Directed by Roland Emmerich
Written by Harald Kloser, Spenser Cohen, and Roland Emmerich
The Emmerichian mode in disaster cinema has seen better days, and after witnessing Roland Emmerich's former writing partner Dean Devlin attempting to direct a disaster flick without him in Geostorm, an Emmerichian disaster film with Chinese characteristics in The Wandering Earth, and Emmerich himself (with Devlin back for one engagement only) attempting to return to his own glory days with Independence Day: Resurgence, there was no good reason for me to be excited about Moonfall, and with every successive trailer, revealing more of what Moonfall actually was (rather than what I wanted it to be), I did indeed lose most of my initial enthusiasm. Yet I went in with a certain cautious optimism—"could the Master of Disaster be back?" is a question that might have crossed my mind if I thought Emmerich had ever rightfully inherited that title from Irwin Allen, which I never have, since the sole Allen film that Emmerich's overblown sci-fi disasters actually resemble is The Swarm—and this cautious optimism, mostly a simple desire for a junky, funky original blockbuster, was in fact borne out. Marginally, anyway. It never threatens to be as good as Independence Day or 2012, but of Emmerich's not-especially-good disaster movies (Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, Independence Day: Resurgence), it's the best.
So: as that title rather more than "suggests," the moon's 50 billion-year voyage into a higher, mutually-tidally-locked orbit around the Earth has gone into reverse, and it has begun to spiral toward our planet. The "how" is at first a mystery, but for now we know that it probably has something to do with the flowing black cloud of living machinery that appeared during a shuttle mission ten years ago in 2011, witnessed only by astronaut Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson) and then only momentarily, as his attention was fixed primarily upon the Gravity-esque Kessler catastrophe that befell him and his two crewmates, one of them instantly killed and the other, Jo Fowler (Halle Berry), rendered unconscious by micropunctures in the ship's hull. He manages the absolutely legendary feat of bringing his shuttle back to Earth in the absence of not just its onboard computer but its fly-by-wire controls—he does so in what is quietly the biggest lump of bullshit in Emmerich, Harald Kloser, and Spenser Cohen's screenplay, inasmuch as they don't even bother trying to explain or depict how he did this, and simply jump-cut to him and Fowler undergoing an interrogation months down the line—yet Harper's continued insistence that there was some alien technological presence responsible for the accident has marked him as a lunatic and scapegoat, and as a result he's fallen into total languish and more-or-less abandoned his wife Brenda (Carolina Bartczak) and son, er, Sonny (Azriel Dalman as a tyke, Charlie Plummer later as a young adult). Fowler, having made no such nonsense claims, keeps advancing in her career; thus she's in a position of significant authority when the moon leaves it orbit. Another lunar mission is sent to investigate, and the three astronauts on the scene are killed by the exact same black cloud of metal that Harper had described a decade ago.
In the interim, the secret of the moon has been discerned by another party, our man in university custodial services, "Dr." K.C. Houseman (John Bradley). Houseman's a conspiracy theorist with a penchant for sneaking into astronomy professors' offices after-hours and hijacking their identities to steal time on expensive telescopes (I presume for their laser rangefinding equipment, though the moon's orbital decay is so rapid that it could probably be tracked with telescopes you bought at Wal-Mart; it's still better astronomy than Don't Look Up). When Houseman's shut out of NASA, he gets to Harper just a little quicker than Fowler does, which, in short, means this moon-nut winds up coming along for the ride when a desperate second lunar mission is launched. Houseman's every wildest imagining turns out to be true: the moon, in fact, is a grand alien megastructure, and something has gone very wrong up there. The only thing to do is hope and pray that Harper, Fowler, and Houseman can make it there in time to nuke the hostile alien presence that's taken control of it. Until they do, the moon is getting closer and closer every second. There's going to be a whole lot of death and destruction either way.
"I don't like your movie's premise" isn't reasonable criticism, but I can't help it, and I can't express how much I wish that this weren't space opera: the first teasers for Moonfall had astronauts and stuff, but much more strongly indicated a film in the vein of 2012, with the same basic stakes ("we have set up a scenario where the world as we know it will definitely end and most humans will die") but with a different mechanism and a different visual mood for its apocalypse; and all I wanted from Moonfall was its title, a movie where the moon descended to the Roche limit, shattered, killed everybody, and left nothing but an Earth devastated by floods, moonrock, and vulcanism, yet graced, in the end, with the bleak beauty of a new ring system in our sky. It is a crime that this is not Moonfall's final frame.
Now, the great version of this might require a filmmaker with a different temperament than Emmerich, but 2012 (and even The Day After Tomorrow) accepted a certain level of human insignificance; they're degraded, to varying degrees, by Emmerich's relentless Screenwriting 101 insistence on narrowing his disaster films' concerns down to the interpersonal problems of individual nuclear families, but they never insist that their nuclear families can actually stop the apocalypse. (Not to get too spoilery, but Moonfall puts humans at the center of creation in ways that are downright anathema to its nominal genre.) What we have here is more along the lines of Independence Day, then, and in fact really is Independence Day by other means. It hits many of the exact same plot beats, and the difference is a tighter (I might say "blindered") focus on its three American heroes sent on a mission to save the day, with some time left over for the travails of their earthbound relatives. There's nothing wrong with that inherently, but it does mean that there's very little good that Moonfall does that Armageddon didn't do more credibly (yes, I hear myself) years ago. It likewise means that there's less focus on the global catastrophe than you'd like. There's an eventual turn from natural disaster to alien invasion film—and I guess that's a "spoiler," though the film tips its hand as early as its prologue in this regard—but the abandonment of Independence Day's driving war-movie structure, in favor of the family crap, means that Emmerich's worst habits can get amplified, and his best qualities can get muted.
