MOONFALL: Roland Emmerich Makes A Semi-Triumphant Return to the Disaster Genre

Patrick Wilson channeling his inner George Clooney, but hoping for a better result.

Some men, we’ve been told, like to see the world burn. Others, however, like filmmaker Roland Emmerich (2012, The Day After Tomorrow, Stargate), the once and future master of disaster, have made a veritable meal, not to mention a career, out of seeing the world burn, freeze, and otherwise explode/implode on screen, thanks, of course, to the best or second-best CGI a movie studio’s money can buy. If not always profitable for said movie studios, it certainly has been for Emmerich in world-destroying mode, beginning with Independence Day in 1996 and ending, at least for now, with Emmerich’s latest contribution to the genre he’s made his own, Moonfall, a typically absurd, logic- and gravity-defying excursion into another “What if…?” scenario (i.e., an unstable, destabilized moon falling, crashing into the Earth, causing mass panic and destruction as a result).

In an effects-laden prologue that takes the audience back to an alternate timeline, astronauts Jocinda Fowl (Halle Berry) and Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson), encounter what looks like an angry mechanical swarm as they try to repair a satellite in Earth orbit. They survive, but Harper, facing government suppression of a possible alien contact/intelligence, loses both his livelihood and reputation while Jo, unconscious for key moments of the failed mission and thus incapable of supporting Harper’s wild, seemingly unsubstantiated story, advances rapidly through the ranks of NASA’s administration, ending as assistant/deputy administrator ten years later.

Maybe standing underneath an about-to-fire rocket(s) isn’t a good idea.

For Harper, those intervening ten years have been the opposite of positive. They’ve left him divorced, penniless, and father to a brooding, unhappy teen, Sonny (Charlie Plummer), with anger issues, impulse control problems, and a seemingly unquenchable need for speed. A not-so-chance encounter with KC Houseman (John Bradley), a part-time janitor and full-time conspiracy theorist and self-described “megastructuralist.” Houseman’s sketchy background and lack of academic credentials initially cause Harper to hesitate, but once credible information leaks onto social media and mainstream news sources that the moon’s orbit has somehow destabilized, ushering in a three-week countdown to an extinction level event (EVE) and the end of the world as we know it. No one, of course, feels fine (nor should they).

While the world spirals into panic mode and chunks of the moon cause the kind of widespread mass destruction Emmerich dreams about on a nightly basis, NASA under Fowl’s leadership springs into action. Through a series of convoluted, eyebrow-raising, ultimately risible events too tiresome to relate here, Fowl, Harper, and Houseman end up an old-school space shuttle headed for the disintegrating moon. Moonfall’s central trio are aided in their endeavor by the latest in Chinese rocket technology. (Chinese funds helped to finance Moonfall.) A less-than-engaging parallel story follows Sonny, Jo’s preteen son, Jimmy (Zayn Maloney), his nanny, Michelle (Kelly Yu), and Harper’s ex, Brenda (Carolina Bartczak), and her new, immediate family, as they try to dodge falling rocks, gravity reversals, and atmospheric disturbances, and make to a relatively safe, underground bunker.

One of Moonfall’s many arresting visual images.

For all of the usual Emmerichisms found in Moonfall (thinly written/stock characters, banal-bordering-on-hilarious dialogue, ludicrous plot turns), no one’s ever accused Emmerich of being original, at least not story or idea wise. The same applies to Moonfall. Drawing on sources as disparate in terms of quality and originality, starting with, as usual, When Worlds Collide, continuing on through 2001: A Space Odyssey and ending more-or-less with Mission to Mars, adding a bucketful of wild, undigested conspiracy/speculative theories (e.g., megastructures), and letting his visual effects team fill in the rest. By the third act, Emmerich and his co-conspirators all but give up integrating ideas into the plot and settle for an extended exposition-laden scene that all but copies a similar scene from Contact (minus the emotional weight or poignancy).

In the right frame of mind and/or perspective, it’s all good. Emmerich over-delivers everything the logline, poster, and trailer promised: Big-scale, disaster-action filmmaking that practically explodes from the edges of the screen. If there’s anything that can be described as disappointing, it’s in the wobbly, inconsistent CGI, especially the Earth-bound scenes which over-rely on obvious, often shoddy green-screen work. Too often, characters look like they’ve been pasted into under-rendered backgrounds (the Sonny-related scenes especially), in turn taking audiences out of individual moments with too much frequency.

Thankfully, though, the space- and moon-set scenes fare significantly better. The effects reach higher levels of quality, the results more impressive. Given the settings and ideas Emmerich and his co-conspirators throw at the audience with abandon, they’re among the more believable scenes found in Emmerich’s oeuvre. For some, that should be enough to leave them more satisfied than not with Emmerich’s latest.

Moonfall opens in multiplexes on Friday, February 4th.

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