‘Moonfall’ Review: “A Ghost of Blockbuster Past”
Earlier this week, director Roland Emmerich made headlines criticizing the state of the modern blockbuster. Saying of the saturation of films in the Marvel and Star Wars franchises, Emmerich states “It’s ruining our industry a little bit, because no one wants to do anything original anymore”. Emmerich, and those before him, have a certain point, but one can’t help seeing the irony of Emmerich making this statement. The German “master of disaster” has practically done variations on the same concept for decades now. Moonfall is only the latest. Somehow, though, that formula has gone out of style so much that it feels fresh again. In other words, I had a great time with this film.
We’re living in the age of self-awareness, there’s nothing bolder than being unabashedly stupid. Moonfall opens on such an unabashedly stupid sequence. Astronauts Jo Fowler (Halle Berry) and Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson) are doing some repairs on a satellite. More importantly, they’re arguing about whether the lyrics of Toto’s “Africa” are “I bless the rains in Africa” or “I miss the rains in Africa”. Their oh-so-charming irreverence is interrupted by a seemingly extraterrestrial (and very vague) swift gray mass that kills their crewmate. Sworn to secrecy regarding what they saw, Harper and Fowler go their separate ways.
Present day. Fowler has taken a higher position at NASA. Harper is retired and estranged from his family. Their paths cross once more when conspiracy theorist K.C. Houseman (John Bradley) discovers that the moon is falling out of its orbit. More adventurously, he believes the moon to be a mega-structure built by extraterrestrials. The moon is coming to us. Thanks to this trio of plucky archetypes, we might have a chance of fighting back.
That kind of premise is catnip to a demographic that I perfectly fall into. This movie is for the undiscerning viewer whose idea of a perfect Sunday afternoon is catching a special effects-laden, dumb as rocks blockbuster on a Sunday afternoon. In my review for The Protege, I colloquially referred to this unofficial subgenre of film as “FX-core”, named after the movie-heavy channel. Like Emmerich’s own 2012, this film fits snugly into that category. This distinction comes with positives and negatives.
In a basic storytelling sense, Moonfall falls apart under close investigation. Emmerich, Harald Kloser, and Spenser Cohen riddle the script with moon crater-sized plot holes. Characters and entire subplots are dropped willy nilly. In the case of Donald Sutherland’s NASA spook character, it’s a damn shame. They aren’t exactly excising material to strengthen our leads. Wilson and Berry don’t do much to elevate their stock characters. Emmerich casts actors of the caliber of Michael Peña to play roles like “confrontational new husband of protagonist’s ex-wife”. Thankfully, there is a character who saves the picture.
Specifically, Emmerich’s direction, writing, hell, the whole damn enterprise comes to life when John Bradley is on screen! His conspiracist character is a classic tool of Emmerich’s repertoire. Nevertheless, his energy is infectious with child-like wonder. That wonder extends to the real star attraction: the visual effects.
If there’s one thing Emmerich knows how to do by this point, it’s destroying things real good. Images such as the moon looming over the Earth like something out of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask are a sight to behold. Moon debris raining down and, of course, the money shots of monuments being destroyed are rendered with astonishing clarity. This is the most striking a blockbuster has looked in a while. Emmerich is a kid in a candy store exploring how the impending doom of the, erm, moon’s fall affects the tides and Earth’s gravity.
It’s pure eye candy. The cherry on top is a third act that has a massive twist. Not content to simply leave well enough alone, Emmerich builds out an entire mythology more ambitious than this type of picture requires. Did the film need this? Not at all. Really it overcomplicates things and creates more plot. But it’s just so gloriously silly that there’s a spark of wild imagination to it.
That wild imagination is the selling point of Moonfall. It’s not a strong movie in terms of storytelling whatsoever. What it is is a callback to the cinematic dream of the 90s disaster movie. Sometimes all you need is a “what if <blank> happened?” concept. Emmerich has the tools to execute his absurd vision, resulting in a likely disposable, comforting piece of FX-core. – James Preston Poole
Moonfall is now playing in theaters.