1/10 If the frequent Qanon-related kidnappings and other stupid acts of violence are suddenly all being committed in the all-new Lexus NX, the only vehicle rugged and agile enough to get you through the coming storm, Moonfall will definitely be the reason why.
In Moonfall, the new Qanon power fantasy from writer/director/producer/”master of disaster” Roland Emmerich, the moon begins to fall toward Earth, causing several problems. UC Berkeley janitor K.C. Houseman (John Bradley), a prominent “megastructurist” who believes the moon is a hollow, artificial structure, is the only one who notices that –
Well – the moon’s descending orbit is such that it’s barely noticeable for more than a decade, apparently even for Houseman, but then is all of a sudden three weeks from impact. It’s a movie, the math doesn’t have to work out. But, and this is the point, it creates a dynamic where the whacko who obsessively watches the moon for evidence of it being hollow notices just a few hours before NASA, and thus all his other assumptions must also be confirmed and the magical mathematics of his delusion become mission-critical.
UC Berkeley janitor K.C. Houseman, a prominent “megastructurist” who believes the moon is a hollow, artificial structure, must team up with disgraced astronaut Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson), who witnessed the inciting incident with the Transformers CGI monster 10 years ago, to get together with his old partner Jocinda Fowler (Halle Berry), who’s now running NASA, and pilot a mission to the moon.
Moonfall is very, very bad, and very technically bad. From a movie trading on the name of Emmerich, still famous for perfecting exactly this type of sci-fi spectacle in 1996’s Independence Day, you would expect at least a high degree of technical competence, but in reality, Independence Day is a blip on his career. Most of his movies look ugly as sin, and Moonfall may be the worst yet.
Every frame of this $140 million behemoth smacks of cheapness. Robby Baumgartner’s cinematography is nonsense, Adam Wolfe’s and Ryan Stevens Harris’ editing is offensively bad, most of the disasters’ results look like stock smoke effects plugged in as an afterthought, the sights and sounds of the moon’s interior are all snatched haphazardly from better movies and the sets, when there are sets, are either vacant or appear to have been shot as they were found. At its best, Moonfall feels like a guerilla high school movie, because the only scenes that aren’t filled with terrible CGI take place in the type of spaces a committed high schooler could get access to, like a hotel or museum lobby or your buddy’s dad’s office. One scene takes place in the alley behind Harper’s house.
The lowlight has to be the vacant lot in which they set up to launch, a crossroads in which several scenes take place. It would have cost maybe four figures to just go out to an air strip and scatter some props around, but this set is created entirely with green screen, and it’s some of the worst rear-projection work I’ve ever seen. It’s 2022, and this set of a large parking lot with some military equipment reminds me of the iconic Skull Island rear-screen work from the original King Kong, because that’s how convincing it is. It’s such an inexcusably poor and wasteful execution of such a mundane set that it instantly comes to symbolize the production as a whole.
Most of the dialogue is a nonsense stream of non sequiturs that seems to have been cobbled together in post-production from a screenplay that wasn’t given much thought by Emmerich or co-writers Harald Kloser and Spenser Cohen. The really important parts are there, like name-dropping the sponsors and the specific conspiracy theories that play into the plot and spelling out character arcs for the viewer – Moonfall is one of those movies where you can pinpoint the exact moments when writers glanced back at Joseph Campbell for reference on how to give every character a complete, tidy three-act arc, even if it only consists of three total lines – but most conversations don’t flow together. Characters talk past, not to each other. There are still plenty of moronic little moments of coherence, though, like when Harper is visibly surprised to learn that his 18-year-old son is a legal adult.
All of the movie’s flaws and rushing and the apparent lack of care from anyone making it coalesce into the launch scene, when our heroes must rush to get off the ground as a monstrous tsunami approaches the launch site – they built the launch pad right next to the present shoreline despite knowing full well what the moon was doing to the tides for reasons that aren’t explored. This scene, brimming with potential for dramatic visuals of a wall of water looming over the historic symbol of human ingenuity and triumph over nature, our capacity to both escape this dying planet and to avert its fate, what should be an extended sequence of our characters racing against time starting from when they first notice the waters recede, is instead a clipshow of the sequence it could have been. Characters seem unaware of what’s going on, not noticing the waters have rushed away and pausing to admire the launch apparently without seeing the tsunami it’s framed within.
