“I always used conspiracy theories because, not that I really believe in them in any way, it’s more like it’s kind of the lure of it… There is like endless stuff about the moon. So, in that respect, it was so strange for me that we got supported by NASA. I have no clue why they’re doing this. Honest to God. I have no inkling of an idea why they did this, but obviously, they need it.”
—Roland Emmerich to Collider
MOONFALL is the most recent picture from director Roland Emmerich (UNIVERSAL SOLDIER), now available on video. It uses pretty much the same character tropes, broad cliches, annoying humor and preposterous approach to plotting that made him briefly an A-list director after (for reasons I still have not been able to discern) people liked those things in INDEPENDENCE DAY. That was a long time ago, and for quite a few years now the public has been less accepting of Emmerich’s product. By now all the destruction in his movies is computer generated, and we’ve seen every single thing everywhere digitally destroyed many times over, so the novelty has worn off. But somehow I’ve grown to get more of a kick out of his wildly ridiculous movies because they seem much more charming now that everybody agrees they’re just some puzzling bullshit that Hollywood made for some reason and not the current state of the art for blockbuster filmmaking.
In other words, this was by far the dumbest shit I’ve seen in a while, so I enjoyed it.
Patrick Wilson stars as grizzled ex-astronaut Brian Harper, who’s behind on his rent, wears a leather jacket and drives a motorcycle. He is straight up referred to as “disgraced” in the news because on a Space Shuttle Endeavour mission ten years ago another astronaut was killed by shiny black animated stuff from the moon and when NASA guys interviewed him about it in a very small and unimpressive office afterwards they said he was lying. The pilot, Jocinda Fowler (Halle Berry, THE FLINTSTONES) was unconscious at the time, so she fails to back him up and gets promoted to deputy director.
(This is kind of a reverse of INTERSTELLAR’s portrayal of NASA as a rebellious underground organization – here they’re a sinister agency ruining lives to cover up moon secrets.)
As in INDEPENDENCE DAY, 2012 and probly other Emmerich movies there’s a wacky conspiracy theory character and the joke is ha ha he believes this wacky stuff while the character drama is he’s an underdog because everyone laughs at him but he’s the one who’s right. Emmerich is still stuck in the ‘90s so this guy has Weekly World News type tabloids about gay aliens collaged on his wall. Also he’s an outside-the-box scientific and mathematical genius but at one point invokes the name of apartheid era diamond mine inheritor/internet troll Elon Musk as if he thinks he’s Albert Einstein. Anyway, the character is named KC Houseman, he’s played by John Bradley (Game of Thrones), and he looks like Kevin Smith but acts like James Corden. I was not surprised to read that Josh Gad was originally cast in this role.
KC believes (correctly, we will learn) that the moon is actually a “megastructure” built by aliens. Also he does some kind of calculations to prove that the moon is out of orbit. For some reason NASA won’t take some random guy’s calls about the moon being out of orbit, so he ambushes Brian when he’s supposed to speak to a small group of children at a space museum. Brian doesn’t believe him either so he’s pretty surprised when his phone suddenly says “News alert: Moon out of orbit.”
Jocinda already knew about it because some other group had separately figured it out. (Which makes KC kind of a redundant character at this point.) One of my favorite details is that when they get her to come in the caller ID on her phone just says “NASA.” You know – the main number for NASA. She butts heads with her boss (Stephen Bogaert, IT) but after the out-of-orbit moon causes tsunamis that they can see destroying the city out a giant window he says, “You’ve always been gunning for my job, right? It’s yours,” and peaces out. So I guess she’s the head of NASA now.
Brian has a son named Sonny (Charlie Plummer, SPONTANEOUS) who when he was little saw him so rarely he’d watch a video of a news story about him being disgraced to remember him. Now he’s a troublemaker who’s in jail when the disaster movie shit goes down. His rich stepdad Tom (Michael Peña, THE MULE) takes the rest of the family to shelter in Aspen, so it’s up to deadbeat dad to go save him.
That’s why when Jocinda calls him in as the only person who can pilot a last ditch Space Shuttle mission to ARMAGEDDON the evil moonjism he looks out the window at the world being destroyed and says, “I have problems of my own, you know.” You gotta wonder if Wilson knew what they were gonna green screen in front of him or if he’s just that good.
Which brings me to one of the things that made me enjoy this movie. Wilson and Berry are both giving it better, straighter performances than it deserves. I love watching a professional job like that. It makes it more fun. They treat it very seriously even when it’s cornball shit like her boss saying “You work for me!” and her saying, “No – I work for the American people. And you’re keeping them in the dark!”
Also to give it a little boost in the middle they have a guest appearance by Donald Sutherland (SPACE COWBOYS) as a weirdo records keeper who casually reveals a cover-up dating back to Apollo 11 and then promptly, it’s implied, commits suicide off screen.
