Roland Emmerich's newest science fiction disaster movie "Moonfall" hit the theaters just some days after Lunar New Year but it was just on time.
Over the past few decades, this director's love for apocalyptic bombast ("Independence Day," "The Day After Tomorrow," "2012") has been a reliable source of headaches, exasperation and, yes, a little dubious entertainment value.
None of that has changed, but the times certainly have, and in an era of global pestilence and heightened geopolitical turmoil, Emmerich's doomsday visions offer a strange and generally welcome comfort. Walls of water toppling cities? Hellfire raining down from the heavens? A few families sadistically ripped apart while millions of others die horrible off-screen deaths? It's all so quaint, so reassuring, so 2019.
If the cataclysms look familiar, this time they have nothing to do with climate change, alien invaders or the Mayan calendar. No, it's the moon, the blasted moon, which, having quietly circled the Earth for almost 5 billion years, has decided to undergo a fateful orbital shift. Now she's breaking apart, raining large chunks of space debris on Earth and wreaking gravitational havoc.
Mile-high tsunamis ensue, and before long the moon will pull our poor defenseless planet into a fiery embrace. I suspect that the science behind some of these developments is less than 100% sound, though Emmerich and his co-writers have cooked up some reasonably convincing explanations: "The hole is in the Mare Crisium!" "Everything we thought we knew about the nature of the universe has just gone out the window!" My favorite: "The sands in the hourglass are dropping quickly!"
These and other lines are bandied about, with admirably straight faces, by a pair of NASA astronauts named Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson) and Jocinda Fowler (Halle Berry). We first meet them on a routine space mission in 2011, when their shuttle is attacked by what looks like a massive killer-bee swarm originating from beneath the moon's surface. A third astronaut dies in the onslaught and Harper is blamed and drummed out of NASA in disgrace, no one having apparently believed his story or heeded his warning. Ten years later, as water levels rise and moon chunks fall, Fowler and the now-vindicated Harper must rejoin forces and save the world from imminent, terrifying and highly photogenic destruction.
They can't do it alone, of course. With no help forthcoming from NASA, it falls to KC Houseman, an astronomy enthusiast and lunar conspiracy theorist played by John Bradley with all the cuddly insecurity he brought to the role of Sam on "Game of Thrones." Chief among Houseman's notions is that the moon, far from being just a giant lump of rock, is actually a "mega-structure," a product of highly intelligent and intricate design (which would differentiate it greatly from the screenplay for "Moonfall"). Houseman isn't the only one here throwing out comic relief and cosmic beliefs: A sinister Donald Sutherland emerges briefly from the shadows to cast doubt on aspects of the 1969 moon landing, though he stops short of invoking Stanley Kubrick.
"Moonfall," for the most part, tries to do the same, even if one of its many subplots, concerning the nefariousness of artificial intelligence, suggests that even the most boneheaded science-fiction movies can't escape the shadow of "2001." But as it blasts into space – cue the strikingly topsy-turvy image of a shuttle struggling to rise amid cascading water – the increasingly, entertainingly ludicrous story seems to draw as much inspiration from "Gravity," "Prometheus," "The Terminator" and "Mission to Mars," to say nothing of Emmerich's own past space operas like "Independence Day" and "Stargate." The characters' inevitable journey (possibly an "Armageddon"-style suicide mission) into the moon's core sends the story in an outlandish, otherworldly direction, half-ridiculous and half-sublime, that you almost wish it would commit to entirely.
Alas, that's not the Emmerich-an way. He cares too much about our planet to let its destruction become an afterthought, and so he keeps cutting – or falling – to Earth. I should note that Earth in this case means Aspen, Colorado, where our heroes' various friends and family members (played by Charlie Plummer, Kelly Reilly, Michael Peña and other fine actors who will never again be this uninteresting) find themselves running – but sadly, not skiing – for their lives. After a while, their ordeal starts to feel less like the end of the world and more like an especially sadistic boot camp: They must survive blizzards, giant fireballs, falling birds, falling trees, armed thugs, dodgy CGI, lunar radiation, oxygen depletion, car chases and nuclear warheads. Still, they're having more fun than the thousands we learn have perished in floods in Bangladesh (though you will scan the credits in vain for any Bangladeshi characters of note).
"Moonfall" is stupid, in other words, but I don't mind admitting that it feels, at this point in time, like my kind of stupidity. Certainly it's refreshing to see an end-of-the-world movie in which the characters aren't just cluelessly hashtagging their way to oblivion the way they do in "Don't Look Up," another recent movie about humanity's impending extinction. That film seemed to think it was critiquing public apathy toward climate change, like a "Day After Tomorrow" denuded of thrills and presented in allegorical code. "Moonfall," to its credit, harbors no illusions about being useful. I don't know about mega-structures, but this particular moon is made of purest B-movie cheese.