1.5 out of 5 stars

Roland Emmerich’s career has been defined by the success of Independence Day (1996), course-correcting from big-budget failures like Godzilla (1998) to hits like The Day After Tomorrow (2004). He’s become a modern-day Irwin Allen thanks to his shared interest in sci-fi and disaster films, but for every 2012 (2009) there’s a 10,000 BC (2008), and his attempts to branch out don’t go well —who even remembers Anonymous (2011) or Stonewall (2015)? So now he’s back in his comfort zone with Moonfall, one of the most expensive independent movies ever made (with a reported budget of $146M). This would have been a summer tentpole 15-years ago, but has now been cast into the winter wilderness to fight for screenings with Spider-Man.

Co-written by Emmerich, Spenser Cohen (Extinction), and Harald Kloser (Emmerich’s regular composer, who also co-wrote 10,000 BC and 2012 with him), Moonfall is another B Movie with more money than sense. It’s been hard to see how Emmerich would ever trump a literal apocalypse in 2012, but he’s settled on the idea of the Moon breaking from orbit on a collision course with the Earth. But the sweet simplicity of this concept is ditched within moments, as the film opens with astronaut buddies Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson) and Jo Fowler (Halle Berry) encountering a mysterious black swarm in outer space during their Gravity-style space walk together. Surviving the bizarre attack, Brian is fired for losing a crewman during a mission and talking nonsense about aliens, while Jo bites her tongue and soon becomes Deputy Director of NASA. 10 years later their shared experience proves invaluable when the Moon’s orbit suddenly changes after billions of years… and only conspiracy nut “doctor” K.C Houseman (John Bradley) knows why.

An extra-terrestrial explanation for this lunar threat is teased prematurely, as I’d have liked to have seen a more straightforward disaster movie that only later veers into dumb sci-fi trash. Luckily, a fuller revelation is held back for a third act, which is by far the strongest part of Moonfall, even if the ideas here aren’t original and the lore doesn’t make sense in Emmerich’s fumbling hands. But the faster pacing and go-for-broke silliness at least overcame the disaster film cliches and awful dialogue that makes the first half almost unwatchable at times.

The difficulty with movies of this nature is making us care for characters that are glorified action figures in a plot where the VFX is king, so there are the usual shortcuts with cute kids, angsty teens, daddy issues, and lovable wisecracking nerds. Emmerich is often more interested in following extraordinary figures during his many disasters — the fighter pilots and White House staff of Independence Day, or the scientists of The Day After Tomorrow —so rarely brings things down to earth for an ordinary person’s perspective. 

I enjoyed Greenland (2020) for its more grounded realism of how a cosmic disaster would tear the fabric of society apart, focused on one family’s struggled to survive in a world going to hell, but that tone is absent from Moonfall. This is more like a live-action Thunderbirds episode with Doctor Who-style sci-fantasy (the latter series already did a notorious episode where the Moon was revealed to be an alien egg). Emmerich throws in a handful of “ordinary folk” (the relatives of the main cast, doing their thing on terra firma amidst “gravity waves” that drag vehicles and buildings up into the air whenever the Moon passes overhead), but it’s not particularly effective because you only ever see those characters as distractions from the cooler stuff happening at NASA or up in space.

Tone is another difficult thing with movies of this nature, and Moonfall gets the balance wrong. The pleasure of Emmerich’s best disaster epics is that you can enjoy the spectacle by imagining yourself in such wild predicaments (like staring up at a city-sized flying saucer, or avoiding giant hailstones and earthquakes), but it’s still enough of “a popcorn movie” due to the inherent silliness and lighthearted dialogue taking the edge of what might otherwise be a horrifying War of the Worlds-style drama. Moonfall tries but fails to achieve the same thing, but only John Bradley (Game of Thrones) finds a serviceable mix of seriousness and cheesiness as a tin-hatted nerd. Patrick Wilson and Halle Berry take things much too seriously in their performances, both unable to walk the fine line between giving everything enough gravitas to make it dramatically involving, but with enough knowing winks to reassure audiences we’re mainly here to have fun. 

Moonfall isn’t without its odd pleasures, of course. There’s a rousing sequence where a NASA shuttle has to launch whilst surrounding by enormous waves travelling up into the air, ready to snatch them out of the sky if they don’t achieve a certain altitude in time. I had fun with the Star Trek-ish reveal of what’s inside the Moon too, even if some of the specifics with the alien backstory don’t add up when you think about. But thinking is anathema to most of Emmerich’s movies—and it’s certainly a worry that the writer-director makes outcast conspiracists heroic figures and proven true in their idiotic beliefs. That’s not a great thing to be promoting in the age of COVID, where anti-vaxxers are prolonging a pandemic by encouraging people to avoid getting a potentially life-saving jab. And it perhaps speaks to Emmerich’s own shaky belief system, as the man who directed a film based on the Oxfordian theory that William Shakespeare didn’t write his famous plays.

Sadly, Moonfall isn’t worth taking a trip to see, although your mileage may vary on how much stupidity tips over into hilarity. I found it all a bit too poe-faced for too long, only really achieving something resembling a heart beat in the final half-hour or so. It should have become bigger and crazier a lot sooner, or spent some time making us care for the characters and the situation at large. Some of its ideas also evoked stuff from Independence Day: Resurgence (2016) and continued things that movie teased about third movie we’ll never get, which makes it strange that Moonfall itself sets up a sequel I doubt will get made either.

UK CHINA USA | 2022 | 130 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Roland Emmerich.
writers: Roland Emmerich, Harold Kloser & Spenser Cohen.
starring: Halle Berry, Patrick Wilson, John Bradley, Michael Peña, Charlie Plummer, Kelly Yu & Donald Sutherland.