Some filmmakers like to challenge themselves and keep viewers on their toes, but others are at their most content staying in a precise lane delivering exactly what audiences are expecting. Roland Emmerich is one of the latter, and while he’s deviated on occasion his bread and butter is big, loud, CG-heavy nonsense — Stargate (1994), Independence Day (1996), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), 10,000 BC (2008), 2012 (2009), Independence Day: Resurgence (2016), to name a few. His latest continues that trend of epic, disaster-themed silliness, and while its ending may not ultimately reveal the moon to be filled with cheese, Moonfall itself most definitely is. And that is no criticism…
A routine spacewalk in 2011 ends in tragedy when a mysterious, metallic-black swarm kills a member of the team and endangers the Space Shuttle. NASA blames and fires astronaut Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson) for screwing the pooch after a third astronaut, Jocinda Fowl (Halle Berry), was knocked unconscious during the incident. Ten years later the two old friends are brought together again when the moon’s orbit — something that’s remained unchanged for hundreds of thousands of years — begins to shift. It’s circling closer to Earth, and in two short weeks, it will enter the planet’s atmosphere leading to gravity waves (?), earthquakes, and shards of moon crashing into the Earth’s surface. That will not be ideal, but luckily Harper, Fowl, and podcaster KC Houseman (John Bradley) have a plan to stop it.
Moonfall sits among the dumbest of the dumb when it comes to disaster films, and it’s gleefully proud of it. Every stupid beat, and there are many, is chased by something even more incredulous, and you can almost hear Emmerich tittering to himself just out of frame. He and his co-writers — Harald Kloser (who also co-composed the film’s score) and Spenser Cohen — know exactly what they’re doing here, for better and worse, and what they’re doing is giving viewers cinematic comfort food in a time when the real world has grown far too serious. It’s lacking in protein and high in sugar, but this kind of sincere goofiness can be good for you all the same.
Our protagonists are introduced, their family troubles are made clear, and then *wham!* the moon is tearing up the Earth. At just over two hours, Moonfall is among Emmerich’s shorter epics, but while it can feel rushed at times no one’s going to be complaining. We’ve barely seen the US government made aware of the issue before they’ve left the picture — literally, as we’re told everyone’s just taking off for higher ground leaving a barebones crew at NASA to save the day. Those numbers drop even further, and it’s soon clear that the issue is probably due less to a Swiss cheese script than it is to filming during the time of covid.
This may just be the most sparsely populated disaster film since Art Carney’s one-man show, Mount St. Helens & Me (1981), as we’re stuck almost entirely with three small groups of people. We don’t get a single shot of panicked masses and instead only see these small pocket groups dealing with the fallout. Of course, Emmerich still delivers some large-scale CG destruction shots of cities bombarded with moon chunks and tidal waves crashing through a coastal community, but their digital paintings are devoid of life. The desolation is a bit weird, but it’s made worse (and potentially offensive) by the inclusion of news footage purportedly from Bangladesh showing actual people swept away by flooding.
The CG usage is heavy in Moonfall, as is expected, but while the large-scale mayhem looks both impressive and cool — the moon actually scrapes the Earth at one point, and while it’s absolutely insanely dumb it’s also pretty awesome to see — other effects shots suffer. Most specifically, the abundance of digital mattes and sound stages stand out like ugly thumbs and only serve to remind viewers how small this supposed epic actually is. To be clear, I’m not referring to shots like the one above showing actual action beats, I’m talking about backgrounds during dialogue scenes purported to be on a launchpad or mountainside. It just looks bad.
Thankfully, this is an Emmerich joint meaning the visuals are only half the fun. Moonfall cribs from the best with beats clearly inspired by The Terminator, The Abyss, and others as the story grows from silly to inane, and while its Elon Musk love is disturbing and its “Karen” joke already outdated there’s still plenty to have fun with here. Our heroes outrunning an earthquake in a Jeep to the point of using shifting plates as ramps? Check. An ensemble whose fate is obvious from the moment Emmerich lays out their family connections? Check. Gobbledygook about intergalactic megastructures, panspermia, and ancient alien ancestors? Check check check.
The cast knows exactly what they’re doing here with Wilson in particular just nailing the casually fed-up hero role and Bradley bringing the same nervous geekery he brought to Game of Thrones. Berry is clearly thinking about funding her next directorial effort, and you really can’t fault her, while Michael Peña tries on a more serious persona even as you expect him to start cracking wise at every turn. It’s a choice. Donald Sutherland even rolls into frame from the shadows at one point only to roll away again one minute later never to be seen again. Sure, why not?
Add Moonfall to the list of other disaster movies that entertain with zero pretenses on actual smarts or suspense. It’s a list heavily populated by Emmerich’s filmography, but it also includes the likes of Geostorm, Skyfire, and San Andreas. The world is a disaster right now, and sometimes you just want to sit back and enjoy a wholly fictional one unfolding instead. You can always count on Emmerich to scratch that particular itch.
Related Topics: Moonfall