Some movies have the ability to pull you right into the story, offering a cinema vérité slice of life so realistic that you never stop to think about the mechanics of the film. They aren’t actors going through a script, with microphones hanging overhead, cameras in their faces, and the requirement to shoot and reshoot until the director is satisfied, it’s just… life. Other films exist in a different world and demand suspension of disbelief. Daniel Radcliff can’t actually cast a magic spell, Gal Gadot can’t jump out of an airplane, Cthulhu isn’t crawling out of the deep and Venusians aren’t zipping through space, aiming to invade Earth.
We cinephiles endlessly suspend our disbelief and are better because of it, able to enjoy crazy and incredibly improbable stories simply because they’re visually arresting, interesting, entertaining, mind-altering, or suspenseful. The science fiction genre demands this more than most others because by its nature it explores an alternative present or prognosticates a future that probably isn’t quite how it’s all going to transpire. And then there are the apocalypse movies. We’re endlessly curious about how the world as we know it might end and what it will be like afterward, whether it’s the car wars of Mad Max, the far-future of Planet of the Apes, or the profound retro future of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Enter director Roland Emmerich. With films like Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, Emmerich loves to show mayhem on screen and explore how everyday people deal with the chaos and its aftermath. His latest in this category is Moonfall and yes, it’s completely daft and incredibly improbable. But that misses the point: Moonfall is really about us, with his trademark government incompetence and conspiracies, misunderstood single fathers, dorky scientists who are dismissed by the establishment but might just be right about their dire predictions and so much more.
And it turns out that if you can dial your suspension of disbelief to 11, you might just find, as I did, that Moonfall is a pretty darn entertaining sci-fi yarn. The story revolves around the moon inexplicably dropping out of orbit, slowly heading closer and closer to Earth. Needless to say, the moon’s gravity is going to cause enormous mayhem for those of us on Earth. Tidal waves, earthquakes, even cars and buildings being pulled off the surface of the Earth itself. Conspiracy theorist K.C. Houseman (John Bradley) knows what’s going on and tries to warn NASA that the moon’s actually a “megastructure”, but they don’t care.
Houseman crosses paths with disgraced former astronaut Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson) who is convinced he saw something happening on the surface of the moon when he was flying the space shuttle a decade earlier, but NASA isn’t interested in his opinions either. Not even his former fellow-astronaut, now NASA administrator Jo Fowler (Halle Berry). But the moon’s getting closer and closer and while the military is convinced its solution of nuking the moon will solve the problem, it’s probably not actually a good idea.
Those are all the key elements of this formulaic sci-fi thriller: The clock is ticking down because when the moon gets too close, kablooie goes Earth, but who actually knows what’s going on? Meanwhile, there are massive earthquakes, tidal waves that flood coastal cities and moon chunks raining down on our planet with predictably dire consequences. Destruction everywhere!
But there’s more going on with the moon than some gravitational anomaly and it’s when our heroes are up in space trying to identify and fix the problem that things actually take a rather surprisingly surreal, existential turn. There are scenes reminiscent of the last act of 2001: A Space Odyssey, perhaps by way of Ready Player One, and they’re pretty darn interesting. You will also be surprised by the ending.
Does the story make sense? Are any of the characters in the film more than one-dimensional caricatures of the “crazy conspiracy nut”, the “self-absorbed rich second husband”, the “cowardly administrator”, or the “astronaut who yearns to go back into space”? No. That’s why you really have to suspend your disbelief with Moonfall. If you can, I promise, it’s darn entertaining and, perhaps inadvertently, laugh-out-loud funny too.
If you prefer your science fiction with an emphasis on science, however, this is definitely not for you. Go watch a rerun of The Martian instead. But for everyone else? Don’t worry about the critics, go see Moonfall on a big screen and enjoy.