Film review: Moonfall

This review is in two parts: a spoiler-free section and a section containing spoilers for the story. The end of the spoiler-free section is clearly marked.

Disaster movies are something of a guilty pleasure of mine, so I’d been looking forward to Moonfall since it was announced. I was hoping for some big, dumb blockbuster fun – and Moonfall delivered. This isn’t a film that’s going to win any of the big awards – at least, it doesn’t deserve to! But as an entertaining way to spend a couple of hours, I’d recommend it to fans of science-fiction, disaster films, and brainless summer blockbusters.

Director Roland Emmerich has an established track record in the disaster movie genre, having directed The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, both of which were big hits in the 2000s. Many of Emmerich’s hallmarks are present in Moonfall, including some very familiar character and story tropes. If you were turned off by the “flawed protagonist who loves his family” action-hero character that Emmerich seems to use in all of his films, maybe Moonfall won’t be right for you! But for my money, the film delivered what I wanted it to – and managed to pack an emotional punch even while suffering major contrivances, an utterly ridiculous plot, and dialogue that could be incredibly hammy.

Moonfall is the latest film from director Roland Emmerich.

All of the actors in Moonfall gave it their all, despite the film’s ridiculously over-the-top disaster storyline, and I’d single out the performances of Halle Berry, Eme Ikwuakor, and Charlie Plummer as being especially praiseworthy. I’d never seen John Bradley in anything outside of Game of Thrones (where he played Samwell Tarly), so I wasn’t sure at first how suitable I’d find him for a role in a title like Moonfall. But to my pleasant surprise I enjoyed Bradley’s performance a great deal, and I found him believable as conspiracy theorist KC Houseman.

There were some definite CGI misses in Moonfall, but none were terribly egregious. Water can be a difficult thing for CGI animators to do well, and given that the film had a lot of other CGI sequences that worked, I can excuse those that were wide of the mark. There wasn’t anything catastrophic; rather some sequences that depicted large volumes of water felt outdated – akin to something we might’ve expected to see ten years ago rather than from a blockbuster in 2022.

John Bradley in a promotional photo for Moonfall.

I had a good time with Moonfall, all things considered. It had a plot that was less science-fiction than pure fantasy, and that required any understanding of actual science and physics to go out of the window! But there’s room in the wide world of geeky entertainment for titles like this one, and not every story has to rely on real-world understandings of gravity and physics to tell a fun, exciting, and occasionally emotional story.

If you’ve never liked disaster films, Moonfall probably isn’t the picture to change your mind. And if you like your sci-fi heavier on the sci than the fi, Moonfall will probably be a frustrating experience. Heck, we could nitpick it to death if we wanted to! But if you can suspend your disbelief for a couple of hours – and if you want a film that doesn’t ask too much of you either intellectually or in terms of effort and engagement – Moonfall might just be a fun ride. I know it was for me!

Up next we’re going to talk about some of the story elements in more detail.

Spoiler Warning: This is the end of the spoiler-free section! Expect spoilers for Moonfall from here on out.

So let’s get something straight: Moonfall has a ridiculous plot. Even by the standards of other disaster films – like Volcano’s lava eruption in Los Angeles or the Mayan end of the world in 2012 – what Moonfall brings to the table with its “the moon is an ancient spaceship constructed by humans from another part of the galaxy” story… it’s just plain bonkers. A rogue AI comprised of millions of nano-machines sending the moon crashing into the Earth is likewise utterly silly, and Moonfall asks a lot to get its audience to suspend our disbelief!

But that doesn’t mean it’s one of those “so bad it’s good” films. There’s a lot to love about Moonfall in its own right, including a different take on some familiar concepts. The idea of rogue AI could’ve been explored in more detail if there’d been more time, but it’s a surprisingly timely narrative inclusion given that we may be on the cusp of unlocking that kind of technology right here in the real world. As documentaries such as the brilliant We Need To Talk About A.I. from a couple of years ago have shown, there are legitimate concerns surrounding artificial intelligence, concerns that Moonfall takes to an extreme – but not entirely unfathomable – conclusion.

Astronaut Brian Harper encountered an evil ancient AI.

Many story tropes and character archetypes that Roland Emmerich has used before are included in Moonfall, right down to the “new spouse of the hero’s ex who dies in the disaster.” For folks who’ve seen the likes of The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, characters like protagonist Brian Harper will feel very familiar – perhaps even a little samey. But Emmerich does a good enough job at establishing the stakes for the characters through their connections to their families and friends, adding an emotional imperative to the story that it would otherwise lack.