So that is bad news, and Emmerich's human drama has probably never been so rote and mechanical. Nor his repertoire of human types been so obviously limited: he's expanded only arithmetically, and this time he has two divorced families*, for Fowler has likewise long since separated from her husband, presently raising their kid alongside her companion Michelle (Kelly Yu), whom I understand is eventually referred to as a nanny, though I must've been in the bathroom for this. I spent the whole movie assuming she was Fowler's girlfriend or wife, and they simply weren't being too loud and proud about it because they couldn't be, and they planned on removing the ambiguity of this character relationship earlier in a quietly re-inserted scene for the Chinese release of this Chinese co-produced movie, rather than in a scene an hour and a half in. Which is still less than three-quarters of the way through: there is a 90-minute version of this 130-minute B-movie that would lose nothing and gain much by cutting out every earthbound relationship, and using the earthbound characters as purely arbitrary point-of-view figures for the disaster.
Wilson and Berry are, accordingly, doing the minimum acceptable acting—they're somewhat better in their rapport with each other and Wilson finds a few ways to sneak some characterization into his early scenes by himself and with Bradley—but, then, even a consummate pro like Wilson shouldn't be expected to develop a strong performance from a character that the script doesn't realize is blackmailing the world for his shuttle pilot skills in exchange for his son getting out of jail. (They didn't release people from jail when every coastal city began to flood? That's dark, Roland.) Bradley has significantly more to do: he is somehow the least obnoxious I've ever seen him (I'm not a Samwell Tarley fan, and this is, in effect, the same exact character except now he's raving about "megastructures" rather than "wights"). I'm annoyed that Emmerich's interest in dumbshit conspiracy theories seems to outweigh his interest in disaster cinema, but I'm mollified that this conspiracy theorist is restrained to theorizing solely about the moon (compare Godzilla vs. Kong's more general-issue conspiracy theorist, who walks right up to line of saying "(((they))) won't tell us the truth about kaiju, but Q will"). Surprisingly, Bradley is usually entertaining in his enthusiasm for discovery amidst carnage, even if trailer couplets like "we're inside the moon"/"that might be the coolest sentence anyone's ever said" make you want to suggest he drink bleach. But at a certain point the whole main cast is eventually confined to the dull grind of just reacting to offscreen effects shots, with occasional attempts to sell some canned, algorithmic action-movie feelings that, in fairness, very slightly work.
And despite Bradley's contributions, which you'd think (and the trailers indicated) would be a prime vector for it, Emmerich also has almost entirely abandoned his decades-long emphasis on comedy—it's his only disaster movie besides The Day After Tomorrow that doesn't bank heavily on zany bullshit—which is probably a big part of why Moonfall feels so impersonal, but considering how frequently I've complained about Emmerich's nails-on-chalkhood sense of humor, I'd have to be a real asshole to say I missed it now. Besides, Moonfall is almost always funny without any designated comic relief, and I think Emmerich has reached a (somewhat) more mature stage, where he can comprehend that the sheer dumbness of his premise is the comic relief, without any cartoons in the margins needed. I likewise think he might have even realized that the constant repetition of the word "moon" is its own joke mechanic, and the more times you say it, the less like a real word it feels, so that if you say it two hundred times in two hours, in contexts such as "it's okay! you're part of the moon now," it gets downright hilarious.
The good news, then, is that it clicks along and even if it doesn't give you all you'd want from its title, it does give you enough. It arguably gets worse at delivering action: pretty much the moment we arrive on the moon itself, it degenerates into a long string of knocked-off visuals, starting with Return of the Jedi and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (which effectively means it's knocking off Independence Day, though I don't recall Independence Day so brazenly thieving cues from Jerry Goldsmith's experimental TMP score), and finishing up by knocking off Contact and Mission To Mars (and if I'd wanted to watch the movie Moonfall becomes, I would've just watched Mission To Mars), with a penchant for overexplaining its mythology so thoroughly that once it gets around to knocking-off The Terminator, it takes the form of an evil Alexa. But I said it had good in it, and Emmerich does give us a moon falling to Earth in between the pew-pew space action, and this is all fine stuff, with a lot of play with gravitationally-mediated destruction that feels like a do-over of and apology for Emmerich's chaotic and unclear play with gravitationally-mediated destruction in ID: Resurgence. There's a superb scale-model feel to the earthbound CGI (the water in particular feels like water in a special effects tank on the Toho lot) that I absolutely adore, giving it the complexion an unlimited succession of grandly-budgeted Eiji Tsuburaya playsets. And while Emmerich is running a little low on memorably iconic images the way he used to toss them off like he had an infinite supply, Moonfall provides at least one, with a shuttle launch piercing through a moon-driven tidal wave. It's not really "objectively good" but there is no such thing: I had fun. I can't say it deserved better than to be a commercial flop, but I kind of wish it hadn't been.
*Seriously, I don't even know where Emmerich and his imitators even get "separated spouses" from: the only two classic-era disaster films I can think of with divorced or divorcing partners are Fire and The Cassandra Crossing, and those should not be anyone's fucking touchstones. It's even more amusing when you remember that the progenitor of 70s disaster cinema, Airport, uses its brush with death as a pretext for its unhappy husband to finally realize he's hated his harpy wife for years, and would rather be banging Jean Seberg. I mean, yeah, it's probably the legacy of Die Hard more than any disaster movie, but the point is, there should be room for variety.