Even by the standards of an independently financed $146 million Roland Emmerich movie about the Moon falling onto the Earth, “Moonfall” (solid title!) is still breathtakingly stupid. Every line is stupid. Every reveal is stupid. Every inference that conspiracy theorists could save us all if only people would listen to what they have to say is stupid — not stupid as opposed to being serious, but stupid in lieu of being smart. That slight yet pivotal distinction epitomizes the sheer joylessness of Emmerich’s latest mega-slog, which betrays the dumb fun promised by its marketing campaign in favor of a po-faced interplanetary pileup that unfolds less like a B-movie spectacle with a NASA-worthy budget than it does a blockbuster remake of “Melancholia” as directed by Elon Musk. The result is a blockbuster as big and hollow as the Moon itself; one small step for bland, one giant leap for bland-kind.
Of course, critics have long accused Emmerich of lowering the bar with his destructive brand of blockbuster schlock, and if the world keeps getting worse at its current rate, I suppose it’s possible that people might eventually look back at “Moonfall” with the same “we don’t know how good we had it” wistfulness that fills my heart every time I watch Randy Quaid fly his little plane up the butthole of that massive alien warship. But the Master of Disaster’s post-“Independence Day” decline has been well-documented over the last two decades, and his latest attempt at reclaiming the multiplex real estate that Tony Stark stole from under his feet is just a different flavor of the same desperation that brought us “Independence Day: Resurgence” in 2016.
Emmerich has struggled to retain his foothold at a time when special effects are no longer special — a time when people don’t need to go to the movies to see our planet on fire, the sight of one Spider-Man catching another’s Mary Jane is more likely to blow someone’s mind than a spaceship casting a shadow over half of Manhattan, and Hieronymus is no longer the most recognizable Bosch. Keeping up with the times may not seem like a challenge for someone who’s always been so comfortable using special effects, but the current ecosystem has proven inhospitable to a “classical” artist whose only superpower is painting biblical frescos with cutting-edge technology. Where his efforts to combine ancient grandeur and contemporary flair were once forward-thinking (“The Day After Tomorrow”) or light on their toes (“White House Down”), Emmerich’s recent work has strained for relevance in ways that ring as hollow as the Moon itself.
After failing to make waves with an unwatchable legacy sequel to his biggest hit, Emmerich now pivots to an original project that bridges the gap between the birth of mankind and the death of human intelligence in a last-ditch attempt to galvanize modern audiences back towards his outmoded kind of spectacle. Much as I hesitate to use the word “logical” in the context of reviewing “Moonfall,” the movie is a logical next step for a filmmaker who’s always gone out of his way to validate conspiracy theorists (from Quaid’s character in “Independence Day” to the basic premises of “2012” and his “Shakespeare wasn’t real” thriller “Anonymous”). Here, at the end of his rope, he finally says the quiet part out loud and positions an “independently minded” YouTuber as the only person smart enough to notice that the Moon has slipped out of its orbit.
Before we get the pleasure of meeting K.C. Houseman (played by “Game of Thrones” alum John Bradley in a performance that screams “I replaced Josh Gad at the last minute” with every tired laugh-line), we first have to acquaint ourselves with astronauts Jocinda Fowler (Halle Berry) and her work husband Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson), whose relationship provides the emotional core of the movie even though it’s almost entirely defined by their slight disagreement over the lyrics to Toto’s “Africa.”
Something goes wrong during a satellite repair mission in 2021— Jocinda is knocked unconscious by a swarm of nanobots that only Brian is able to see heading towards their ship — and their red shirt colleague becomes the first victim of the mysterious entity that will threaten everyone on Earth some 11 years later. In the meantime, Jocinda becomes the deputy director of NASA, while Brian’s life spirals out of control. Everyone blames him for what happened up there, and no one believes his tale about the metal space monster that vanished without a trace. Every hot and unemployed dad in Los Angeles has the same goddamn sob story.
Fortunately for Brian, some people are still willing to do their own research. That’s what K.C. is up to when the part-time university janitor and full-time “megastructuralist” uses his access to get the latest moon data from a secret government server, because no information could possibly be more confidential than, um, the current distance between the Earth and the Moon. But on this fateful night, it turns out that the Moon is actually spiraling towards us for some reason, a fact confirmed for Jocinda when “NASA” — the name that pops up on her caller ID — rings her up at 3am. When all of NASA calls, you know it’s important.
For a hot minute, the film’s unhurried pacing seems to suggest that Emmerich might be taking his time and trying to make us invest in his characters before the Moon begins to fall on them. In another film, that table-setting might be a welcome throwback. In a film co-written by Emmerich, composer Harald Kloser, and newcomer Spenser Cohen (whose previous credits include a 2013 TV special called “Macklemore’s Big Surprise”), every dialogue scene is so clunky and cliched that even the most accomplished members of the cast are made to sound like actors in a commercial for final expense life insurance (the people lowest on the call sheet manage to acquit themselves well enough, but Charlie Plummer’s slurred performance as Brian’s wayward son makes his character even more of a chore than he is already, while Kelly Yu’s presence as a foreign-exchange student living in Jocinda’s house is clearly one of the conditions that were put in writing before China’s Huayi Brothers agreed to from $40 million of the budget).
Mercifully, “Moonfall” seems to abandon any pretense of creating believable human characters, as the Earth’s gravity suddenly begins to shift — everyone in the movie naturally receives an alert on their phones that the Moon has been dislodged from its orbit — and things begin to fall apart pretty fast. It isn’t long before “Los Angeles” is submerged in a flood of fake-looking computer water, a suicidal Donald Sutherland rolls onto screen for a paranoid exposition dump about all the things “we haven’t been told” about the 1969 Moon landing, and K.C. is joining Brian and Jocinda on an interstellar voyage made possible by “our friends at SpaceX” and the good people of the Chinese government.
Everyone stuck on Earth is forced to scramble for shelter beneath the digital mountains of Colorado (which, like so many of the backdrops in this film, serve as a hideous reminder of what happens when people try to create awe with the same technology used to make screensavers), and woe to any of those poor souls who aren’t lucky enough to find themselves behind the wheel of a Lexus. After a certain point, it’s hard to tell if “Moonfall” is a narrative film gone wrong or a money-laundering operation gone right.
Devoid of engaging setpieces, believable characters, or even the slightest hint of self-awareness, “Moonfall” is only sustained by the mystery of what’s really going in with (and inside) the Moon, though the fact that virtually every single one of K.C.’s crackpot theories turns out to be true has a way of sapping the suspense. Even worse is the perversity with which Emmerich keeps punting the answers further down the field, as he constantly cuts away from the core trio’s mission to the center of the Moon in order to keep tabs on Michael Peña’s “The Last of Us” cosplay back on Earth.
Nothing invests you in a scene about scavengers fighting over gas station supplies like the awareness that — at that very same moment — some of the film’s other characters are learning the most fundamental secrets about the origin of life on Earth. “Everything we thought we knew about the nature of the universe has just gone out the window,” Berry intones at one point. And by the time “Moonfall” arrives at its lazily tossed off final moments, it’s clear that we’re never getting that knowledge back.
Lionsgate will release “Moonfall” in theaters on Friday, February 4.