When news broke that Roland Emmerich, director of beloved blockbuster disaster films such as Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 (which, yes, belongs in the same category as the other two), was slated to direct a film about humanity facing off with the literal Moon, I knew we were in for something special. And while I’m not saying that Emmerich plus apocalyptic disasters is necessarily a proven mathematical equation for success, it’s pretty darn close. Moonfall follows K. C. (John Bradley), a megastructure conspiracy theorist/the-moon-is-actually-hollow-truther who makes the shocking discovery that our beloved Moon has fallen out of orbit. When the news reaches NASA, scientist Jocinda (Halle Berry) recruits her estranged friend, disgraced astronaut Brian (Patrick Wilson), to travel into space and figure out what the heck is going on up there.
And “What the heck is going on up there?” turns out to be the question of the century. Is the whole thing a government conspiracy? Are we talking aliens? Monsters? Should we nuke the moon? These are all tantalizing questions, to say the least. And the hard truth of the matter is that Moonfall has such an exhilarating, high-concept premise that, were it to falter under the weight of itself and fail to deliver two hours of content that could live up to its tagline, that would only make sense (see also: the Purge franchise). But if there’s anything we know about Emmerich, it’s that he is not willing to accept any such defeat.
Of course, upholding such a consistent level of high-stakes entertainment means leaning into a particular kind of bombast and suspension-of-disbelief. A realistic movie about the Moon falling out of orbit would be a very short one. So when Jocinda gets a phone call from “NASA,” or simply…opens a damning file on a non-password-protected super-super-secret government computer, you really have no choice but to just lean into that as a viewer. You also, unfortunately, have to tolerate the film’s by-the-book emotional edge, which includes moments like a floppy-haired little boy dejectedly saying “Dad’s not coming, is he?” And of course, no disaster movie would be complete without a good wife-leaning-against-the-bedroom-door-frame-looking-wistfully-at-her-child scene.
If you can find it within yourself to overlook these things, then you’re pretty much guaranteed a good time. Simply put: Moonfall has all of the right things going for it. For starters, its leading trio is a cast of underdogs: Brian was fired from NASA ten years prior following a failed mission and is now scruffy and on the edge of eviction; no one will listen to Jocinda’s brilliant Moon-taming ideas; and K. C. is the underdoggiest of underdogs, a self-proclaimed sad-sack who is only listened to by his cat Fuzz Aldrin.
Not only are the film’s protagonists underdogs, they’re really likable ones, too, a lot of which has to do with the meteor showers of charisma the leads bring to their roles. (Let’s also take this as a sign to continue making blockbusters where the actors actually have chemistry, people!) Wilson confronts the potential end of the world with a subtlety reminiscent of Bruce Willis in Armageddon: He’s tormented but not brooding, disheveled but not hopeless, brave but not a martyr. But it’s Berry who steals the show. She’s a total camera-magnet, wearing her heart on her sleeve with a vibrancy that is impossible to tear your eyes away from. The only performance that is a little shaky to start is Bradley’s, who comes in hot by plastering on distracting, slapstick comedy-esque expressions, which are jarring in comparison to his quietly nuanced co-stars. He redeems himself in the third act, though, when his comic relief metamorphoses into sentimentality and effectively pulls on our heart strings. He is funny, too, but Berry outshines him there. At one point, Brian tells Jocinda he has his own problems, to which she responds: “And the Moon falling on Earth isn’t one of them?” Her delivery here is nothing short of masterful.
In addition to boasting a worthy leading trio, Moonfall has all of the suspense you would hope for in a movie where it turns out that the Moon is not what we think it is. What the screenplay, co-written by Emmerich, Harald Kloser and Spenser Cohen, lacks in believable dialogue it makes up for in pacing. The speed with which information is revealed is enough to keep the audience engaged every step of the way. First, something mysterious is happening out in space, then it turns out that the Moon isn’t what it seems and then it turns out that the Moon really isn’t what it seems.
In the third act, the suspense is conveyed largely through the editing. Emmerich cuts back and forth between two race-against-the-clock scenarios, one in space and one on earth, peeling us away from each as soon as an adrenaline-amplifying cliffhangers loom on the horizon. A large part of why this cutting technique successfully provides such a sense of tension in the first place is that Moonfall looks real. Like in The Day After Tomorrow, you can actually imagine these apocalyptic events taking place. Recently, blockbusters have had a habit of, despite having an excessive amount of money poured into them, looking like they were rushed on a green screen over the course of a couple of days. (Red Notice, I’m looking at you.) But Moonfall doesn’t have that problem. When the Moon rises ominously over Earth, it is glowing, textural and full of life. When meteors shower over a cityscape, we can almost feel their sharp vibrations. Even simple shots of our protagonists’ faces are lit with the utmost care, so it feels like we’re witnessing a very human event. This makes it so, when a car leaps hundreds of feet in the air, or a rocket ship dodges an aggressive rock with a mind of its own, we don’t automatically imagine a computer programming that movement.
The most satisfying part of Moonfall, then (besides it being a movie that’s brave enough to ask the question we’ve all been dying to know the answer for: “What if the Moon was bad?”), is that Emmerich had the courage to breathe life back into the big action blockbuster. In a world full of soulless, self-conscious CGI-rampant action flicks and superhero movies that seem like they were made by robots, Emmerich seems to really care about this movie. And that’s a trend I can get behind.
Director: Roland Emmerich
Writers: Roland Emmerich, Harald Kloser, Spenser Cohen
Stars: Halle Berry, Patrick Wilson, Charlie Plummer, Michael Peña, John Bradley, Donald Sutherland
Release Date: February 4, 2022
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.