It’s better for all of us if I spoil Roland Emmerich’s big silly action movie Moonfall here, at the start. This is not an act of spite. I really wanted to enjoy Moonfall, and I hope anyone watching it will find something worth enjoying in its 130-minute runtime. The trouble is, Moonfall barely delivers on the trailer’s promise of a throwback disaster movie from the one-time king of the genre. In its third act, it also falls to pieces when it pivots into bonkers science fiction spectacle. That pivot is the most interesting thing about Moonfall — an inexplicable choice that leads to unintentional hilarity and a world of missed opportunity. This film could have literally given us the Moon. Instead, it offers the world’s noisiest lullaby.
Here is what Moonfall pretends to be: a film about the Moon falling out of orbit, wreaking havoc on Earth’s ecology and spurring catastrophic destruction on a global scale. It’s the sort of thing that prompts a last-ditch mission for a ragtag crew of astronauts, who must rocket off to stop the Moon somehow.
Here is what Moonfall actually is. (Spoilers ahead. Seriously.) It’s a science fiction film about how the Moon is actually hollow, a vessel from our interstellar ancestors, which is under assault by an alien threat in the form of a sentient cloud of nanoparticles. The Moon and this artificial intelligence are the last remnants of an interstellar war, and Earth just happens to be in the crossfire.
Emmerich has made a name for himself as one of the last great disaster-movie kings. The genre that made him famous, via movies like Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, has fallen out of favor, as cinematic destruction has largely become the purview of superhero films. Moonfall is a throwback to that sort of spectacle, but it’s one that makes a terrible case for the genre’s return. Which is a shame, because Moonfall is a killer title/premise combo, the kind of cinematic cheese that makes blockbuster-lovers perk up at the sheer lunacy (sorry) of it all.
Moonfall follows a familiar formula. An overlooked quack — this time, K.C. Houseman (Game of Thrones’ John Bradley), a conspiracy theorist who works as a janitor at a research university — suspects something is wrong with the Moon’s orbit. Meanwhile, disgraced astronaut Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson) knows something is off with the Moon after a mission gone awry, but the authorities refuse to believe him, and blame him instead. When it becomes obvious that the Moon is off, K.C. tells the world in order to spur NASA into action. As the situation becomes increasingly hopeless, the only people left to save the planet are K.C., Brian, and his former partner Jo Fowler (Halle Berry) who launch a desperate, ill-advised mission to the Moon.
But Moonfall’s script buries its lede, committing the storyteller’s sin of not opening with the most interesting stuff first. Instead, the film spends its first half on Brian’s fractured family, his troubled son, his wife’s asshole new husband, that sort of thing. These digressions continue to be a distraction throughout, as Harper’s family is the Earthbound half of Moonfall, the eyes through which we see the tides overwhelm dry land and skyscrapers uprooted by the Moon’s gravity. Unfortunately for the audience, the devastation is only a small part of the cast’s struggle. Most of their concerns are more mundane compared to the alien shenanigans in orbit, like thieves and avalanches. And The cast’s performances — even from Wilson, who always fully commits to his roles — cannot make much of a script that feels algorithmic.
This kind of drudgery is more or less expected in an Emmerich film, and it’s tolerable if there are some good fireworks in store in the latter half of the film, where the “disaster” part of “disaster movie” becomes the star. Moonfall fumbles this mechanic, both on Earth — as great moments of wonky Inception-style physics are passed over far too quickly, and the dread of a giant Moon on the horizon never feels real — and in outer space, when K.C., Brian, and Jo finally get inside the Moon and learn it’s a spaceship under assault from a malevolent artificial intelligence.
It cannot be stressed how underwhelming this bananas revelation is. Someone hearing this premise described at a bar might think “Oh, that’s kinda cool.” And you know what? It is kinda cool. As a premise, “the Moon is hollow” is within spitting distance of “the Moon is haunted,” a top 10 setup if there ever was one. Whatever that idea conjures, though? It’s all much more interesting than Moonfall. Play a video game instead. Fucked Up Moons as a trope is one of the few areas where games have movies absolutely beat. Consider:
Usually, film critics evoke similarities with video games in a derogatory way, as a means of describing a work that prioritizes special effects over stakes. Moonfall, however, might have been more pleasing were it more like a video game, ditching most of the human cast that drags the film down, and focusing on its ragtag crew on a Moon that’s stranger than we expected. In fact, if Moonfall replaced every character with Halo’s Master Chief, it might have been easier to get behind.
Moonfall debuts in theaters on Feb. 3.