Opinion

Moonfall is a vintage big-ticket disaster movie, for better and worse

They do, in fact, make 'em like they used to

Any new movie about the end of the world should have a shortcut to chilling relevance. Even allowing that the global COVID-19 pandemic has more closely resembled Steven Soderbergh's Contagion than Roland Emmerich's Independence Day, disparate movies about global disasters often share some common DNA. Cultural fears about a possible apocalypse (or near-apocalypse) loom over brainy and brain-dead thrillers alike.

Yet Moonfall, the latest apocalyptic disaster movie from Emmerich, feels more like popcorn escapism than ever — albeit a batch that may be well past its sell-by date. Maybe it's because the premise comes across as an obvious parody: The moon has slipped out of orbit and now menaces the Earth, and a handful of scrappy astronauts may be all that stands in the way of the planet's oblivion.

It sounds like the hottest summer-movie ticket … of the year 2000. Even its stars, Patrick Wilson and Halle Berry, could have easily done a movie like this two decades earlier. But the Moonfall of 2022 has one big difference from those millennial flicks: It isn't a tentpole at one of the remaining big-five studios. It's a Lionsgate release, financed in part with Chinese money, coming out in the doldrums of February.

Moonfall may well turn out to be a hit in the U.S., but mainlining this particular form of '90s-style spectacle during an ongoing pandemic has its discomfiting moments. The fudged death tolls of these disaster movies, where a handful of "important" characters die as unspecified mass carnage unfolds in the background, has lost its pitiless zip, and a favorite Emmerich character type, the lovable conspiracy-monger whose nutty theories turn out to be correct (played here by John Bradley), now leaves a sour aftertaste. (It was more fun back when filmmakers were simply capitalizing on The X-Files, rather than validating people who are genuinely dangerous to themselves and others.)

Obviously viewers can and should separate movies from real life. Moonfall is emphatically not the latter — but at times, its shlockiness becomes as distracting as its vindication of fringe viewpoints. The comforting corniness of those Independence Day scenes that introduce the obligatory ensemble of disaster-movie archetypes have been shortened, mercifully, and mangled, mercilessly. Detail after detail feels spectacularly off, even by B-movie standards. The disgraced astronaut, played by Wilson, shows up late to lead a seemingly teacherless class of children, held in the middle of a museum. (It looks like a field trip, but they're all sitting at desks?) Wilson's teenage son gets into a high-speed police chase of confusing origin. (Why is it televised?!) A separate comic-relief conspiracy theorist hollers out "Oswald did it!" (Has Emmerich looked up a single popular JFK-assassination conspiracy theory?)

Emmerich seems in a hurry to get to what he thinks of as the good stuff, which has remained fairly consistent over the years. He's still fond of people improbably driving a car through crumbling roadways and across impossible gaps, as his characters did in 2012 and the American Godzilla remake. He seems less interested in leveling national monuments, perhaps because he has run out of them. Instead, Moonfall has something else going for it that helps mitigate its fleeting resemblance to real-life virus-borne and climate-change disasters: the terrible, menacing beauty of the moon visibly bearing down on the horizon.

When Earth's newfound proximity to the moon creates destructive "gravity waves," or when the movie expounds upon the moon's secret status as a "megastructure" rather than a natural satellite, Moonfall does manage to reach a state of blissful stupidity, blessed with a budget for big-canvas sci-fi imagery. To his credit, Emmerich works in a bunch of circa-2000 reference points beyond his own repertoire. Moonfall has moments that recall obvious sci-fi influences like The Matrix as well as his one-time competitors like Michael Bay's Armageddon and half-forgotten curiosities like Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars.

Like a lot of nostalgia bait, it doesn't quite have the sui generis boldness of what it's ripping off (including when what it's ripping off was itself pretty derivative). This is a copy of a copy of an apocalypse — and there were times where I nonetheless felt weirdly grateful to be experiencing it, in all of its dunderheaded glory. Even its most blatantly contemporary touches — like the way it teases a sequel, just as Emmerich's would-be franchise-restarter Independence Day: Resurgence did — have a charm that's at once daft and surprisingly disposable for a $120 million megastructure of its own.

In some ways, Moonfall simply reflects a different sort of landscape decimated by massive quasi-celestial objects: the wannabe special-effects blockbusters that, back in the time of Independence Day, were mostly confined to the prime summer months. In other words, when every (or at least every other) big-studio movie is marketed as a world-ending event, nothing is. No wonder Moonfall feels so disconnected from our real-life brushes with the apocalypse. For better or worse, perpetual summer has turned endemic.

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