There are more than just echoes of past Emmerich films through some of these characters. The washed-up hero, the scientist everyone ignored, the gung-ho military leaders, the children of the main protagonists who are trying to get to safety… we’ve seen these people before in different incarnations in other titles. But to me, that was fine. The actors who brought these characters to life did a good job, and I can’t really fault any of the performances. Given that the story was silly – and I’m sure everyone involved could recognise that – there’s a level of professionalism and dedication that deserves to be respected.

Halle Berry as Jocinda Fowler in Moonfall.

As mentioned, some of the CGI sequences – those dealing with the flooding caused by the moon’s activities in particular – weren’t spectacular. It feels as though Moonfall’s creators poured the vast majority of its CGI budget into the “swarm” – the AI nanobots that were the cause of all the trouble. The swarm looked spectacular, giving me a hint of things like the Borg Collective from the Star Trek franchise without being too derivative.

The white dwarf star at the moon’s core was also an impressive CGI feat. Stars in sci-fi can be difficult to get right, and we’ve seen massive improvements in the way they’ve been depicted in the wake of titles like Interstellar. Moonfall managed to get this aspect right, and while the star wasn’t on screen for a huge amount of time, when it was it managed to look exceptional.

Some of the flooding sequences didn’t look great, despite outstanding CGI work elsewhere.

There were some unintentionally funny moments in Moonfall courtesy of some incredibly hammy dialogue, and especially in the first forty or fifty minutes or so of the film I found myself chuckling away at these. When you have legitimately good actors saying, with a straight face, lines like “I’ve uncovered what might be the most important discovery in human history!” or “everything we thought we knew about the nature of the universe has just gone out the window!” it’s hard not to crack a smile.

The forced conflict between NASA, the military, and the film’s protagonists is another Emmerich hallmark, with the authorities refusing to believe the truth, seemingly trying to cover it up, and then launching an overly-aggressive military response at the last minute. Pitting Halle Berry’s character of Jocinda Fowler against the head honchos of NASA and the military was certainly a cliché, especially when there were characters who openly told us that “just following orders” meant that they have blood on their hands, or that they “lied to the American people.” But I can let such things slide in a film that I don’t need to take too seriously.

The protagonists’ kids had to escape the disaster too.

I didn’t come to Moonfall looking for a nuanced or sympathetic presentation of dementia. But even so, the way that the film handled the character of KC Houseman’s mother was pretty poor. It fell into some really unnecessary stereotyping of dementia, showing Mrs Houseman going from lucid to amnesiac in a split-second. As I find myself saying sometimes: if there isn’t time in a film with other priorities to create a more realistic and nuanced presentation of an illness or health condition, it can be better to just skip it altogether. We didn’t gain anything by learning about Mrs Houseman’s failing health, nor did it do much to inform the character of KC. So overall, a bit of a disappointment that a blockbuster would lean so heavily on a pretty clichéd presentation of what is a complex and debilitating illness.

There was quite a bit of product placement in Moonfall – another clear sign of an Emmerich blockbuster. When compared with the likes of 2012, though, the product placement felt a lot more subtle. There were logos and car brands that were clearly being shown off, but for the most part it passed by inoffensively enough. I tend not to get too worked up over product placement if it isn’t too in-your-face.

Houseman, Harper, and Fowler inside the moon.

So that was Moonfall, really. A dumb, stupid blockbuster with a ridiculously silly plot, recycled character tropes, hammy dialogue, and naff special effects… that I thoroughly enjoyed for what it was. Moonfall was never going to be Oscar bait, and I think everyone involved with its production recognised from the start the kind of film they were creating. This was sci-fi that was heavy on the fi, and very light on the sci!

But Moonfall did what it set out to, and it was perfectly entertaining popcorn fare. It’s a film that doesn’t want you to think too deeply about the physics involved, nor the implications for the world left behind for the survivors. Moonfall exists for the two hours that you watch it, and then it’s over. Its characters got to their “happily ever after” moment, and that’s all it has to say. There’s no epilogue, no post-credits scene to tee up a sequel. It’s purely a one-and-done disaster film with sci-fi trappings.

I set my expectations appropriately and ended up having a good time with Moonfall. And I think that’s about all there is to say!

Moonfall is out now to stream for a fee on Amazon Video, Google Play, YouTube, Apple TV, and other streaming platforms. Moonfall will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on the 9th of May 2022. Moonfall is the copyright of Lionsgate Films and ACG International. This review contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.