Throughout Roland Emmerich’s filmography, destruction has loomed over our planet. The city-size saucers of Independence Day, the roaring beast of Godzilla, the tidal waves of The Day After Tomorrow and 2012—the filmmaker has never met a colossal force he couldn’t smash into the Chrysler Building. But after so many years, he’s finally identified the simplest of villains, one floating right above our heads. What is the moon plotting, hanging in the air so lazily? Seems rather suspicious. What if one day it decided to … fall?
I imagine this is how the pitch to studio executives for the new film Moonfall went: Emmerich stands in front of a whiteboard and draws a big circle to represent the Earth, a smaller one representing the moon, and an arrow pointing from the latter to the former. A $146 million budget, approved! And rest assured, the title does not mislead. A celestial body does fall in this movie, though its descent is slow enough that it causes a cascade of other problems on the way down. A longtime master of the disaster movie, Emmerich replays his old hits in splendid CGI as debris and tidal waves hammer cities, but the actual script seems to have been hastily scribbled on the back of a napkin.
Or perhaps Emmerich, who co-wrote the movie with Harald Kloser and Spenser Cohen, had Independence Day playing on a TV in the background while he hammered out Moonfall’s finer points. The new film features a global calamity, a governmental cover-up, a conspiracy theorist shouting in everyone’s face, a last-ditch space mission, and a lot of family drama unfolding on Earth while fiery rocks rain from the sky. But it’s so lazily scripted that it can’t be called half-baked, or even quarter-baked (at times, Emmerich seems to have forgotten to turn on the oven entirely).
To try and sum things up: Moonfall opens 10 years ago, as a space-shuttle mission captained by Brian Harper (played by Patrick Wilson) and Jo Fowler (Halle Berry) goes tragically wrong when they’re attacked by a big metal cloud of some sort that then drifts toward the moon. Nobody believes Harper’s warnings about the big metal cloud, so he’s blamed for everything despite his public protests. A decade later, the moon starts acting funny, heading off its axis on a collision course for Earth, and somehow the weird cloud is to blame. Fowler, who is now high up at NASA, enlists Harper to try to fly with her to the moon and fix everything, because the U.S. military’s only plan is to fire nukes at the moon, an idea straight out of Austin Powers.
Emmerich might be making a point about NASA underfunding; either that, or his budget for sets was pretty small, hence the agency’s headquarters being an anonymous-looking office with a few laptops. With America’s space shuttles locked in storage, getting back into space takes a whole lot of duct tape and elbow grease (NASA also appears to have no astronauts available for the mission outside of the disgraced Harper and the office-bound Fowler). Most of Emmerich’s hefty, independently raised budget has been devoted to visual effects, and those are undeniably strong—a testament to his considerable experience making these kinds of epic movies. Unfortunately, everything else has a slapdash hint of amateurism.
This is not to disrespect the eternally chipper Wilson, who does his best to make Harper as haggard as possible, but he is imperfectly cast. Berry does her best with a character who’s mostly there to tut and roll her eyes, but their dynamic doesn’t have enough of the nervy, wise-guy energy that powered Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum’s buddy duo in Independence Day. Most of the comedy comes from John Bradley (best known as Sam from Game of Thrones) as the conspiracy-minded K. C. Houseman, a bespectacled, excitable nerd here to educate the audience on the fringe theory that the moon is in fact a hollow “megastructure” housing a tiny star.
The film is gleeful nonsense, and I wanted Emmerich to fully embrace the goofiness; instead, he bogs down the plot in the earthly misadventures of Harper’s and Fowler’s estranged families, who end up in the Colorado Rockies trying to dodge moon rocks. Here’s a helpful tip, readers: If the moon is so close to the Earth that it’s literally starting to scrape its surface, maybe don’t travel to the highest mountain peaks in a bid to avoid it. The travails of Harper’s wayward son, Sonny (Charlie Plummer), and Fowler’s military ex-husband, Doug (Eme Ikwuakor), pale in comparison to the moon exploration. I was similarly bored by Sonny’s new father-in-law, Tom (Michael Peña), whose major character trait is that he owns a Lexus, which the movie showcases with near-pornographic frequency.
For all its cheesiness, the film is still entertaining—my entire row at the theater had fun cackling at clunky dialogue and absurd lunar lore. If you’re looking for a nice, empty-brained evening at the movies, Moonfall is the ticket to buy right now. But although Emmerich was the poet laureate of apocalypse blockbusters in the 1990s and 2000s, his same old song has gotten wearier, and his characters are as hollow as the moon they’re flying to.