Pure-strain sincerity and a ragtag cast of lovable goofballs elevate Emmerich’s latest sci-fi disaster movie to a pulpy, fun ride.
Around the halfway point of Roland Emmerich’s new sci-fi disaster flick Moonfall, our protagonists find themselves in a hell of a predicament. It seems like the world is about to end, the most important people have given up on doing anything about it, and the only ones that have a chance of saving the day are the underestimated, the uninspiring, and the over-the-hill. Despite this, they manage to dust off an abandoned space shuttle, squeeze themselves into some old astronaut suits, and blast away to prevent disaster, and maybe, just maybe, become heroes in the process.
In 2022, as theatrical moviegoing is in a precarious place, threatened with being torn apart by the rival gravitational pulls of streaming and the fear brought on by the COVID pandemic, it’s not crazy to imagine that Emmerich sees this film as his own desperate, long-shot mission to avert catastrophe. Taking the form of a cinematic vehicle that feels just as retro as the decommissioned shuttle and Mercury spacesuits, he almost succeeds.
Moonfall is just about what you’d expect it to be, give or take some uncertainty around how the classic Emmerich disaster movie model would adapt to the modern-day. The moon is coming out of its orbit, which portends absolute devastation on the Earth – starting with tectonic shifts and massive tidal waves, and presumably ending with the complete destruction of humanity and our environment.
Naturally, a la Independence Day or The Day After Tomorrow, the only ones who understand what’s going on and are in a position to help are a ragtag band of outsiders. There’s a lovably nerdy conspiracy theorist played by Game of Thrones‘ John Bradley, a disgraced ex-astronaut played by Patrick Wilson, and Halle Berry as an astronaut-turned-bureaucrat who has a long and troubled history with Wilson. The plot hinges around Bradley’s big idea that the moon is not in fact a naturally-occurring body, but is a “megastructure” built by a mysterious someone for a mysterious something. If these three characters can manage to get to the moon, they may figure out why it’s leaving its orbit, and what they can do to prevent it.
This is, of course, remarkably goofy, but in a way that feels increasingly rare these days. The plots of today’s biggest blockbusters are about equally silly, but in a way that winks at the audience. Moonfall plays it straight. It’s not self-serious, but it feels oddly sincere. Bradley plays his character with all the earnest and heartfelt qualities of a man who might never get to be the lead of a blockbuster ever again, and his energy is honestly infectious.
Still, the leading performances don’t all possess that same vibrancy: Wilson is rather dull for most of the movie as the resident square-jawed action hero, up until the climax where the movie goes from 21st century Stargate to something that could accurately be called “Dumb Guy 2001: A Space Odyssey”). Here, Emmerich actually goes to some interesting places with the visuals, transitioning from a pretty uniform gunmetal blue color palette to something that dips its toes into a pool of popcorn psychedelics.
If you’ve seen the trailers for Moonfall and believe it’s right up your alley, it probably is. Its commitment to the same kinds of story structure and tone that Emmerich has been doing for 30 years is honestly admirable in some minor way. In fact, it’s practically a museum piece in its replication of what would’ve been a typical Saturday matinee in 1999 or so. It’s strong in the ways you’d anticipate: there’s a charming lead character, some colorful action and memorable set pieces, clear character arcs, and a kooky premise tying it all together.
But it’s weak in ways just as predictable: the less said about a check-your-watch subplot involving Wilson’s teenage delinquent son, the better. An audience’s reaction to it will vary depending on how much they long for that far-off weekend afternoon feeling. But here in 2022, that combination of sincerity, nostalgia, and even a slight hint of originality (after all, when have you seen a movie about blowing up the moon before?) can’t help but feel surprisingly welcome.
Moonfall is currently blowing shit up in theaters.