‘Moonshot’ Review: Lana Condor and Cole Sprouse Lead a Sweet Rom-Com that Asks if There’s Love on Mars

A penniless stowaway meets an uptight rich girl aboard a spaceship to Mars in this retro-futuristic YA throwback to classic rom-coms.
Cole Sprouse and Lana Condor in Moonshot

If nothing else, Christopher Winterbaeur’s charming (if misleadingly named) “Moonshot” proves that even the most cliched rom-com tropes on Earth can feel kinda new again if you re-stage them on Mars. Or, for that matter, on a ritzy passenger rocket ship as it makes the 35-day trip from the East Coast to the Red Planet in the year 2049. That’s where most of this modest but well-realized HBO Max original takes place, as its star-crossed tale about a rich girl named Sophie (Lana Condor) and penniless stowaway Walt (Cole Sprouse), who sneaks into her heart, as they’re largely confined to a cabin they’re forced to share for 55 million miles.

She’s a studious astrophysics major whose very long-distance boyfriend (Mason Gooding) doesn’t seem to care that his perfect match is afraid of flying. He’s a floppy-haired dreamer who can’t afford the $937,000 space ticket, but feels so destined for a great adventure that he sneaks aboard a shuttle in pursuit of his crush, Ginny (Emily Rudd). At heart, it’s a story you’ve seen countless times before — often told on a much larger scale. And yet it’s amazing how far you can go on the strength of some evocative production design, a few clever dashes of sci-fi world-building, and a goofy script that isn’t afraid to err closer to “Pillow Talk” than to “Before Sunrise.” Maybe even all the way to Mars.

And nobody has ever wanted to go there more than Walt — not Brad Pitt in “Ad Astra,” not Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Total Recall,” not even Grimes in… the life of Grimes. It’s all that he talks about. Even his robot boss at the coffee shop where he works is sick of hearing the kid go on and on about his fantasy of living on an infernal death planet eight feet away from the sun. Walt’s only problem — besides being poor — is that he personifies what someone coins as “extraordinary mediocrity.”

It’s an apt description for a handsome dork with a dream; someone whose symmetrical face and wellspring of enthusiasm don’t make it any easier for him to find his place on Earth, or earn a spot on the Mars student program (which is funded by a Musk-like trillionaire played by Zach Braff). When Walt meets Ginny at a party, he’s not even smart enough to realize that the “very big trip” she’s taking the next day has something to do with the massive rocket-ship parked outside his dorm window.

Sophie, on the other hand, is smart as can be, but she refuses to color outside the lines. She’s mapped out her whole future with her longtime boyfriend Calvin — a very nice guy who nevertheless prioritizes his personal ambitions over his partner’s happiness — and she doesn’t know how to process the news that his one-year stint on Mars has just ballooned into something much longer. And you thought that “quantum splicing” magically fixed all of those interstellar dating woes! For those of you unfamiliar with this movie’s enjoyably fast and loose approach to science, quantum splicing is “Moonshot” talk for poking a hole through the space-time continuum in order to facilitate instantaneous FaceTime calls between planets, and it will soon become such a headache for screenwriter Max Taxe that he simply finds an excuse to break every character’s phone.

Other contrivances are similarly more amusing than frustrating. You can text during liftoff aboard a spaceship as it blasts off the planet? You can’t even text during takeoff aboard a Southwest Airlines flight that’s wheezing its way out of Reno! And how is it that gate security has somehow gotten less restrictive in the age of interplanetary travel? But such are the  wrinkles you’d hope to find in a smart but unfussed movie that takes its young characters’ dreams more seriously than it does any of their attendant details; a movie that’s bright and glossy vision of tomorrow is defined by colorful jumpsuits, iMac-like mood lighting, and simple punctuations of CGI in the distance.

Walt blackmails Sophie into sneaking him aboard her Virgin Galactic–looking flight to Mars, and the rest of “Moonshot” is all spry vibes and decidedly old-fashioned chemistry as our two leads pretend to couple up for the sake of appearances. None of the dialogue is particularly memorable, but Condor and Sprouse embrace their roles so earnestly that you can’t help but go along for the ride as they snipe at each other (with kid gloves on), generate some very PG heat from the socioeconomic friction between them, and grow closer through the magic power of montages.

Those montages, futuristic as they are, also help to underline Winterbaeur and Taxe’s appreciably classic approach to this story. A dramatic spacewalk notwithstanding, most of the trip is adorably quaint in its adherence to basic rom-com conventions. When Walt and Sophie aren’t trying to fool the ship’s sassy captain (Michelle Buteau), they can be seen fumbling through yoga classes and getting tangled up in the lies they tell — many to their fellow passengers, some to each other, and one crucially to themselves.

At a time when attention spans have been whittled down to the nub, and most streaming fare is paced at light speed in a desperate bid to stop people from looking at their phones, it’s delightful when something as fluffy and gossamer thin as “Moonshot” abides by the more traditional rhythms of its genre. Of course Sophie and Walt are going to realize that love is the greatest adventure of all, and yet the movie never forces the issue. Even the far-fetched third act does what it can to earn its sudden reversals and dramatic life choices, and that integrity results in a very, very high-concept rom-com that gets the job done because of its respect for the genre’s most basic pleasures.

“Most people aren’t special,” Walt’s roommate (Lukas Gage) warns him before Walt travels across the cosmos to see about a girl, “but memories are special.” The rest of the movie embodies that idea to a tee. For all of its “We obviously shot this on an Atlanta soundstage while the crew of ‘Black Panther 2’ was on their lunch break” energy, “Moonshot” owns its moral that planets are only as exciting as the other people who live on it.

Grade: B-

“Moonshot” is now streaming on HBO Max.

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