The joke of Netflix’s recent “Don’t Look Up” is that scientists discover a meteor headed straight for Earth, and even with six months to plan, humanity is too skeptical and disorganized to prevent it. Meanwhile, in Roland Emmerich’s latest eye-roller, “Moonfall,” the joke is pretty much flipped: Everybody’s favorite satellite is set to collide with Earth in, oh, a day or so, and that’s just enough time for two space jockeys to suit up, shuttle out and set things right.
I say “joke” because “Moonfall” is designed to elicit incredulous laughter as its ludicrous plot snowballs from a high-concept hypothetical question (what if the moon suddenly changed course and came crashing toward Earth?) to increasingly implausible complications on the theme, all while requiring Halle Berry, as NASA acting director Jocinda Fowl, to keep a straight face as she says things like “Everything we thought we knew about the nature of the universe has just gone out the window!” Like gravity, logic and how we define good acting.
Sure, “Moonfall” is all kinds of stupid, but it’s a heckuva lot funnier than Adam McKay’s all-star satire. I had a blast, and would gladly saddle up for a second viewing.
As Hollywood’s leading disaster artist, Emmerich knows how to blow things up real good. Science has rarely stood in his way, and this time around, it serves as a rickety jump ramp to all the really kooky twists that he and his “Moonfall” co-writers Harald Kloser (“2012”) and Spenser Cohen (“Expendables 4”) have up their sleeves for the film’s back half. You deserve to discover those for yourself, though there are two that feel safe to discuss in a review, since the first is teased in the opening scene and the other is gleefully disclosed in the film’s trailer.
The movie begins with Jocinda in the cockpit of an old-school orbiter, while fellow astronaut — and “work husband” — Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson) performs some routine maintenance on a satellite. All of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere, an ominous CG cloud engulfs the mission and sends a third colleague spinning off into deep space. We’ve seen this scene before, minus the horde of menacing something-or-others, when Alfonso Cuarón cut George Clooney loose in “Gravity.” But the addition will feature prominently as the film’s faceless but highly entertaining antagonist, and this is as good a tease as any, wrapping with a shot in which a swarm of these mystery space-locusts spin tornado-like around a hole in the moon.
This introductory mission, which gets Brian booted from NASA and permanently grounds the Space Shuttle program, is labeled STS-136A in the film. For those who were keeping count in real life, the last such flight was actually STS-135, which suggests a clever bit of revisionist history. Better still: There will be an emergency STS-137, and it’ll call for one of those orbiters to be taken out of mothballs and launched — something most Americans have been dying to see — when that angry moon-swarm turns its attention Earthward 10 years later.
By that time, Jocinda has moved up the chain at NASA, whereas Brian is divorced (from his non-work wife) and on the verge of being evicted. He lives in Los Angeles, a short motorcycle ride from Griffith Observatory, which Emmerich uses the way Hitchcock did landmarks like the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore: Audiences get a kick from seeing familiar locations on screen, even if they’re being obliterated (the way the director destroyed the White House and the Empire State Building in “Independence Day” a quarter-century ago). At the observatory, Brian meets super-geek conspiracy theorist and amateur space nut KC Houseman (“Game of Thrones” actor John Bradley), who has somehow figured out that the moon is off its orbit.
KC believes that the moon is a “megastructure” — which is to say, it’s a hollow sphere constructed for some purpose the measly human brain can only begin to imagine. The “Moonfall” trailer confirms that KC is right, although you’ll surely get more enjoyment discovering how and why Emmerich and company deem this to be so directly from the film. (You may also appreciate its more vulgar riff on the “Screw the Moon” sentiment teased in the ads.) Borrowing liberally from “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the more apocalyptic entries in his own filmography (namely, “The Day After Tomorrow” and “2012”), the director proceeds to depict the mayhem that might ensue if the moon really did go rogue (rising tides, shifting gravity and something called “atmospheric disparition,” whereby the “air is sucked away”).
Here, we might reasonably expect the film to rely somewhat on actual science. Granted, some portion of the audience will surely judge “Moonfall’s” effectiveness on how plausible it all feels, although I’m rather happy to report that Emmerich doesn’t pay such considerations much mind. By this point in his career, he knows that disaster movie audiences are more interested in seeing things fall apart, so he throws out a few theoretical ideas as little more than formalities. At one point, the rocket scientists mention the “Roche limit,” or the distance at which any approaching body — including the moon — would be ripped apart by the Earth’s stronger force of gravity. That could be fun to witness. But what if the moon were far more massive than we realized and its approach wound up attracting anything that wasn’t anchored down on Earth?
A certain goofiness goes a long way in this genre. Experience has shown Emmerich that what we really want is a handful of colorful heroes (hidden figure Berry, Marlboro man Wilson and pill-popping mama’s boy Bradley more than suffice), some laughably imperiled supporting characters/pets (the aforementioned mama, two kids and a cat named Fuzz Aldrin) and then as many scenes of cataclysmic spectacle as possible. The farther removed it all is from our real-world fears, the better. Last time I checked, a sum total of zero people were actually worried about the moon smashing into the earth someday — not with the coronavirus, inflation and Wordle to distract us — which means a just-silly-enough movie like “Moonfall” serves up a rare comfort: a monster crisis that could be identified and averted in the span of two hours.
It’s basically the opposite of “Don’t Look Up,” which chastens audiences for not reacting to threats in the right way. If that movie was McKay’s answer to Michael Bay’s relatively jingoistic “Armageddon,” in which a core team of blue-collar “get ’er done” types manage to avert an asteroid, then Emmerich responds with an even goofier fantasy, one in which a motley trio can join up, save the planet and explain the origin of the species in the span of one day (although time can be a bit hard to follow here). In this case, the bad moon does just enough damage to delight — the effects are unbelievable, of course, but undeniably impressive, holding up even at Imax scale — while pushing the plot to such extremes that we can’t take it seriously. You’d think we’d tire of Emmerich’s brand of disaster, but instead, it provides a strange kind of relief.