I got a chuckle from the two times the Space Shuttle is brought up and someone says that they don’t have any Space Shuttles, they’re all in museums, because each time you know that means they’re gonna steal a Space Shuttle from a museum. Since society is mid-collapse when they do it, the Shuttle has been covered in graffiti and says “Fuck the moon” on the side of it. Minor nitpick: I wish Jocinda didn’t point out that it’s weird they didn’t paint over it before launch. I prefer this stuff without a wink.
As you can imagine, they for some reason bring conspiracy guy KC with them for planning and then to the moon. Nobody seems concerned that our national (or really global) defense strategy is being improvised by a lady who’s not officially in charge but has the previous NASA director’s security badge, a supposedly disgraced astronaut who doesn’t want to be involved and an annoying civilian whose qualifications are unknown to anybody. This movie’s version of the famous presidential speech in INDEPENDENCE DAY is when Jocinda tells everybody else at the base to go ahead and leave.
Of course there’s all kinds of other characters and disaster movie subplots going on. Jocinda has to cooperate with her ex-husband (Eme Ikwuakor, CONCUSSION), not just because they have a kid together, but because he’s Chief of Staff to the Air Force. Brian’s son Sonny tries to get Jocinda’s son Jimmy (Zayn Maloney) and exchange student Michelle (singer Kelly Yu) – who I was disappointed to realize was not her wife – to a military bunker in Colorado (coincidentally [?] where his family went to also?). Things have already gotten to post-apocalyptic-wasteland level human behavior so they keep getting attacked on the road by the same group of redneck bandits, and there’s a kind of fucked up thing where Sonny stopping them with a gun he got from his dad seems to represent a parenting victory over the stepdad who has actually spent more time with him.
In classic Emmerich fashion, the movie paints the stepdad as a piece of shit that Brian has to prove he’s better than, but then the stepdad heroically sacrifices himself. KC, being the equivalent to Randy Quaid in INDEPENDENCE DAY, also dies heroically, supposedly proving his worth to the world that considered him a loser.
Before that it’s like when they flew into the mothership in INDEPENDENCE DAY, but they fly into the moon, and KC nerds out to see a white dwarf and stuff. They learn that the moon was created by technologically advanced ancient humans, but has been attacked by rogue artificial intelligence. As ugly as I think the alien designs are in INDEPENDENCE DAY they are obviously better villains than some animated shiny black stuff that’s kinda like Venom before it wraps around Tom Hardy and becomes interesting.
Some of the spectacle is fun: huge boats and trucks and stuff flying through the air to smash into things, the Shuttle launching through giant waves that destroy the base, I don’t remember what else. In my notes I wrote “mounting moon terror,” which I believe was a chyron seen on a TV. Love me some mounting moon terror.
The screenplay, which Emmerich co-wrote with Harald Kloser (composer of ALIEN VS. PREDATOR!?) and Spenser Cohen (EXPENDABLES 4), was inspired by a 2007 conspiracy theory book about “the hollow moon hypothesis,” which purports that 1) the moon is hollow and 2) some other guy besides Shakespeare wrote his plays. Or maybe just the first one. This seems exactly like every other Emmerich screenplay, but the way it’s edited the rhythm – or lack thereof – is different. It’s 130 minutes but it made me wonder if it started out much longer and then had every bit of connective material cut. It just seems like it rushes through each beat without taking the breaths between that will make them make sense. To name a tiny example, stepdad Tom rejects a suggestion and then says “I have an idea.” There clearly should be a moment after the rejection where he thinks they’re at a dead end but suddenly the idea comes to him and then he says he has an idea. In MOONFALL you never get those moments in between, so the whole movie feels like a Wikipedia plot summary. Which makes it all even goofier.
According to the actual Wikipedia, MOONFALL is “one of the most expensive independent films ever produced,” with most of its money coming from Chinese producers, and then about equal from Lionsgate and a German company. (So forgive me for giving Hollywood the credit in the first paragraph.) It does not seem to have been a good financial investment, due to some combination of audience disinterest, Covid-19, winter storms in the midwest and going up against JACKASS FOREVER. Oh, and the sinister NASA agency trying to stop the truth from getting out about the moonjism. So I thank those financiers for losing money on our entertainment.
The ending does seem to promise further adventures of an AI duplicate of KC, and sure enough Emmerich has talked up a trilogy with an EMPIRE STRIKES BACK style cliffhanger on part 2. I don’t know if the moon would’ve fallen again or if it would’ve been different things the moon can do like MOONSMASH, MOONPUNCH, MOONLEAVE, etc. Could’ve been a total moonfuck.