Roland Emmerich has found himself again. That’s a statement I never would’ve imagined myself saying, but after a brief flirtation with smaller historical dramas and an ill-guided sequel that backfired on the nostalgia machine, here we are. We find the maverick German-born writer/director once more on solid ground with a story that involves anything but. Moonfall manages to bring us back to the Emmerich we’re oddly familiar with, by way of mild video store curiosity, in almost the same way folks clamored for the nascent charm of Universal Soldier when it arrived at shelves. Needless to say, it does play just as well on a giant screen, as to fit with his brand, the fate of the planet is very much at utter risk.
NASA encounters quite the field day, ten years past from a botched lunar recon mission, when they discover the moon’s orbit is fragmenting. Hurtling itself ever closer at ever shifting variables, the window of opportunity is as unstable as the Oreo crumb shaped debris chipping off the surface. Enter in Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson), the disgraced captain who lost his credibility in the wake of his co-pilot’s death after that previous mission. Brought in by old boss Jocinda Fowler (Halle Berry), and joined by amateur scientist KC Houseman (John Bradley), he reluctantly agrees to spearhead an ops mission with the goal of reversing the moon’s path. With his own backpack’s worth of personal issues, being broke and on the wrong side of a divorce, he agrees to help, aware there’s still plenty at stake with his dysfunctional family waiting targets, alongside proposed military action and a government cover-up thrown in for added clout.
At spots, that was likely where Emmerich and co-writer Harald Kloser tend to lose me. Amid the rampant action on the ground, and skittish hijinks on board a recommissioned shuttle, were those extraneous third-party plot lines worthy of existing more homogeneously throughout. For one, a third act reveal that deserved heightened foreshadowing alongside heavier sci-fi themes dabbling around ethical redevelopment for alternate life. Another, Brian’s screw-up of a son (a delightful Charlie Plummer) facing a high speed DUI, and stepdad Tom (an on-the-ball Michael Peña) breathing down their necks in fury.
I’d have liked to see more of those lesser themes introduced more prevalently, in order to spice up this broth. Not that the misappropriation of foresight sours the experience, it doesn’t. What we get is plenty fine, we’re used to this manner of storytelling dynamics in Emmerich’s works, with a one-track mind dominated by the conflict at hand, to play dignified and empathic as possible. It’s almost like Don’t Look Up, sans the cynicism and feeble-minded comedy. Here, the laughs are often accidental in nature, yet still no less organic.
Does that mean Moonfall contends with Emmerich versing in self-referential? While attempting to hold onto a little bit of serious drama in his destructive backdrop? Yes to both, though with the frustrating sting of denial. Bradley (apparently pinch-hitting for Josh Gad after a recast) does more hinder over help, straddling the line between bland comic relief and deliberate voice of reason. Fun as he was to watch, finding a distinction with his conspiracy theorist type character was near impossible. And yet, I couldn’t quite ignore how much of Emmerich’s inconsistent comic voice manifests with this single character who otherwise knows his astronomy.
Moonfall is very messy, and often difficult to fathom. Move past that, and a few questionable editing choices at the hands of Ryan Stevens Harris (The Hard Way) and Adam Wolfe (Midway), and the latter half will come off as a genuine space opera with the budget to match. Much of it likely spent solely on looks, with DP Robby Baumgartner (Blindspotting) at that helm. And all at the expense of any leftover scientific accuracy being thrown out a smashed-in window. Even your typical disaster movie car chase aims for the synthetic as meteorites rain down on Peña and his brood. At that point, we’re just observing cut scenes from a first-person alien invasion video game, down to the product placement.
And that only stands to be more of a disservice to an otherwise level ensemble cast. While a confident Berry and a witless Wilson disagree on principles at the edge of the atmosphere, they do just enough to cooperate, not allowing past errors to alter their judgment. If only the often B-movie style dialogue could permit a heightened sense of compassion. Wilson is around to channel echoes of either Gregory Peck or Bruce Willis, but struggle to match their intensity. Berry’s parental authority figure energy is the likely saving grace with this cast, which also features Donald Sutherland appearing just once for context’s sake, Kelly Yu as her exchange student stepdaughter, and Eme Ikwuakor as her at-odds military specialist husband. Even still, motives remain stagnant at best; the hurtling moon moves much faster.
All told, I knew I could shut off my brain periodically and submit to the ride Emmerich is charging admission for. But I can’t quite overlook where he continues to fall short on. With Moonfall, he remains bankable (in spirit) on providing hokier genre-centric fare, making up for time lost by venturing into other avenues. And a lot of the time when I wasn’t stupefied by its gimmicks, I was grinning ear to ear behind my facemask at its sense of silliness. The corners he and Kloser willingly cut in their noble endeavor, however, are the kind that can weigh any disaster movie down. I suppose we should expect that out of the guy, after nearly 40 years in the business. Not much has changed, nor has that penchant for creating cheesy cinema I’d see myself stumbling onto months from now on a store shelf, virtual or otherwise. And in that perspective, that’s where it worked. Almost entirely. (C-; 2.5/5 Horns Up!)
Moonfall opens in theaters with an accompanying IMAX release February 4; rated PG-13 for violence, disaster action, strong language, and some drug use; 130 minutes.