When we talk about great accomplishments in acting, the conversation usually turns to feats of physical transformation or wrenching psychological deep dives — your Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, your Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice. But it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate the work of Halle Berry and Patrick Wilson in Moonfall, which will never get lauded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences or enshrined in the annals of the arts but requires its own sort of actorly dedication. Throughout the movie, Berry and Wilson deliver lines about how the moon is going to smash into the Earth with the solemn dedication of performers in a revival of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. I’m particularly partial to an exchange in which Wilson, who plays a disgraced astronaut named Brian Harper, is summoned by Berry’s character, Jocinda Fowler, who was once his colleague, has since become the director of NASA, and wants to send him on a last-ditch mission to save the world. Still smarting from what he sees as a betrayal a decade earlier, he turns away, claiming he has enough problems here on the ground. “And the moon falling in pieces onto the Earth isn’t one of them?” she retorts, without even a hint of laughter.
Or at least, I’m pretty sure that’s how the line went. I was a little busy chortling with glee at the time to get it down right away. Moonfall, which comes from disaster-movie king Roland Emmerich, is an astoundingly stupid movie in the best possible way, which is to say that no one involved gives any indication that they’ve noticed how batshit the premise is. That premise, by the way, involves the moon suddenly dropping out of orbit and spiraling closer and closer, but it also involves ancient aliens, nanobot swarms, and the natural satellite we took for granted actually being a hollow megastructure filled with advanced technology. Some of that may count as a spoiler, but it’s hard to say — it’s not like things advance with any kind of internal logic in Moonfall. Anything is possible! A climactic action sequence involves a high-speed chase through the Rocky Mountains while the gravitational pull of the moon yanks vehicles and buildings into the air around them. Someone’s phone rings in the middle of the night, and the caller ID reads simply “NASA.” Characters regularly stop to have arguments about their relationships with their stepdads or to deliver heartfelt monologues about how they always felt like professional disappointments while, in the background, giant tidal waves loom or the atmosphere threatens to get sucked away by a lunar body filling the sky.
There is always time for hackneyed personal drama in Moonfall, which may be its most deranged quality of all. It’s a more convincing depiction of humanity’s inability to get its shit together in order to save itself than Don’t Look Up. Turns out NASA retired its Space Shuttle program in 2011, so the characters are forced to jury-rig their way off the planet. To add insult to injury, they learn the agency actually had a plan to address the extraterrestrial threat years ago, but it was defunded bybudget cuts and covered up. Brian and Jocinda are left to team up with an Elon Musk–worshiping conspiracy theorist named K.C. Houseman (Game of Thrones’ John Bradley) in a race to stop the moon before Jocinda’s Department of Defense higher-up ex-husband, Doug (Eme Ikwuakor), shoots nukes (oh yes) at it. Meanwhile, Brian’s ex, Brenda (Carolina Bartczak) — NASA is apparently rough on marriages — flees with her new husband, Tom (Michael Peña, a bright spot), to Aspen, where the family becomes a stand-in for the rest of decimated humanity, who are constantly fleeing in accordance with last-minute evacuation orders, as though there were any place to evacuate to when the issue is a lunar collision.
Time has a way of softening everything and making us maudlin, and I don’t want to go overboard in praising Roland Emmerich, who has made some mainstay blockbusters as well as some incredible dreck over the years. But there’s something bittersweet about seeing someone who used to be the center of big, dumb Hollywood entertainment get pushed to the side for the new and mostly worse. Moonfall remixes elements from Emmerich’s past hits — there’s some Stargate in its mythology, some Independence Day in its final act, some The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 in its sequences showing the ocean rushing onto the West Coast, all reminders that mass destruction has always been the filmmaker’s specialty and he’s better at it than most. There’s also an exchange student played by Kelly Yu, the sort of blatantly extraneous role that prompted Chinese message-board users to coin the term “flower vases.” As with Emmerich’s last film, the World War II movie Midway, the funding for Moonfall was raised independently, with a not-insignificant chunk of the $146 million budget coming from Huayi Brothers. American studios, it seems, are no longer betting on Emmerich or the breed of non-superheroic spectacles with which he made his name. And while that’s hardly news, to watch Moonfall is to understand that this is a shame, because it’s so unapologetically absurd and so very fun.
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