Carmack) three years ago. They say you can't go home again, but that's not exactly true. You can, you'll just have to confront your racist ex-boyfriend, who will have filled the saltwater lake full of sharks in an astoundingly elaborate revenge scheme. (As an added bonus, he's attached video cameras to all the sharks so he can watch the underwater kills.)

After what feels like an eternity of setup and hilariously irrelevant character-development scenes, a shark finally shows up, seemingly to no one's surprise. With one of their party injured, the kids head back to the lake house to call for a medic, only to be further menaced by the evil ex. Then, for no real reason, they continue to try to find help and make their escape on the water rather than drive away, occasionally putting themselves in the vicinity of abysmally rendered computer-animated sharks.

I truly wish this absurd exercise was as much terrible fun as it sounds, but alas, it's so awkwardly formulaic that not even the loopy premise generates any laughs. It's a bit like being a kid and sitting through an R-rated movie edited for cable, the ultimate blue-balls experience of trash moviewatching. It's hard to imagine that even the thirteen-year-old boys this is pitched to got any thrills out of it.

Apollo 18 is similarly indebted to a genre formula, albeit one a little more elaborate and newfangled. The sci-fi/horror thriller is essentially The Blair Witch Project on the moon, which is not actually a bad idea. The trouble with this one is that director Gonzalo Ló pez-Gallego doesn't seem to understand what makes these faux found-footage documentaries work, and the cool ideas in the script (by Priest writer Cory Goodman and some douchebag named Brian Miller) get tangled up with a lot of bad ones and some deeply inconsistent filmmaking.

The premise is pretty nifty: A trio of astronauts (Warren Christie, Lloyd Owen, Ryan Robbins) is sent on a secret mission to the moon years after NASA has officially stopped shuttle service there. One astronaut (Robbins) remains in orbit above the moon while team leader Nate Walker (Owen) and his partner Ben (Christie) take a lander down to the surface to collect samples and look around. When they discover an abandoned Soviet vessel near their own base, they think they've discovered why the American government was so eager to get them up there quietly to investigate. But during their planned two-night stay, alone on that giant rock, a series of technical difficulties and strange happenings outside their craft has them even more concerned.

It's aliens. No surprise there-- Apollo 18 is clearly heading that direction from its first moments, and that's fine. The main problem is that Ló pez-Gallego fails to do what this subgenre of movie does best, which is establish the setting. The Blair Witch Project was as much about being lost in the woods as it was about the witch of the title. Cloverfield is about the panic of a municipal disaster, Paranormal Activity is about spooky empty houses, and progenitor Cannibal Holocaust trades on westerners’ fears of the jungle and more primitive societies.

Apollo 18 has a fantastic setting to exploit. No human in history has ever been more isolated and alone than any two given men working in the dark and harsh atmosphere of the moon, thousands of miles from home. In that sense, being on the moon is like being alone in the dark woods multiplied by a thousand. And the NASA footage is always a little jerky and halting from the satellite transmissions, eerily slow and silent; it's an ideal aesthetic to use. Ló pez-Gallego does none of this. He generates no tension from the mechanics and realities of being alone on a space walk, or stranded in a tiny metal capsule on the surface of the moon, alone in the dark. Instead he bolts straight for simplistic there's-something-out-there terrors that could just as easily be done at a cabin in a remote forest. The aliens themselves, which will certainly be divisive-- I thought they were cool enough, but doubtless plenty of people will disagree-- show up too soon, too directly. The power of these found-footage movies comes as much from implication and demonstration, but Ló pez-Gallego does precious little with the limited perspective the setup allows him, even frequently violating the premise of the movie by including shots that no on-board camera could have captured, puncturing the very plausible deniability that gives such movies strength. By the time the film lapses into easy cliché s (“There's something inside! Space madness!”) all the suspense is squandered for cheap startle-scares, and it deflates like a ruptured space suit.

Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter @bmillercomedy.