Sunday, February 6, 2022

Subpar visuals drag the intermittingly enjoyable Moonfall back down to Earth


In 1902, director George Meleis delivered a breakthrough motion picture titled A Trip to the Moon. Though quaint by today's standards, this was the birth of science-fiction cinema told through visual effects techniques that still register as impressive today. In 2022, the art form of filmmaking returned to the moon through Roland Emmerich's Moonfall. No rockets plunge into anyone's eyes here and the visual effects are often of noticeably worse quality than they were in 1902. Another key difference? That earlier Meleis movie was merely interested in exploring the moon. This new feature from director Roland Emmerich is all about the moon plunging towards Earth...among other things.

Former astronaut Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson) had a devastating experience while fixing a satellite ten years ago. This event, which consisted of an encounter with some indescribable mechanical being seemingly descended from those Big Hero 6 nanobots, cost the life of a fellow astronaut and Harper's reputation. Now disgraced in the modern world, Harper is soon called back into action by conspiracy theorist K.C. Houseman (John Bradley). Everyone called this guy a loon for thinking that the moon was a megastructure housing larger organisms or machines. Turns out, he was right and now the moon is headed straight for our planet. 

Partnering up with former co-worker Jocinda Fowler (Halle Berry), Harper is now determined to save the planet and outwith the malevolent being living inside the moon. Oh, and Donald Sutherland shows up for one exposition dump scene, presumably reprising his role from Max Dugan Returns.

On the spectrum of disaster movies, Moonfall is better than the cluttered Geostorm, though both show the dangers of splitting these disaster movie stories across Earth's surface and the cosmos. It's not as good as the relentlessly cheesy 2012, which practically browbeat viewers into submission with an avalanche of nonsense, or Armageddon and its erotic animal crackers. Moonfall is probably on par with San Andreas among modern disaster movie contemporaries. They're competent in dishing out big things going boom and not being too grim, but both struggle with humans lacking in likable personality and their visual effects.

When it comes to flaws specific to Moonfall, the big problem here is that Emmerich isn't in top form dishing out sequences showing big cities devastated by big disasters. For example, when a wave of water begins to crush Los Angeles, it's depicted in a detached wide shot with little pomp and circumstance. Even the score by Thomas Wander and Harald Kloser can't be bothered to ramp up the excitement. A third-act segment depicting New York getting crumbled by moon debris is similarly flatly-realized in every respect. We don't know any Moonfall characters residing in New York, so there's no emotional investment in its destruction, while the camerawork and imagery in the scene are lacking in imagination.

On the plus side, the sequences that actually do lean into fun imagery at least register as especially exciting. When you haven't drank anything for a while, any water will be tasty! A scene where a gigantic wave, with portions of the wave reaching for the sky like tiny cyclones, attacking a rocket launch is a fun idea executed with visual panache. The camera isn't afraid to get up close and personal with the watery threat, we actually know the people at risk, and the juxtaposition of Apollo 11 with a wave straight out of The Perfect Storm is an entertaining image. Emmerich seems to get more of a pulse once he's up in the stars and our three leads navigate what's going on with the moon.

The distinctive production design (apparently the interior of the moon looks like a set from Tron: Legacy by way of the Apple store) and the screenwriters just throwing out a ton of over-the-top twists and turns makes the moon-set scenes of Moonfall the best part of the movie. The preceding sequences, heavy on character interactions, aren't torturous, but they do feel like hollow echoes of past Emmerich features. Yet another antagonistic stepdad, yet another chase scene set against an apocalyptic backdrop, more divorced parents just trying to work together as the world ends. Nobody's expecting human drama on par with Drive My Car in a movie called Moonfall, but I did find myself wishing Emmerich would find new archetypes or family dynamics to explore.

One departure from earlier Emmerich works is that it looks downright awful in the Earthbound scenes. Nearly every exterior scene set on our planet is inexplicably filmed in front of an obvious green screen. Just do the rear projection technique if your green-screen work is going to look this bad. Meanwhile, the interior sets are usually draped in obnoxiously dim lighting. Possibly an attempt to visually reflect the uncertain atmosphere created by NASA keeping secrets about the moon (yes, that's a plot point), it just makes Moonfall look murky. The humor here is also a step down from other Emmerich movies. Big gag lines went over like a lead balloon at my screening, probably because nobody in the cast has the comic chops as Will Smith in Independence Day or Woody Harrelson in 2012.  

Though this barrage of critiques may make it sound like I had no fun with Moonfall, that's actually not true. As a disaster movie devotee, I was only intermittently bored. Emmerich's smart enough to keep delivering destruction at regular intervals throughout the runtime and several dramatic lines that miss the mark do deliver chuckles. Plus, the bursts of originality and cynicism-free execution of big grand gestures on the part of humanity in the third act are fun to watch. The problems that drag down Moonfall from being the next Independence Day aren't its lack of scientific accuracy or hokey performances. Rather, the issues here are Emmerich leaning too heavily on familiar narrative elements and especially the sometimes downright atrocious visual scheme of the affair. Too messy to live up to its fullest potential, Moonfall will probably make some disaster movie connoisseurs happy while proving painless, though instantly forgettable, for everyone else. The jury is still out on what George Meleis would've thought of it.

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