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Roland Emmerich destroys the world again with “Moonfall,” but this time his heart just isn’t in it. The German nihilist blockbuster filmmaker, who has rarely met a conspiracy theory he didn’t like, has become the "master of disaster" with films like "Independence Day," and his own global warming epic, “The Day After Tomorrow.” But while his film “2012” in particular was overwhelming in its passion for turning mass death into a roller coaster thrill ride with two kids in the backseat, here is "Moonfall," which proves a boring apocalypse movie is worse than one fixated on how we are all doomed.
“Moonfall” depicts the horror that would unfold if the moon were to go out of orbit and crash into the earth. Before that big bump, Earth’s gravity would be progressively out of wack, while the moon would dump debris as it gets closer. For good measure, Emmerich throws in a “Transformers”-type edge to the hare-brained science about why this could be happening, but that too comes with a bland imagination and execution. Don’t be confused, this movie has more worth as a comparison to Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia,” about a massive planet crashing into Earth, than a decent piece of entertainment.
The American military decide that the moon, well, they gotta nuke it. But there’s something else going on with the moon—something inside it—and it’s ultimately up to three smart people to stop the moon from destroying earth, including a disgraced astronaut Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson), a courageous head of NASA and Brian’s fellow astronaut partner Jocinda Fowl (Halle Berry), and a conspiracy theorist named KC (John Bradley) who has long thought that the moon was a megastructure. KC finds out about this change of course and leaks it to the media, with NASA equating that there are only about three weeks left. They take off in a shuttle with eventually no crew on the ground, and it doesn't feel triumphant so much as the film trying to minimize its cast numbers.
All three of our heroes have their personal connections that make for ho-hum on-the-ground drama: there’s Brian and his troublesome son Sonny (Charlie Plummer) and his ex-wife and their two girls; Jocinda and her son and her ex-husband and the foreign exchange student she makes babysit her kid (Kelly Yu); KC and his mother and his cat, Fuzz Aldrin (given an amazing close-up).
Co-written with Harald Kloser and Spencer Cohen, “Moonfall” is a lumbering, long locomotive of one cliche attached to another, making time pass slowly even though there is so much juggling of these different one-dimensional relationships. The human stories are gratuitous themselves instead of involving us, so telegraphed in the drama of their characters. This is how a stepfather and angsty son reunite midway through the movie: “I don’t hate you.” “You know what? I’ll take it.”
“Moonfall” suffers from other more consciously cut corners, suggesting a budget that could only include so much destruction (his previous film, "Midway," was more successful at looking less phony with similar constructs). It’s so obvious that the film's version of Colorado is a sound stage with one tiny snowy road for numerous shots; you can see how cramped the actors are, and specifically hear the contempt in Charlie Plummer’s line-reading. Working with smaller resources than his previous blockbusters, “Moonfall” constantly seems constrained by its unsubtle reliance on green screens, and the immense labor of its visual effects crews. Emmerich's blockbuster vision has come full circle: he might have inspired countless direct-to-video disaster movies with titles like “2012: Doomsday,” but now he’s made a movie that’s just as visually junky and is not inspired to be more.
A transparent and self-amusing filmmaker, Emmerich’s sense of humanity can be found in who gives the spirited performances and who does not. In this case, it’s only KC who gets the exclamation points, to scream about how the moon is a megastructure, and eventually his awe in being proven right. (For a movie that comes in the era of Elon Musk and Space X flights, KC gets to says “I love Elon.”) But everyone else deals in periods when their experience is an exclamation point: you’ve never heard someone minimize “Oh shit, the moon is rising” until you've seen "Moonfall." It used to be weird how much Emmerich’s nihilism wanted to show destruction, now he is bored with humanity. Even reliable forces like Wilson and Berry cannot sell what little drama the story has.
Sometimes the film’s lackadaisical sense about the end of the world can be laugh-out-loud; notice any time that something devastating happens in the background of a shot, and how the characters in the foreground barely react to it. “Moonfall” rarely makes room for the usual interludes of destruction from previous Emmerich films; who thought we’d ever miss them this much, or his obligatory destruction of the White House. The film practically forgets that it’s dealing with an apocalypse, that all of humanity is stake. To be fair, there is a “gravity wave” in the middle of the film, lifting carriers and tankers and bodies of water throwing them around California, and it’s an impressive feat by the visual effects artists. But the apocalypse should not feel this lifeless.
At least we have the crackpot stuff, which shows Emmerich really flexing his wackier muscles in the third act, with an explanation about the moon that is worthy of its own History Channel series. If you’re going to invest time and money into “Moonfall,” it’s what you have earned. And it’s clearly the idea that Emmerich cares about the most with this self-assignment, as he treats it with immense seriousness and dedication, halting the whole human factor thing in the process. For fellow admirers of when filmmakers air out their zaniest passions using massive movie stars and zeros and ones, it might be amusing. The rest of "Moonfall" is a wash; it isn't even a fun-dumb movie about the end of the world.
Now playing in theaters.
Halle Berry as Jo Fowler
Patrick Wilson as Brian Harper
John Bradley as K.C. Houseman
Michael Peña as Tom Lopez
Charlie Plummer as Sonny Harper
Donald Sutherland as Holdenfield
Eme Ikwuakor as Doug Davidson