“Moonfall,” Roland Emmerich’s latest exercise in fantasy destruction, is the second major movie to come out recently in which a huge space body is hurtling toward Earth and risks destroying all human life. In the other, “Don’t Look Up,” the menace is a comet, but the real story is the corruption of American politics and culture that prevents a rational response and leads to catastrophe. Whether the comet represents climate change (as the makers of “Don’t Look Up” assert) or the COVID-19 pandemic (as fits the movie best), the celestial body is nonetheless only a MacGuffin, a pretext to expose the human follies that are the movie’s subject. But, in “Moonfall,” Emmerich is interested—really, really interested—in the moon. His obvious enthusiasm for the gloriously absurd science-fiction reconception of the moon drives the directorial pleasure principle, and it’s infectious. The movie’s vision of the organization of government and society is comedically flip, its sense of dramatic motivation is caveman-crude, and its vision of catastrophe is blitheringly casual. But its fantasy vision of the moon’s hidden realities is among the most wondrous, bright-eyed, and childlike inspirations in recent science-fiction movies.
Of course, the narrative path to reach the film’s spectacular batch of late-breaking set pieces crosses cinematic footbridges held together with chewing gum—the story’s wide-ranging connections hold up only as long as no pressure is brought to bear on them. The action starts in 2011 with what proves to be backstory: a space-station repair that turns disastrous when a barrage of space debris hits the vessel. In the aftermath, one astronaut, Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson), is wrongly charged with misconduct and loses his job, his home, and his family, as well as his friendship with his mission partner, Jocinda Fowler (Halle Berry), whose testimony is unfairly used against him. Now, in 2021, Brian struggles to pay his rent while working occasionally as a tour guide at the Griffith Observatory (a classic movie location, notably in “Rebel Without a Cause”). There, he encounters an obsessive would-be astronaut: Casey Houseman (John Bradley), an autodidact rocket scientist, who calculates that the moon has left its orbit and is veering catastrophically toward Earth. (His report is trending on Twitter.) NASA seems to have noticed, too, and sends up a manned vessel, which meets a disastrous end. But Jo, who is now a high NASA official, intuits that the problem with the moon has been triggered by electronic devices, and that the only way to fight back is to land a vessel there with no computer guidance. The only person ever to have done so successfully is, yes, Brian. So they pair up again, and, because they need someone on hand to do the math, they bring the nerdy, ingenious Casey along, too.
Emmerich and his co-writers, Harald Kloser and Spenser Cohen, add a bunch of clichéd family dramas to the blend. Brian’s eighteen-year-old son, Sonny (Charlie Plummer), is jailed for car theft days before the space mission; he broke bad after the remarriage of his mother, Brenda (Carolina Bartczak), to a rich businessman named Tom Lopez (Michael Peña), who spoiled him. Jo’s ex-husband, Doug Davidson (Eme Ikwuakor), is a high-ranking Army officer who intends to redirect the moon with nukes, thereby putting life on Earth—and the life of their young son, Jimmy (Zayn Maloney)—at risk. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking: as the moon moves closer to Earth, looming so large in the sky that one can’t not look up, and the heroic trio undertake their mission, chaos reigns. Social order in cities breaks down, tidal waves burst over shorelines and render coastal regions uninhabitable, the government orders the mass evacuation of their population to inland states (without a word about the enormous practicalities of doing so), the globe is afflicted with devastating earthquakes and pelted with huge fiery moon rocks, and unprecedented winds snap skyscrapers and scatter the debris over thousands of miles. (The World Trade Center tower holds up—it’s the movie’s “our flag was still there” moment.) Brian’s and Jo’s families make their way to Doug’s military compound in Colorado while facing down highway robbers. Meanwhile, the Earth’s oxygen supply dwindles.
As if to represent the despotic dictum that the death of one person is a tragedy but the death of millions is a mere statistic, the movie dispatches cities in astonishing panoramic views, as casually as sand castles washing away or Lego towers snapping. Where there are people, they’re either image-bites on news broadcasts or sources of comedy (facing traffic jams as an old-school spaceship is trucked through the street). Brian’s desperation to get Sonny out of jail as tidal waves loom is unmatched by any sense of the fate of the incarcerated whose parents aren’t astronauts. The pressure on the movie’s narrative footbridges belies an ethical and political feebleness as well as a dramatic one. And yet . . .
Casey’s nudnik ingenuity yields the insight that the moon is hollow; he has long harbored this theory, and has assembled a small circle of apparent crackpots who agree. Calling himself a “megastructurist,” he has been shouting into the wind that the moon’s power comes from a white-dwarf star at its center that harbors the unsounded secrets of the universe. Spoiler alert: this is where the movie gets its own jolt of power. For starters, the dreadful contemplation of showers of metallic-bead goo spewing from a hole on the surface of the moon and forming tentacular monsters of deadly dexterity is both ludicrous and eerie—what is in there? Eventually, our three heroes get inside and see; the spectacular construction of those inner worlds is reason enough to see the movie. What’s inside is big, very big, and complex, very complex; yet it’s also spare and stark enough to suggest the handiwork of forces or creatures whose technological vision is matched by vast powers of physical construction. I virtually heard Emmerich saying “wow” in front of his own C.G.I. and found myself saying it along with him.
The script delivers a lot of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo to explain the mighty scheme at its core: the elaborate explanation of the cosmic significance of megastructures may sound like megabullshit, but it’s grandly alluring. As the heroes’ mission advances, they discover nothing less than what Casey calls “the building blocks of the universe.” These involve a primordial conflict, aliens, A.I., and the creation of the human species, and they’re brought to the screen with audaciously flimsy versions of key moments from the Stargate sequence in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” If there’s something Biblical about the chthonic rhetoric in “Moonfall,” its basis is Kubrick. Yet the effect is of no mere homage nor even of facile imitation; rather, it feels like a work of overwhelmingly earnest and playfully proud discipleship, a comic-book version of classical sources that retains the whiz-bang, gee-whiz frivolity of what makes comic books fun in the first place. The best parts of “Moonfall” feel like a sharp and cogent reproach to the corporate stolidity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and other superhero-franchise movies. The ridiculous proves occasionally sublime.