Movie Review: Moonfall
By Ben Gruchow
February 20, 2022
“[The government] is going to do everything in their power to stop the moon.”
“You can’t be serious!”
“I’m dead serious.”
Actual dialogue exchange from Moonfall
I sort of adore this movie, like few before it. Not since 2003’s The Core has a movie this objectively misconceived tickled the reward center of my brain this thoroughly. Because of course it’s bad; of course it’s misconceived and idiotic. That was assured from the moment the first trailer hit the public eye—hell, from the moment the logline hit the public eye. The difference between a bad movie like this one and a bad movie like Spider-Man: No Way Home involves the ownership of identity and assumptions of legitimacy (or lack thereof, in this case); Moonfall not only knows it’s bad, but depends in its very bones on us also knowing that ahead of time, so that we can go in with the proper mindset. We need more movies like this, as evidenced by the blank stares I get from far too many people when insisting to them about how we need more movies like this.
The story…but must I detail the story? Certainly you don’t go to a Roland Emmerich movie to be impressed by the narrative, but Moonfall’s screenplay is so nuts in such compounding fashion that half the fun of watching it is finding out what left-turn rabbit hole the writing team has decided to follow at any given moment. I suppose describing the bones of the thing can’t spoil it too much: Earth’s moon has shifted in its orbit for the first time in forever, and said orbit will now decay with increasing speed until it comes in contact with our planet, resulting in extravagant destruction and wiping out all life. Humanity’s only hope lies with disgraced astronaut Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson) and NASA director Jocinda Fowler (Halle Berry); ten years earlier, Harper was on mission and witnessed something very unusual happening on the surface of the moon. NASA covered it up, and Brian is relegated to fixing up old cars while his ex-wife struggles to raise their delinquent son. He must dive out the window when his landlord comes to collect rent. The movie observes the long-held Hollywood tradition of not explaining how a broke and unemployed individual in their forties who is only ever seen drinking beer is able to keep themselves in top physical condition.
What’s causing the moon’s orbit to decay? The trailers helpfully spell it out, but I will not; suffice to say that the movie is inspired by not only 1998’s Armageddon and 2013’s Gravity, but also by 1997’s Contact (and maybe a little bit of Prometheus) in there for seasoning. The story supplies secondary characters: Brian’s son and ex-wife Brenda are around, of course, but we also meet Brenda’s new husband Tom (Michael Peña), Jocinda’s ex-husband Doug (Eme Ikwuakor), her son Jimmy (Zayn Maloney), and Jimmy’s caretaker Michelle (Kelly Yu). Donald Sutherland pops by early on, presumably having been in the neighborhood, to provide some ominous exposition that helps to set up the climactic efforts to save us all from the moon. And of course, there is the character of by far the greatest import, K.C. Houseman (John Bradley), who has a cat named Fuzz Aldrin and connects most of these individuals/plot points together by way of some impressively accurate conspiracy theorizing. And then everyone tries to resolve their domestic problems and articulate their humanity/goals/dreams while evading the moon as it wreaks worldwide havoc and destruction.
Reread that previous sentence. Savor it. Or go back a little further and roll the phrase “climactic efforts to save us all from the moon” off your tongue. I am helpless to resist something with this kind of monumental silliness in its DNA. At one point, our heroes are preparing to launch themselves into space to defeat the moon, and they’re all in the final countdown, and things are going swimmingly, and…okay, so: you see, as the moon’s orbit decays and it gets closer, its own gravity increases as its incursion creates regional safety hazards like earthquakes that are felt in pinpoint locations, right? Basic science, really. One of these earthquakes compromises the integrity of the rockets; after the earthquake shows up and inconveniences everyone for thirty seconds or so and then continues on its way, a tech nervously scans his screens and tells Brian that the launch is threatened: “We’re leaking coolant!” In that moment, the earlier scene with Brian working on his classic car in his garage came back to me, and I became convinced that he would fix things by sliding underneath the rocket and plugging the leak. Perhaps with a red, white, and blue handkerchief. The movie doesn’t follow this path, regrettably, but it makes up for it in other ways: whenever a character opens their mouth, or every time we see a shot of the moon suddenly loom up over the horizon, or every time anything happens. Basic human decency prevents me from spilling the beans about the gravity wave that follows the coolant leak.
Let’s take a step or two back for a moment. We need movies like this, I said up top, and I meant it. Why do we need movies like this? Isn’t this kind of thing dumbing us all down? Shouldn’t we focus on and give our money to more respectable, reasonable forms of cinema? First, I say we’d be depriving ourselves if we only ever pursued the reputable and respectable; genuinely great films are frequently no more reputable and respectable in their time than genuinely bad ones. Second, and to quote Pauline Kael (not for the first time): “Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them.” Moonfall is not great trash, but the paradigm of pop culture has also continued to shift. The metric-driven, IP-based, designed-by-committee approach to filmmaking we’ve been living in for the last ten years or so (and especially for the last five) has sanded off most of whatever character there was to be found in big-budget cinema. Very rarely does anything make it to wide release that’s actually trashy…and likewise, very rarely does anything make it to wide release that is actually great, or more than superficially unique, or more than ephemerally challenging. We live in a middle ground where the vast majority of what we see in theaters, no matter how reputable or respectable, has been lifelessly chewed up and predigested for us, so terrified are its makers of alienating any potential demographic or revenue stream.
Moonfall is not lifeless, you have to hand it that. And here’s another quote, this one from Roger Ebert: “I cannot recommend the movie, but…why the hell can’t I? Just because it’s godawful? What kind of reason is that for staying away from a movie? Godawful and boring, that would be a reason.” So my reasoning goes. Nothing about this movie works: the harder it tries to engage in character development or world-building, the louder the strings swell on the soundtrack, the bigger and broader the world-destroying CGI gets, the more our attention is drawn to how widely each target is being missed by. But it misses these targets earnestly and with intention: the ultimate reveal as to what’s behind the moon’s misbehavior practically begs for redefinition of the words “loopy” and “daft”, but you can’t watch that reveal and not believe that it’s exactly what Emmerich envisioned (he also produced, and co-wrote the screenplay with Harald Kloser and Spenser Cohen). And it’s because of that earnest conviction that a few scattered character moments work when they have no business whatsoever doing so. I don’t plan to see Moonfall again; the florid weirdness of the final act isn’t enough to wholly compensate for its muted beginnings, and once is usually enough for me when it comes to trash. But it has the sugar-heightened impulsiveness of an imaginative kid who’s momentarily gotten access to all of the toys, and I can’t help but find the result kind of endearing.
5 out of 5