Moonfall and all the images you see in this review are owned by Lionsgate
Directed by Roland Emmerich
Roland Emmerich and I don’t always see eye to eye, but sometimes he can put together a decent enough spectacle to remind us of why he became such a big name in blockbuster cinema. Heck, I’m probably one of the few critics that thought Independence Day: Resurgence was pretty decent, so it shouldn’t take too much for me to give his latest movie a thumbs up; especially with such a brilliantly simple premise! The moon crashing into the Earth? It practically writes itself! Does Emmerich pull it off once again with this rather tenuous adaptation of Majora’s Mask, or will we be hoping for the moon to actually crash into us by the time this movie is over? Let’s find out!!
All the way back in the year 2011, a crew of astronauts was attacked by a mysterious space anomaly that led to one astronaut dying and the other two having to make a daring crash landing back on Earth. They manage to survive the incident, but one of them, Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson) ends up taking the fall for it as he insists that there was something out there that caused it and that it wasn’t just solar flares or orbital wobble. Fast forward ten years and the other astronaut, Jocinda Fowler (Halle Berry), managed to make her way to Deputy Director of NASA while Brian has snuggled into the role of a disgraced booze-hound who will surely be quick to sober as soon as everyone realizes he was right all along. Sure enough, the moon starts to fall out of orbit and it looks like this anomaly is responsible for it; not that NASA wants to admit it, but a conspiracy theorist KC Houseman (John Bradley) manages to get the word out and the world starts to panic over the fact that they’re about to find themselves between a literal rock and a hard place. With little time to put a plan together and even less time to pull it off, Jocinda calls in Brian who drags along KC to try and save the world from utter destruction. Oh, and other people are doing stuff here and there, mostly involving the families of our main characters, but they’re mostly on hand to look at all the stuff getting destroyed. Can our unlikely trio of scientists and pseudo-scientists fix the moon before it turns the Earth into a giant space donut? What is the nature of this anomaly that Brian saw, and are there forces working behind the scenes to stop our heroes from discovering the truth? I don’t know, if we can’t figure out how to stop Global Warming, what are the chances we can stop the moon from headbutting us?
I was certainly skeptical that a movie like this could work beyond the trailer, and while it’s far from a perfectly crafted film, it does at least manage to make it work for its entire run time. It doesn’t try to exceed its grasp or be anything more than it is, but even within the narrow scope of the genre, it finds ways to feel fresh and unique which is more than can be said for a lot of movies like this. It sadly suffers from Emmerich’s usual issues in terms of writing and characters, but the disaster elements are genuinely top-notch and it has some of the most interesting set pieces I’ve seen in a while, which is no small feat given how production budgets have only gotten bigger and bigger since he set the standard back in the nineties.
You don’t go into a movie with this title and not expect something goofy, and Roland does not disappoint here. It’s got everything you would expect from one of his films (both good and bad), but he manages to innovate once again with some genuinely jaw-dropping spectacle and some really interesting ideas to make the most of what is obviously an impossibly silly premise. The scale of the destruction is massive with the moon causing all sorts of havoc, from tidal disruptions all the way to changes in gravity, that give the filmmakers a lot of room to come up with unique set pieces. The fact that the moon comes up over the horizon like four times in what is supposed to be a single night is not explained or even commented on, but it never fails to be an amazing sight as this giant orb of destruction fills up the entire sky with its bright pale glow as the world starts to fall apart around it! It’s no exaggeration to say that the sheer scope and painstaking detail on screen is some of the most arresting imagery in the last few years; certainly in the realm of disaster films which Roland was certainly a pioneer of and makes a good case for himself continuing to be the go-to guy of the genre.
What’s interesting though, and something that proves to be a double-edged sword here is that the premise is not treated as a joke and he’s made perhaps his darkest film to date. The scenes in space are definitely shot with a lot more weight and dread than you’d expect, and while they do remain big and showy, there’s definitely a level of restraint here that I appreciated. The primary antagonist (if we can call it that) doesn’t have the same overwhelming size and scale of the actual moon falling, but there’s some genuine menace there that goes well with the innately cold and claustrophobic nature of outer space. I honestly would have liked this movie even more if he went all the way with it and left the more goofy stuff at home as he seems to have clear aspirations to make something along the lines of 2001 a Space Odyssey (there are more than a few not-so-subtle homages throughout the movie) but he can’t help keeping some of his bugbears from showing up to spoil the mood. You can use a muted color pallet and more ominous soundtrack throughout the movie, but it’s not going to cover up the fact that you have some annoying characters and a pretty juvenile sense of humor; all of which is exacerbated when contrasted with the more serious and thoughtful moments in the movie. This is all relatively speaking of course as this is still a Roland Emmerich movie, so even at its sharpest it’s still an over the top popcorn flick, but it was still a much darker tone than I expected and I found the movie to be much more engaging because of it.
It really does come down to the writing though that brings this movie down as the guy has never written a movie with characters any better than Independence Day, and we really only let that one slide because of how charismatic the cast is. The characters who are lucky enough to have personalities end up alternating between clichéd and obnoxious, while the rest feel like one-note plot devices. All the effort in the script went towards the NASA side of the story for both good and ill, and everyone else is there to stand around until something spectacular happens for them to run away from. Granted, those spectacular things are genuinely SPECTACULAR, but they’re undercut by the characters feeling utterly disposable. Michael Peña just barely manages to rise above the dead weight of his one-note dialogue, but I’m hard-pressed to remember anyone’s names; let alone any interesting personality traits or genuinely engaging interactions. Still, it’s kind of a wash as to whether all that is worse than the A-plot which involves some admitted well-acted parts with good dynamics but also the most skin-crawling irritating character in the movie; possibly in Emmerich’s entire career if I had some time to think about it. John Bradley is not a bad actor and I can tell that he has a fair bit of charisma, but he is asked to play a character whose whole job is to just be annoying and he turns out to be really good at it. I’m somewhat hesitant to say this, but to me, it almost came off as a caricature of neurodivergent people with the way he fails to grasp any social situation while also constantly treated as the butt of everyone’s jokes. He flails his arms, speaks with an unaware sense of breathless urgency, and is completely disconnected from any situation he’s in; all of which is played up for laughs. Emmerich has never been the most sensitive of writers so it’s hardly surprising that a character like this runs up against those harmful stereotypes, but it’s no less unpleasant to see and the rest of the characters he has to work with are just not able to pick up the slack.
It’s disappointing that Emmerich has yet to grasp the flaws with his writing despite everyone and their mother pointing them out for the last thirty years, but there is some evolution of his usual formula here that left me feeling immensely more positive than negative by the end. I certainly felt more watching this movie than the stiflingly pretentious and on-the-nose Don’t Look Up which felt far more artificial than this movie despite having the much more grounded premise. Say what you will about Roland’s goofy characters, choppy plotting, and outlandish ideas, there’s still just enough of a genuine heart and creative verve that it doesn’t feel cynical. He’s genuinely trying to make a movie that people will enjoy, and while this movie doesn’t really have much of a message to it, he’s managed to fit similar messages into his other movies without sacrificing the entire narrative over to it. Look, all I’m saying is if that movie got an Oscar nod, then this one should at least be in consideration!