I guess that most readers get through a paragraph or two of a review before skipping to the bottom to see the rating and whether any actors they recognize are in the film. Given that, let’s make two crucial points early: firstly, and most importantly, The Landing is a work of fiction. There was no Apollo 18 flight. The second point is that it’s quite a good film, making it even more critical to establish that it’s a fanciful tale about events that did not happen.
Written and directed by brothers David Dodson and Mark Dodson, the mock documentary revisits supposed tragic events that might have happened if NASA had flown an Apollo 18 mission in 1973 and if it had gone horribly wrong upon atmospheric re-entry.
The filmmakers combined a short film they shot in the 1990’s (set during the fictitious 1973 Apollo 18 mission) with new interviews they conducted with the characters who appeared in the original short. The Landing moves back and forth between past and present. Don Hannah plays astronaut Bo Cunningham, the command module pilot and only survivor of the mission.
“…his actions and possible motives before, during, and after the mission rouse suspicion…“
Returning from a successful lunar landing, Apollo 18 suffers a computer error (maybe) that forces pilot Bo Cunningham to make an emergency landing in a remote desert in China, far from the intended target in the Pacific Ocean. All crew members survive the landing.
36 hours later NASA locates the spacecraft with only Cunningham alive. His actions and possible motives before, during, and after the mission rouse suspicion and he is judged a hero by some, a villain by others.
The story revolves around what happened during the three days in the desert, the investigation that followed, and the suspicions which continued to bedevil Bo Cunningham.
The Dodsons were either playing a very long game back in the ‘90’s or just brilliantly capitalized in a fantastic way on the opportunity to revisit their old short film. Having the actors aged two decades gives an intense level of authenticity to the film. The filmmakers are big fans of space travel and grew up during the time of the Apollo program, they are OG space flight nerds. They recall it with the vividly accurate tone in technology, clothes, cars, music, shooting style, and attitude.
As an exercise in filmmaking, they did a marvelous job creating an example of the mockumentary genre, but why did they make that choice? Was it to trade on the name recognition of the Apollo program? The story would have been just as compelling if it had been about any random space flight, or any flight, instead of part of history that casual viewers believe they know well, but really don’t (seeing the films Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff does not qualify one as an expert on space flight in the ’60’s). Can most people tell you that Apollo 17 was the last mission flown?
There is no winking at the audience, it’s all played dramatically straight. So beautifully executed that if one isn’t reminding oneself that this is a work of fiction, The Landing would be very easy to accept with stunned belief as the truth. There are still people who believe the moon landings were faked, so a film this good about a fake Apollo mission could stir up the tinfoil hat crowd and bring up those ridiculous questions again. Sadly, there was no Apollo 18. No matter: the experience of The Landing is thrilling and engaging, and you should just enjoy it for the masterful film that it is.
The Dodsons have created a smartly drawn reminiscence and homage (with spicy intrigue added) to the era of hope and accomplishment that was the Apollo program.
The Landing (2017). Written and directed by David Dodson and Mark Dodson. Starring Cindy Lou Adkins, Warren Farina, Don Hannah.
7 out of 10
It sucked me right in. Until I remembered that wait a second, I thought 17 was the last Apollo mission. If you watch with a purely, “Really, wow, I never knew that” mindset as I did, wondering how they got actors that looked so much like the astronauts, its even a better movie than it already is. Great film making!