When you hear the term “disaster movie”, I bet the first director who pops into your head is Roland Emmerich. That’s for good reason; for years he was the go-to guy for big budget spectacles in which the Earth was under apocalyptic threat. Films such as Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012 were ludicrous in the sheer amount of obliteration, but people loved them and they were huge hits at the box office. Emmerich hasn’t actually made a true disaster film in some time, ignoring the dreadful Independence Day: Resurgence, but he returns with Moonfall, which combines the director’s love of wonton destruction and conspiracy theory. That said, as far-out as the premise is, Moonfall is never as much bonkers fun as it should be.
This is exactly the kind of movie that, if someone were to pitch it to you in a board meeting, you’d envision it as a Patrick Wilson kind of film. And, well, here he is. Wilson plays the blandly heroic everyman, Brian Harper, an astronaut who we meet as he and “work wife” Jocinda “Jo” Fowler (Halle Berry) are in deep space on a mission. Suddenly, everything goes wrong when a strange swarm-like presence attacks them, killing their rookie colleague and nearly doing the same to Jo before appearing to settle itself within the moon. NASA is quick to hush up the discovery, laying the mission’s failure completely on Brian’s shoulders. Years later, Brian is a washed-up has-been working as a museum guide, his wife Brenda (Eme Ikwuakor) has divorced him and married some rich a-hole named Tony (Michael Pena, underutilized), and their son Sonny (Charlie Plummer) is a delinquent getting arrested on live television.
The most enjoyable character in the film, loser conspiracy theorist/wannabe astronaut K.C. Houseman, is played by Game of Thrones alum John Bradley. Perhaps because Emmerich feels a connection to the character, he’s really the only one who gets any fun lines or any kind of genuine story arc. John is the first to notice that something is amiss with the moon; it’s been knocked out of orbit and that spells disaster for the Earth. Jo, who is now a big-time honcho at NASA, has no choice, literally everybody bails when the situation becomes clear, she has no choice but to enlist Brian into a rescue mission to save the planet. Oh, and KC gets roped into it, too, because he’s got some wild theories that keep panning out.
I keep referring to Emmerich’s conspiracy theorist tendencies and that doesn’t come out of nowhere. This is the same guy who directed Anonymous, an entire movie based on the conspiracy theory that William Shakespeare didn’t write a damn thing. Moonfall also trafficks in the long-time “Hollow Moon” hypothesis, but just how far he takes it I will leave for you to discover. Suffice it to say, that swarm-like force from before has a part to play in everything that is happening. Moonfall is just one cliche spectacle after another, with Emmerich biting off his past material for scenes of devastation. Highways ripping apart, tidal waves, buildings crashing. While the main trio are off in space, some of the supporting cast are left to engage in a road trip where they must outrace floods, earthquakes, gravity wells, and more. It’s literally the same formula as Emmerich’s other movies, with scenes that could have been recycled from them, as well.
With a budget of around $140M, you might think the effects would blow you out of your seat. Well, the first hour of this 2 hour and 11-minute slog, is pretty mediocre by Emmerich standards. You can see where the bulk of the price tag comes in the second half when shit really starts to hit the fan. Emmerich is still capable of impressing you on a visual level, and Moonfall does enough in the final act to warrant seeing it on the biggest possible screen if you’re going to see it at all.
Nobody goes into a film like Moonfall expecting character development, which is good because there’s woefully little of it. Wilson gets the cookie-cutter redemption arc that these movies demand and that he can sleepwalk through. I was most disappointed by how lame Halle Berry’s role was. Brian labels Jo his “work wife” early in the film and she never does much to escape that. But I genuinely liked John Bradley as K.C., this poor guy who has been invisible his entire life and now has the fate of the world heaped on his shoulders, seeing all of the things he had only been talking about. He’s a sympathetic figure, I would say the only one we actually feel anything for.
Loads of lousy exposition get dropped on us like a ton of space debris. We hear details about the moon until we’re as green as the cheese it’s supposedly made of, but more often we are reminded of Brian’s feelings of guilt about the past mission. We get it. But this lack of faith in the audience to understand obvious points is an Emmerich trademark. If Moonfall were more enjoyable or original, this would be easily glossed over, but somehow a movie about the moon crashing to Earth is easily forgettable.
Moonfall opens in theaters on February 4th.