These types of flaws are, at this point, traditional for disaster movies. As the movie market has globalized, more and more movies are made to be distributed to worldwide audiences. This means subject matter that has truly worldwide appeal, and try as Disney might, Chinese or Croatian or Congolese moviegoers just aren’t going to respond to Superman and Toy Story sequels the same way American viewers who have been watching those cartoons since infancy will. The only thing that has truly universal appeal, that translates into every language and captures the anxieties of every culture, are the types of massive disasters in movies like Moonfall. The disaster movie genre also lends itself to international viewership by typically featuring a wide, multi-racial cast of protagonists, each of whom can be emphasized in different parts of the world by different edits.
So, the common practice is to dump resources into big disaster scenes then shoot enough material to essentially put several different movies together for different markets, though the primary concerns are American and Chinese, the quality of which is much less important than the disaster sizzle-reel that gets butts into seats. Moonfall is in line with this, with Chinese pop star Kelly Yu lurking in the background as Michelle, the foreign exchange student taking care of Fowler’s son through the disaster, and Huayi Brothers and Tencent Pictures logos at the front of the movie.
Except Moonfall wasn’t cheap or quick, and it hasn’t been released in China yet, it hasn’t even gotten a date. Emmerich says he spent four years getting the script just right, and they spent $140 million building 135 different sets and 1,700 visual effects shots from various sources – it’s been cited as one of the most expensive independent movies ever made. This is the backstory of a highly personal psychological drama with sweeping set pieces incorporating massive amounts of extras, not something so obviously infested with rushed production days and bureaucratic waste.
It feels as if Emmerich watched disaster movies be taken over by these sorts of production practices driven by disinterested market forces and saw it as aspirational, not horrifying. Moonfall looks and feels like it belongs in a textbook as an example of a movie that results from the type of corner-cutting and consolidation encouraged by the current international disaster movie paradigm, but this isn’t a piece of corporate slop. This is a genuine attempt at making art from a filmmaker who no longer knows the difference.
Just before she’s promoted to NASA leadership, Fowler is officially given Q Clearance, a fictional level of above-top secret military clearance central to the Qanon mass delusion deeply entrenched with the larger fascist movement that is gearing up to take another run at the White House, and after years of wondering what the exact opposite of escapism is, I guess this is what I deserve.
Emmerich has spent most of his career bringing conspiracy theories to his particular persuasion of life, but conspiracy theories are different now. The Qanon delusion in particular is connected increasingly to real-world violence, including political violence. The Reichstag is burning, and this movie has a playful shout-out to the people who lit it up.
Emmerich himself has noted this and said he doesn’t want to engage with conspiracies anymore because of it, but his movie still goes out of its way to incorporate their version of reality. Moonfall is still structured as a work to be a conspiracy theorists’ power fantasy – Houseman, who is explicitly depicted as the single rational theorist in a sea of idiots, is set up as the audience insert character. The movie’s climax is a deluge of exposition about the hidden history of the moon, because that’s the real reward for a modern conspiracy theorist, is having all the world’s secrets that “they” are hiding revealed, and Houseman is the true believer who gets to ascend to the higher phase of life at the end.
A few days after seeing the movie, I touch bases with an old anti-vaxx friend and study her arguments. They’re remarkably consistent and limited – her assumption is that anyone who follows medical science hasn’t scrutinized it and doesn’t understand the degree of uncertainty involved, an assertion that obviously falls apart when she can’t talk about the vast number of studies that actually have been done on things she says we don’t know, and it falls apart further when she refuses to raise any kind of positive counterpoint, even though she advocates for the positive actions of refusing to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and evangelizing her empty doubt. There could be unknowable unknowns which cannot be accounted for, she says, therefore we should account for them by doing something very specific and damaging and ideologically aligned with the snake oil salesmen my husband listens to. It’s like reality is a wordgame. Cause, effect and proposed solution are floating islands in a sea of lava, rearrangeable at a whim and with no path between them.
Everything that is so frustrating about living with these fucking people is baked right into the runtime of Moonfall. Yes, there is quack medical science out there producing dangerous, untested treatments, but it’s not vaccine studies, it’s the shit my friend listens to. Yes, the seas are rising, and all of our great coastal cities are at risk, but it’s not because the moon is in descending orbit, it’s because a century of pumping carbon into the atmosphere on an industrial scale has shifted the climate to the point of probably melting the polar ice caps. Yes, there is a cult of pedophiles preying on your children and using government funds to cover it up, but it’s not the Democrats, it’s the Catholics. The monsters are real, they’re just in the closet, not under the bed.
The bare minimum a big dumb disaster movie, even one as poorly put together as this, could offer is escapism, and Moonfall can’t even give me that.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.