Moonfall review: No Independence Day, but it sure is a lot of movie – CNET

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Patrick Wilson is Astronaut Action Figure in Moonfall.

Reiner Bajo

Moonfall is a sci-fi disaster movie following a ragtag band of astronauts, conspiracy cranks and kids who must band together to save the world because the moon has turned against us.

What’s the silliest moment in Moonfall? Without getting too much into spoilers, it could be the opening scene where the filmmakers can’t think of anything to do with Oscar winner and action superstar Halle Berry, so they just knock her out. It could be the product placement where a character engages a Lexus NX’s sports mode to outrun gravity. It could be the bit where someone says “The moon is coming for us!” and they don’t mean generally, or figuratively — they literally mean the actual moon is coming over the horizon to attack them.

And yet for most of its running time Moonfall isn’t silly enough. Director Roland Emmerich is best known for his quintessentially ’90s alien invasion flick Independence Day, and Moonfall is a clear attempt to recapture that magic. Independence Day was utterly absurd, but packed with so many iconic moments, charming characters and striking visuals it transcended the derivative plot. Most importantly, everyone took it seriously — even the silliness.

Especially the silliness.

By contrast, the first half of Moonfall is so listless, so half-hearted, that instead of rolling your eyes at the copious absurdities you find yourself yearning for something really ludicrous to happen.

The opening scene rips off Gravity wholesale. The character backstory consists of not one but two divorces (both boring). The disaster movie element sees the world go to hell in a handcart expressed almost entirely through the least convincing news reports ever half-assed together. 

Still, stick with it and Moonfall eventually leans into the lunar looniness. As the moon threatens Earth, the by-the-numbers carnage familiar from a thousand other global disaster films is replaced by novel set pieces filled with chaos that’s unique to this concept, like gravity going haywire. By the end, the filmmakers have thrown their hands in the air and jammed in every wacky sci-fi theory they can think of, like an entire DVD library of Star Trek, Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica mashed into a space capsule and blasted into orbit (with only one engine working, obvs). Against all odds, by the end I was sucked into Moonfall’s orbit.

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John Bradley steals the show in Moonfall.

Reiner Bajo

As for characters, at no point in Moonfall do you see anything but actors playing their roles. For most of the cast, that means putting on a uniform, yelling their one line and then disappearing. Those who stick around a bit longer look like they just read the script and haven’t yet decided if they actually want to be in this movie. Charlie Plummer in particular delivers a performance bordering on dead-eyed hostility, like a fast food worker who’s just been made to start a double shift.

The glorious exception is John Bradley, who played Samwise or something in Game of Thrones. Bradley grabs the daftness with both hands, taking the Jeff Goldblum quirky scientist role from Independence Day and injecting desperately needed enthusiasm into the most leaden scenes.

At least in the lead role, a jacked and stubbly Patrick Wilson gives it his all as the Poseable Astronaut Action Figure. His smoldering energy always stays an inch away from a smirk, like that bit in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood when Leonardo DiCaprio’s washed-up movie star Rick Dalton throws himself into quickie Italian action movies. Meanwhile Halle Berry brings a steely touch of class as she takes charge of NASA and digs up conspiracy theories, although her thankless role mainly involves chivvying the manly hero into saving the world instead of her, for no discernible reason other than he has a motorbike and she doesn’t.

The thing is, from the square-jawed astronauts to the redneck looters, the people in the film aren’t people. They’re Movie Characters, little more than cardboard cutouts delivering lines copied and pasted from past films. And halfway through the film I began to wonder if this was the key to unlocking the mystery of Moonfall. Perhaps it isn’t a dumb B-movie, but a pitch-perfect subversion of Hollywood spectacle.

Moonfall looks like a big-budget, effects-driven Hollywood blockbuster — but it also kind of doesn’t. Just as the feted French new wave of the 1950s was inspired by a reverence for American noir films, Moonfall is an updated version of ’50s B-movies, ’70s conspiracy thrillers and disaster movies, all fed back into the Hollywood machine. It’s a bit like a spaghetti Western, or one of those French comics featuring American heroes: Sure, it’s set in America, but not the actual America, or even the actual real planet Earth. It’s set in movie-America, Hollywoodland, a fantasy realm where men are men, bad guys are bad and cars blow up when you shoot them. The world of Moonfall is a place populated by studly astronauts so rugged you can hear their spurs jingling in space. It’s a world where the pencilnecks back at base only drag the real heroes down. It’s a world where being an alcoholic absentee father is OK, actually, because that untamable energy will save the frickin’ world.

Maybe I’m reading too much into the fact that director Roland Emmerich is German, but it’s tempting to see Moonfall as an outsider’s view of Hollywood. Compare Independence Day to the similar astronauts-versus-asteroid flick Armageddon, directed by Michael Bay: When gung-ho speeches and star-spangled jingoism are presented by an actual American like Bay, it hits different. Roland Emmerich’s films are equally as ridiculous as Bay’s over-the-top oeuvre, but afford the sliver of a possibility that Moonfall could be some kind of arch meta-comment on the excesses and artifice of the Hollywood zeitgeist.

Or maybe it’s just the dumbest movie ever. Can’t wait for the sequel!

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