It’s not much of a hot take to say that director Roland Emmerich’s continual attempts to return to the disaster movie genre after 1996’s Independence Day have produced diminishing returns. But it’s tough to imagine a cinematic apocalypse that’s less epic than Moonfall, in which even the film’s characters can’t be bothered to care about the imminent destruction of the Earth.
To a large extent, Moonfall is what it says on the tin; the moon suddenly changes its orbit and starts heading towards Earth. Somehow, lunar conspiracy theorist K.C. Houseman (Game of Thrones’ John Bradley) figures this out slightly before the entirety of NASA, and tracks down disgraced ex-astronaut Brian Harper (Aquaman’s Patrick Wilson), who in turns tracks down his non-disgraced former astronaut partner Jo Fowler (John Wick: Chapter 3’s Halle Berry) to try figure what s going on and how to stop it. This being an Emmerich film, there’s also an almost completely separate subplot involving Brian and Jo’s kids in an attempt to (sigh) outrun the moon that doesn’t amount to anything.
The joy of watching these sorts of popcorn-shilling movie blockbusters is that they’re so dumb, fun, and loud that your brain’s synapses stop firing so you can just revel in the spectacle of it. Moonfall has stupidity in abundance, but it forgot to be loud or fun. To fully explain why, we’ll need to get into spoilers (which I can’t imagine you care about), so…
The first problem is that for an epic disaster movie, Moonfall feels strangely small. The main story is laser-focused on the trio of Houseman, Fowler, and Harper, which somehow keeps the film feeling small and intimate even when they’re soaring through the vast expanse of space. They’re constantly together, which inhibits the sense of scale that the movie presumably wants to project. Even the disaster portion of Moonfall feels weirdly muted; the shots of the moon’s effects raising havoc with the earth’s environment, or debris from the moon raining destruction down, are way too few and far between. The action in space only involved the CG robot nonsense seen in the movie’s trailers and opening scene, which have no impact whatsoever (pun not intended). The best, craziest moments all involve the kids, who undercut what’s on-screen by 1) not having personalities and 2) being completely unfazed that the moon is destroying the planet.
Honestly, the same is true of Harper and Fowler. I’ve been trying to think of how to describe them, and all I can come up with is that Harper kind of has a chip on his shoulder because he saw the alien gunk a decade ago and no one believed him, and Fowler is a little bossy but also she’s a NASA commander? Without any depth, it’s hard to care whether the moon murders them or not, especially when they don’t care.
Let me explain: Humanity is about to go extinct, and the two main heroes of the movie act like it’s a carbomb in an empty parking lot across town. When Fowler tells Harper he’s the only person who can fly a space shuttle to the moon before it crashes because the ship needs to land without power (don’t worry about it), he says, and I quote, “I don’t know. I’ve got a lot of my own problems down on Earth.” When the shuttle loses one of its three engines before launch, Fowler immediately gives up and sends the entirety of NASA home despite the fact they’re literally the only chance at humanity’s survival. It’s why Fowler, Harper, and Houseman end up handling the mission all by themselves after the conspiracy theorist/scientist figures out a way to use the moon’s gravity as a booster.
To the extent that Moonfall works at all, it’s because of John Bradley’s performance as Houseman. Although he’s first presented as a somewhat unhinged conspiracy theorist, there’s no off-putting QAnon-type nonsense, and since his moon theories end up being correct, it’s fine. He also has the unenviable task of presenting the movie’s multitude of science talk, such that it is. But somehow he still manages to be the heart and soul of the otherwise deceased movie. Houseman isn’t a particularly rich character, but Bradley manages to convey his elation at his theories being vindicated, his terror at going into space, and his wonder at what he finds at the moon. He’s the only human in a world of cardboard cut-outs.
Apparently, Moonfall has been a bit of a passion project that Roland Emmerich has been working on for several years, eventually securing enough funding to make it one of the largest, most expensive independent films of all time. Somehow, none of that passion made it on-screen. If even he can’t muster up the enthusiasm to properly have the moon fall on Earth, why on Earth would you?