The Moon is out of orbit, and heading on a collision course with Earth.
There is one pet in Moonfall, but it is never in real peril. Otherwise Roland Emmerich’s old-fashioned, entertainingly silly sci-fi blockbuster ticks many of the genre’s boxes: an underdog no one listens to, government conspiracies, iconic buildings washed hundreds of miles away, and eventual (partial) triumph, with a couple of redemptive sacrifices thrown in. Unfortunately its lumpen earnestness often threatens to derail it; the film is far too low on the humour that often lifts the overweening American sincerity in these flicks.
Critics have not, so far, been kind to Moonfall. Even my pen concurred, leaving, I discovered on my way home from the cinema, only ink-free scratches in my notebook. Still, I have to disagree with the one-star reviews out there. While I wouldn’t go as far to proclaim the film worthy of a Milky Way’s worth of sparklers, it does warrant a solid three.
Back in the distant past — that’s 2011 — three astronauts are attacked in space by what appears to be a black swarm. Jo Fowler (Halle Berry), the navigator, is left alive but injured inside their space shuttle, while a spacewalking colleague is killed. Fellow astronaut Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson) manages to land the shuttle back on Earth with no engines, but turns from hero to pariah when his claims of a swarm (not backed up by Jo) are rebutted and he’s held responsible. By the present day he’s divorced, behind on his rent and occasionally reminding himself of his glory days by talking to schoolchildren about being an astronaut. His ex-wife Brenda has married a wealthy car salesman and has two young daughters, while Brian and Brenda’s teenage son Sonny is in jail for leading police on a high-speed car chase. Jo is now a NASA bigwig, also divorced, with a young son Jimmy and an ex-husband high up in the military with whom she is — luckily for all humanity, it turns out — still on relatively good terms.
It’s home-taught alien megastructure expert (is there any other kind?) KC Houseman, who has long believed the Earth is a hollow, alien construction, who first realises the Moon’s orbit has changed, but no one believes him. NASA discovers from its own scientists what’s up but keeps it quiet, knowing there are only three weeks before it hits us. Only when KC’s findings start trending on Twitter do the news networks pick up on it. An investigative trip to the Moon ends in a black swarm attack that kills all three astronauts on board; after that failure there is little hardware left to mount another mission, what with space exploration having been scaled back and the space shuttles mothballed.
Eventually Brian realises KC (John Bradley) has been speaking the truth, and the two are airlifted from a flooded hotel to help Jo save the world (her NASA boss having legged it when the dangers got too great), culminating in a desperate Moon mission to defeat the swarm and save the Earth.
Moonfall is very American. There’s the shortest of international newsroom montages near the start, when the world’s citizens discover that the Moon is heading for them, and start looting shops near Trafalgar Square (what, M & M World and Zara?) We get a brief, rather apologetic look at people dying in Moon-related floods in Bangladesh, though that could be a deliberate point from the filmmakers that catastrophes in poorer parts of the world only become newsworthy when the Moon is falling on our heads.
The only other country given any airtime is China: Michelle (Kelly Yu) an exchange student employed by Jo to look after her young son Jimmy has a prominent role to play in their attempted survival, and we hear that the Chinese make their space hardware available to try to defeat the threat literally hanging over us — the film was partly funded by a Chinese entertainment company. (Lexus, who presumably put money in, also feature strongly and impressively. Considering the current state of the world, if my budget allowed I would swap my Fiat 500 for one ASAP.)
Despite its gloomy premise Moonfall is an optimistic film. Its idea that ancient aliens wanted to ensure we would thrive is an antidote to the rather depressing Prometheus (another film hardly anyone liked but me) which posited that our forefathers thought we deserved to die before we could make more of a hash of things. It’s actually a huge deal, realising that your gods did or didn’t care for you after all, and we could see KC as a cheerier version of Prometheus‘s Dr Elizabeth Shaw. There’s a nice parallel too between Moonfall‘s considerate, long-dead aliens, trying to set our path, and the parent/troubled child relationship that we find in Moonfall (and most other disaster movies).
Much makes no sense whatsoever, even ignoring the Moon turning out to be a hollow megastructure, and the incomprehensible stuff (to me anyway) about orbits and gravitational pull. Apart from needing another survival-against-the-odds strand to the story, there’s no logical reason for Jo, as a scientist and a mother, to have kept Jimmy so close to her for so long at the final launch site when he and Michelle could have already been airlifted to safety in the government’s Colorado bunker. And the reason for the swarm not simply wiping out the inhabitants of Earth while it could sounds weak, thrown in at the end as if someone suddenly pointed it out during production.
The special effects aren’t particularly special, as we’ve seen them all before. That said, the second half, when the world is suffering all manner of cataclysms while the Moon itself looms over us between jutting mountain peaks, is still considerably more exciting than the first. I was certainly invested in who lived or died, partly because beyond the core family groups we barely meet anyone else.
The ending is silly, an attempt to put a metaphysical cherry on top of a genre that has actually coped pretty well with social, technological and cultural developments and changing threats over the decades.
If you’re hoping for much Donald Sutherland, sadly he appears only once — what you see in the trailer is almost all there is of him. His role (as a NASA stalwart who has long known what was going on up there) looks like an attempt at Jeff Goldblum’s dispassionate Dr Malcolm in the later Jurassic films, though the problem with Sutherland’s character, Holdenfield, is that we don’t have any past on which to build an air of detached gravitas around him.
Berry and Wilson are fine, dealing with some ridiculous dialogue (which I would share with you if my pen had held out). Bradley’s mix of pure joy at what he’s experiencing and at being right (because it excites KC, not as an I-told-you-so) actually never wears thin. That could be because Moonfall is only two hours long, practically a short in today’s blockbuster dimensions. One-dimensional supporting characters are bearable when there’s no time to dig deep. Besides, the real star — boom tish! — is the Moon.
Watch the Moonfall trailer: