There’s a sense of old-fashioned, corny blockbuster fun inherent in most Hollywood disaster movies. Gather up a vast ensemble cast of B-list actors sprinkled with a couple A’s here and there for good measure and throw them in a ridiculous narrative that places them—and the world—in mortal danger, and it’s hard to go wrong, even if the films in that genre are more often than not so bad they’re good, as opposed to being legitimately great. “Moonfall” is modern day catasphrohe king Roland Emmerich’s return to the genre for the first time in quite a while (I refuse to count his “Independence Day” sequel, a mini disaster in and of itself), and for many with a high tolerance for B movie shlock, it’ll do the trick, delivering exactly on what its title promises: the Moon’s orbit shifts and moves it closer to Earth, and, well, it’s gonna fall. That is, unless disgraced ex-NASA astronaut Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson), his former colleague Jo Fowler (Halle Berry), and conspiracy theorist K.C. Houseman (John Bradley) have something to do about it.
“Moonfall” has no shortage of amusingly silly action set pieces, like a car chase replete with Lexus product placement in which a group of our heroes attempt to evade looters as the Moon looms large on the horizon, sending the elements into a frenzy. In a way, that sort of sequence, combined with an awkwardly handled message about humanity’s neglect of the environment and their immediate descent into lunacy and desperation as soon as it appears that the end is nigh, is what Emmerich is best at. But what really makes a movie like “Independence Day” memorable, or “The Day After Tomorrow” at least watchable, is the characters. Regardless of how unbelievable the story is, a good disaster movie is made memorable by people—leads who give it humanity, and supporting players with big personalities who act as colorful accessories. “Moonfall,” unfortunately, doesn’t really have either. It quickly establishes backstories for its three leads: Brian and Jo are both estranged from their families, while K.C. is a loner whose theories have never been believed, and who just wants to make his mother, sick in a nursing home, proud. But none of these characters are especially interesting on their own, and the ties to their family, such as Brian’s supposedly tense relationship with his son Sonny (Charlie Plummer), a teenager who has been acting out and was recently arrested, are tenuous at best. It’s hard not to admire their commitment to the material, from Bradley’s attempt to inject some much-needed, if not exactly laughable, humor, and Wilson’s intense delivery of some exposition about the Moon that makes zero sense to the audience, but it appears to to him, so we go along with it. But so many of the supporting players are just wasted space. Michael Peña crops up at the start of the film as Brian’s ex-wife’s husband, a wealthy douche who owns a Lexus dealership (I wasn’t kidding about the product placement) and whose first response to Earth’s impending collision with the moon is “let’s go to Aspen,” but he soon disappears for a large stretch of the film, a film that sorely could have used someone with his personality. Donald Sutherland, whose rent must have been due, appears for all of two minutes as a former NASA official who spouts some top secret moon secrets that he discovered during the Apollo 11 mission. Several of the characters undergo redemption arcs, but their characters are so poorly developed that said redemptions don’t feel particularly earned.
But the other issue with “Moonfall” is that it isn’t really content with being just the dumb action/sci-fi blockbuster that it is. Emmerich wrote the screenplay along with Harald Kloser and Spenser Cohen, and really, the thinnest of explanations for the moon moving closer to Earth would have been sufficient. But in the third act they introduce a bizarre alien element that I couldn’t begin to coherently summarize for you if I tried. As tempting as it is to applaud Emmerich for Going There, his attempt to put a high-brow sci-fi spin on a movie that up to that point isn’t that deep fails rather spectacularly.
In some regards, the behind the scenes story of the creation of “Moonfall” is more entertaining than the film itself. It’s one of the most expensive independent productions ever, with Emmerich and his producing partner even shopping the project around at the Cannes Film Festival back in 2019. If you go into “Moonfall” expecting what you’d normally expect from an Emmerich movie, you probably won’t be let down. The best scene is one in which, scrambling to find a vessel that can take them to space on short notice, Brian and company rescue the space shuttle Endeavor from a museum, where the phrase “fuck the Moon” has been spray painted in large letters across its nose. It’s just a shame that the rest of the movie doesn’t measure up to that same spirit of irreverent fun.
“Moonfall” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 130 minutes. Rated PG-13.