I love disaster movies. It may be some basic failure of my psychology, but I’m always down for the chaos of some utterly unlikely horror visiting the end of days upon an unaware populace. Be it an asteroid, aliens, a rogue wave, secret underground urban volcanoes, or a burning skyscaper, I adore this nonsense.
Director Roland Emmerich belongs on the Mount Rushmore of the disaster genre. Independence Day stands as one of the most successful and beloved disaster movies ever. The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 join ID4 among the better modern blockbusters entries in the genre. White House Down is a pleasant enough entry in the “Die Hard in a…” action subgenre. Since White House Down, Emmerich has been on a rough streak. The German director has made a woefully received serious drama (Stonewall), a big budget war movie that feels like a throwback to a bygone era in the worst ways (Midway), and a truly ghastly Independence Day sequel (Independence Day: Resurgence). Still, this remains a director deeply important to my coming of age as a film fan. Stargate hit when I was 9, ID4 at 11, and The Patriot at 15. Each was a movie that clicked just right for me at each respective age. Looking back, none is a true masterpiece, but each has a certain visceral appeal for a young boy.
And so it gives me no joy to report that Moonfall is one of the weakest entries in the disaster genre and Emmerich’s filmography. Despite an enormous budget (reportedly around $150m), the film feels cheap and unfinished. The effects are not only largely unconvincing but they’ve left me baffled at how the similarly CGI intensive effects in 2012 or The Day After Tomorrow are simply better. The Day After Tomorrow is nearly two decades old! There are times – a late film car chase stands out – that feel like they come from a Syfy Channel original movie. I’m lost for how a movie at this budget size and scale has compositing work to place characters in apparent outdoor locales that is less persuasive than the rear projected driving in a 60s Bond film.
Obviously special effects aren’t everything in blockbuster filmmaking. But when your movie is sold on big budget blockbuster spectacle and then looks like it cost a tiny fraction of the budget of an episode of The Book of Boba Fett, the criticism is fair game. Further, the action is filmed and cut in a staccato way that makes it nearly impossible to track character movement and renders whatever grandeur the effects might have had into a nullity. The screenplay is a baffling mix of science gobbledegook exposition and overwrought character beats. No actor can survive these lines. There are also editing choices that leave entire subplots indecipherable, including a particularly confusing one about roving criminals on the ground. The film elides and accelerates the progression of time in ways that are jarring if the viewer gives even the faintest thought towards making sense of things.
The cast is an interesting mix of famous and vaguely famous faces. The standout is very clearly John Bradley (Game of Thrones) who is utterly committed to humanizing a conspiracy theory wonk nutter who solves that the moon is, um, a hollow thingamajig that can be piloted towards Earth. I think Patrick Wilson (The Conjuring franchise, FX’s Fargo) can be pretty effective but here he’s got precious little to do. It’s always nice to see Donald Sutherland (Don’t Look Now, Ad Astra) who shows up to make a meal of the scenery for a few minutes. This is not a good Halle Berry (Bruised, The Call) performance, but I do hope the paycheck bought her a nice coastal villa or something.
It remains a real shame that the wonderful Michael Peña is always relegated to bit supporting roles in big budget blockbusters and mainstream movies like this. He brings his usual warmth and humor to the fore and manages to almost breathe life into a part that’s a total dud on the page. A braver film would put Peña in the lead instead of yet another blandly handsome white dude and let his unique energy filter through the entire project. Someday Peña is going to win an Oscar off the right Sundance-type role and we’re all going to look back wondering why the decision makers in the industry had been sleeping on him for so long.
I really want to try to be positive for a moment. It’s not the worst movie I’ve ever seen; it’s not even Emmerich’s worst (that would be 10,000 B.C.). I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some people fall for this movie’s unintentional humor and it becomes something of a cult fascination for stoners. There are even a few manipulative but emotionally affecting moments in the last act.
Nevertheless, the film steals so obviously and inelegantly from better disaster movies, including Emmerich’s own filmography, that I’m largely left baffled on any non-cynical reasons for its existence. Moonfall reminds me a lot of the Chinese film Wandering Earth which, despite having some vocal fans, felt like a bargain basement Armageddon with a sprinkling of extra lunacy thrown into the mix. Finally, I’m left with the unsavory taste of a movie that essentially humanizes and vindicates Alex Jones fanboys. Bradley is playing someone who happily dabbles in extremely fringe stuff and associates with all manner of conspiracy theorists. While the film plays much of it for laughs, it’s frustrating on some level to see this sort of character proven right in the film’s wprld. As we face a society apparently permanently fractured by misinformation and conspiracy mongering, I couldn’t help but feel the façade of disaster movie fun punctured by the film’s flirtations with the real world.
Moonfall opens exclusively in theaters on February 4, 2022.