At his best, director Roland Emmerich can combine his penchant for demolishing various parts of the Earth with affecting melodrama. No matter how ridiculous the premise, a film such as Moonfall could get a pass were his talented cast able to rise to the challenge of taking the parameters seriously enough without losing track of the relationships that formed along the way. In this instance, the film is able to hold on, but just barely. Sure, explaining the premise of Moonfall is amusing enough to convince many that they have to see it to believe it or avoid it entirely on a count of sounding dumb. Still, I found plenty of admirable qualities for this big-budget B-movie bound to make astrophysicists’ heads spin.
Perhaps this was inevitable. I do long for films that go for broke with their high concept. A few years ago, China delivered The Wandering Earth, which focused on a future where Earth equipped itself with giant thrusters to move the planet to a new star system. It’s a blast! (watch it on Netflix to prove me wrong). Moonfall is somehow quaint, by comparison, but the premise is still a juicy one – what if the Moon was somehow knocked out of its orbit and put onto a collision course with Earth?
This movie even does one better for the audience. Not only is the Moon coming our way, but it also might not actually even be the giant space rock we believe it to be. What’s actually going on? That’s a question for two astronauts (Halle Berry and Patrick Wilson) and a conspiracy theorist (John Bradley) to answer.
To be clear, Moonfall does not hide the fact that an otherworldly presence is behind this. The film’s opening depicts some sort of space shuttle disaster, leaving Wilson’s Brian Harper disgraced and none the wiser to whatever extraterrestrial force is out there. How does Harper get roped back into this? Bradley’s K.C. Houseman did all the math before NASA had a chance and knows the Moon is coming. He even correctly understands how much the Moon’s gravity changes the pace as things go along. Unfortunately, his belief in superstructures (planet-like objects powered by dying stars) has kept him away from a seat at the table with the big boys.
Fortunately, these efforts to introduce various characters come in rather quickly. Harper and Berry’s Jo Fowler both have children, allowing their families to be a part of the plot. What do they have to offer the film? Well, if a gravity-based car chase doesn’t sound exciting, this may not be the movie for you. Otherwise, by getting these people introduced early enough, Moonfall wastes little time showing audiences what this film’s version of a Moon on a path of destruction toward Earth has to offer.
It’s quite the gimmick to work with. The Moon rotating around the world at faster speeds, bringing wild gravity-related consequences in the process, leads to all the special effects-related spectacle Emmerich has delivered throughout his career. The only problem with this is trying to make it feel special. When Independence Day came out in 1996, there was nothing like it. The combination of CG and practical effects allowed for something truly unique. Now, even with a $140 million price tag, seeing cities getting leveled is far from a once-in-year disaster movie spectacular.
Can the cast save this? There was a time when filmmakers had to balance the limited amount of big spectacle-filled sequences with engaging actors exchanging dialogue for most of the film. Emmerich was able to get a lot of mileage out of ID4 by having Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Judd Hirsch, and others develop fun characters you felt for. Moonfall is not so lucky. Were the film just to focus on Wilson, Berry, and Bradley, perhaps one could appreciate the human factor more, as they deliver as needed. Bradley, in particular, is the film’s comic relief, but he knows just how to find the wonder one looks for in this sort of feature.
Sadly, it’s the earth-related stuff that just can’t match up to the chaos. Look, I enjoy the idea of Charlie Plummer and Michael Pena facing off against random criminals in a car chase while the Moon rains debris on their path and alters the gravity for the sake of incredible jumps. With that said, their characters and those associated with them are duds. I understand that one needs to have some connection to Earth to give this film more weight, but this whole element lacked the charm required to make it as compelling as the space-based stuff.
Still, space-based stuff can be a lot of fun, and Moonfall is the sort of film that actually gets better as it goes along. There’s a thrilling mid-movie sequence where a space shuttle has to launch before it gets hit by a gravity wave. Not a tidal wave, a gravity wave. Is it dumb? Yes. Is it a lot of fun to watch? Most certainly. That most certainly comes with the territory when taking in the hilariously direct dialogue describing the events unfolding.
Additionally, when the film reaches its final section, things really go wild with the amount of exposition dumped fast and furiously on the audience. It’s hard not to admire how writers Emmerich, Harald Kloser, and Spenser Cohen believed they could get away with the sort of revelations about the secrets of the Moon had in a matter of minutes before getting back to the prime narrative.
There may have been a shift in attention and budgets given to films like Moonfall, but the atomic age was filled with these kinds of movies. Does it make it better to have the visual effects technology available now and deliver something that, at least, has the sort of gloss that Moonfall does? That comes down to what someone wants out of a movie like this.
At a time when so many blockbusters rely on a certain kind of thing (mainly superheroes), is a silly (and original) pitch involving the chance to save the Earth from the Moon something in need of nothing less than perfection? For me, not at all. Moonfall doesn’t measure up to Emmerich’s best efforts, but I had the sort of fun I was hoping for. The only thing missing was Donald Sutherland’s elderly government spook reacting to Moon’s arrival while atop a building, exclaiming, “Welcome to Earth.” But hey, no film is perfect.