You have to give Roland Emmerich credit. He never fails to make the end of life as we know not just mildly entertaining, but — dare I say — extremely fun to watch.
After bringing us narrowly averted apocalypses instigated by alien invaders, giant monsters, doomsday prophesies, and climate change (which, admittedly, hits a little too close to home these days), Emmerich looks to the night sky for the next threat to humanity in Moonfall, his latest foray into disaster-as-art on the big screen. The film casts Patrick Wilson and Halle Berry as a pair of retired astronauts who are humanity’s last, best hope for survival when a mysterious entity knocks the moon out of orbit and puts it on a collision course with Earth. Along the way, they’re assisted by a brilliant-but-awkward conspiracy theorist played by John Bradley, who joins them on a journey into space to figure out what crawled up the moon’s butt and made it so cranky.
It’s the sort of premise that’s easy to ridicule, certainly, but it’s also the sort of film that’s easy to enjoy if you go in with the right kind of expectations.
Directed, co-written, and co-produced by Emmerich, Moonfall takes a lesser-known conspiracy theory suggesting that the moon is actually an artificially created structure and builds an entire film around it. It’s a formula that worked for his film 2012 years ago, which gave Mayan end-times prophesies a similar “What if they’re true?” treatment, and had John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Amanda Peet bouncing from one disastrous predicament to the next while audiences cheered.
This time around, it’s Wilson, Berry, and Bradley heading off to save the world on an old shuttle, leaving their families to dodge gravitational fluctuations, tsunamis, and planetary friction-heat as the moon’s diverted path wreaks havoc on human civilization. Along the way, the film samples liberally from Emmerich’s past projects, with a dash of Independence Day and plenty of The Day After Tomorrow to go along with 2012‘s conspiracy-friendly inspiration, and it’s hard to miss the overt similarities to some films he didn’t make, like 1998 meteor-disaster adventure Armageddon.
And although many of those elements might feel too familiar to some, they also give Moonfall the vibe of a wonderfully distilled blend of some of the last few decades’ most gloriously bonkers disaster films. Those aforementioned films harken back to an era of popcorn blockbusters that turned every summer into a spectacle of cinematic carnage, when Emmerich, Michael Bay, and various other filmmakers filled theaters’ seats with audiences eager for explosions and overly earnest drama in equal measures.
Whether you find that particular genre (and style) of film entertaining now — either nostalgically or otherwise — will likely be the deciding factor in whether Moonfall turns out to be a film you cheer or one you ridicule, because make no mistake: It is a film unabashedly borne from the Hollywood ethos of that era.
Still, even as it swings for the fences at nearly every opportunity, Moonfall doesn’t always hit a home run — much like many of the films that inspired it.
Wilson, Berry, and Bradley all deliver perfectly fine performances, made even more impressive by their ability to utter lines that would make less-accomplished actors question their career paths. All three actors buy into the story with the sort of loose, comfortable confidence that comes from knowing audiences aren’t there to see you — they’re there to see the world explode around you.
To that end, the film does test your ability to turn off your brain and suspend disbelief a bit more than it should on some occasions, and to an extent that will likely vary from person to person. For every dozen-or-so scientifically impossible scenarios that Moonfall asks you to accept, the film slips in a few dozen, even-more-implausible elements that leave you feeling like a sucker. Jumping an SUV from one floating piece of asphalt to the next as gravity waves rip up the highway? Fine. Oh, and by the way, there’s no oxygen in the air anymore and everyone’s cellphones are still working, too. Now just hold on a second …
That’s the unspoken agreement Moonfall asks of its audience, though, and if you’re willing to accept it, the film offers plenty of exciting sequences that could very well inspire a cheer or two along the way.
Fortunately, the spectacular moments when Moonfall hits the mark outnumber the film’s misses along the way.
In one particular sequence midway through the film, a space shuttle launches into the sky amid an onrushing tidal wave caused by the moon’s shifting orbit. It’s the sort of high-stakes scene that could either come off as breathtakingly epic or unbelievably silly, but it’s executed with such audacious sincerity that it ends up becoming one of the most memorably triumphant moments in a film filled with dramatic flourishes.
In the aforementioned scene and elsewhere throughout the film, Moonfall shows no shortage of confidence in what it does well, offering one complicated, jaw-dropping blend of visual effects and stunt work after another as it follows both the astronauts and the characters on the ground. Gravity is inverted, tidal waves come crashing through sets, and all manner of obstacles — human and environmental — gets tossed at the film’s characters as they navigate a planet where the laws of physics that governed our day-to-day existence have suddenly become dangerously skewed.
And much like all good disaster films, Moonfall makes sure all of those crazy-dangerous, nearly unbelievable moments are tremendously fun to watch.
Good disaster films always walk a fine line between thrilling and preposterous, and every audience member draws that line differently. That’s one of the reasons professional film critics and general audiences often differ so widely when it comes to entries in this particular genre.
Someone who finds the idea of a film about the moon being used as a cosmic cannonball to attack Earth appealing will likely enter Moonfall with an entirely different set of expectations than a critic tasked with assigning it a level of quality compared to every other film they’ve reviewed. Anyone looking for a satisfying, escapist adventure filled with eye candy and explosions that doesn’t ask you to think too hard will likely leave Moonfall feeling rewarded with just that sort of experience. Professional critics, however, will probably find it a mixed bag of sorts (at best).
Moonfall is unapologetically upfront about the film it’s trying to be, though: A wild, sci-fi adventure that’s a genuine treat for the senses without demanding too much mental or emotional investment. And to its credit, that’s exactly the sort of film it is.
Roland Emmerich’s Moonfall is available in theaters now. (Note: This review is based on a digital screener and not a theatrical screening of the film.) To read DT’s interview with Emmerich, please click here.
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