A cracked cosmonaut helmet, footsteps in the moon dust, a mysterious flash of light outside a spaceship window — these are some of the images the Weinstein Co. has released from “Apollo 18,” a documentary-style sci-fi thriller that opened Friday and is being marketing as a movie culled from “found footage” from a U.S. space mission.

But after initially touting “Apollo 18” as one of its upcoming fiction film collaborations, NASA — which, for the record, says the last manned mission to the moon was Apollo 17 in 1972 — has begun to back away from the movie.

“Apollo 18 is not a documentary,” said Bert Ulrich, NASA’s liaison for multimedia, film and television collaborations. “The film is a work of fiction, and we always knew that. We were minimally involved with this picture. We never even saw a rough cut. The idea of portraying the Apollo 18 mission as authentic is simply a marketing ploy. Perhaps a bit of a ‘Blair Witch Project’ strategy to generate hype.”

With the U.S. space agency at a crossroads — it retired its space shuttle program in July, it’s relying on Russian rockets to ferry its astronauts to the International Space Station, and it’s struggling to find funding and political support for its next mission of sending astronauts to an asteroid in about 15 years — NASA realizes that keeping the public interested in the extraterrestrial is critical to its future.

There was a time when NASA’s actual missions — not the “Blair Witch” versions of them — were enough. But without another high-profile NASA project on the runway, working with Hollywood is key.

“It’s a wonderful way to reach the public through these huge media means like feature films and television shows, and it can inspire people in an interesting way, and it also can instruct people about what space exploration is all about,” Ulrich said.

Sometimes, as with “Apollo 18,” attempts at collaboration break down. Another film that the agency refused to work on was the 2000 Warner Bros. bomb “The Red Planet,” about making Mars safe for human colonization.

“The science was just so off the wall that eventually we felt, ‘You guys go ahead and make your movie.’ If there’s something that’s going to be so misleading to the public that we don’t want to participate, then we’ll say no,” said Ulrich. “The big thing is, we want to make sure we’re not misleading the public completely. So if all of a sudden there’s a change in what was shot or a change in the storyboard, they’re supposed to inform us.”

As for “Apollo 18,” the Weinstein Co. refused to show it in advance to the media or answer questions about its origins.

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