MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD for Moonfall. Consider yourself warned.
Nobody destroys the world quite like Roland Emmerich. I think it’s safe to say that the disaster genre would be pretty much dead without him. As someone who grew up loving the old catastrophe flicks of the ’70s like Earthquake and The Towering Inferno, the disaster genre is dear to my geeky heart, so on the whole, I enjoy Emmerich’s work. His newest, Moonfall, is especially appealing in its premise as it adds an awesome sci-fi angle to go along with the global disaster. I only wish I could say that the flick was actually good.
So the story starts in 2011, during one of the last space shuttle missions. As a small crew – including Jocinda “Jo” Fowler (Halle Berry) and Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson) – does their usual work outside the shuttle, the power suddenly goes out. A strange, scary-looking, black cloud of particles seems to come out of nowhere and swarms the shuttle. It sweeps one of the other astronauts out into space while Jo and Brian get knocked out.
Somehow or another, Brian and Jo survive, and Brian manages to land the shuttle. And in the months that follow, both NASA and the media end up putting the blame for everything on Brian, no matter how hard he pleads his case. And then things go bad between Brian and Jo when she’s cornered into admitting that she doesn’t know what happened and can’t verify Brian’s explanation during the hearing.
Fast forward 10 years – Jo’s still working at NASA but has been demoted to staying at Mission Control. Brian’s living the sad life of the disgraced hero, broke and about to be evicted from his apartment (even though he has a sweet classic car and a motorcycle). He’s also divorced and his oldest son, Sonny (Charlie Plummer), is well on his way to becoming a career criminal, getting busted and thrown in jail for joyriding with a car full of drugs.
Meanwhile, we meet a conspiracy theorist named KC Houseman (Game of Thrones‘ John Bradley, who steals the show) – who’s busy at his janitor’s job at UC Irvine. He uses his access to sneak into offices and gather intel on his particular conspiracy – that the moon isn’t really the moon. It’s a megastructure built by aliens à la the Death Star, and it also happens to be falling out of orbit, according to the miscellaneous documents he finds.
Unfortunately, KC can’t seem to gain any real traction with what he discovers – he even tries ambushing Brian during a talk he’s supposed to be giving to some school kids. A hungover and slovenly Brian isn’t interested in KC or his theories – so, following his mom’s sage advice to “make them listen,” KC puts the information online. And in an interesting mirror to the way the world works today, the story goes viral and forces the government to get involved.
NASA decides to send a mission up to find out what’s going on – and they manage to find that there’s a massive hole in the moon. They drop a probe in that goes way, way down – but then that same swarm that attacked Jo and Brian 10 years earlier comes out of the hole and attacks the ship, killing the crew.
As the megastructure-moon leaves its orbit, the effects wreak havoc on Earth – first with major flooding, as ocean tides get thrown into chaos without the moon’s stabilizing influence. And in typical Emmerich fashion, we start diverting from the main story in order to focus on the goings-on with Brian and Jo’s families – which, unfortunately, isn’t nearly as interesting.
Brian’s delinquent kid is stuck in jail when the evacuation order goes out. He gets left behind when his mom (Carolina Bartczak) and stepfather (Michael Peña) take off for their place in the Colorado mountains. And Jo’s friend Michelle (Kelly Yu) ends up being responsible for Jo’s son, Jimmy (Zayn Maloney) and getting him to his father, some high-up military guy (Eme Ikwuakor).
NASA’s director quits in the face of the apocalypse, leaving Jo in charge. She discovers a secret weapon NASA built – an electromagnetic pulse bomb (EMP). The caretaker of the secret knowledge (a special blink-and-you’ll-miss-it guest appearance by Donald Sutherland) fills her in on the actual true history. Back in the ’70s, there were quakes on the moon that echoed for hours afterward, suggesting a possibly hollow structure. And then there are those infamous missing two minutes of radio broadcast from Apollo 11, which has to mean aliens.
So Jo brings a reluctant Brian and KC into the fold, knowing that they need to find some way back out to the moon to use the EMP bomb on the alien tech swarm. And just how do they plan to get there? By borrowing their old space shuttle, Endeavour, from its dust-gathering spot at the science museum. And also, in typical Emmerich fashion – that is, with no regard to the actual science or logistics involved – they get Endeavour launch-ready in no time.
But just as they’re loading up the EMP bomb, earthquakes hit, damaging the shuttle and knocking out one of its engines. But they launch anyway, with Jo, Brian and KC on board. Massive tidal waves start creating havoc as they lift off, partially submerging the shuttle until it manages to blast its way free and out into space.
In no time at all (because we’re not interested in stuff like launch windows or orbital mechanics), our heroes get to the megastructure-moon and drop their lunar lander down into the mega-hole. And we get to see the ecstatic validation on KC’s face as they fly through the intricate workings of the megastructure.
But then they crash, and Brian is taken from the ship and put in a separate chamber. The alien tech running the megastructure appears to him in the form of Sonny and gives him the Scooby-Doo rundown on the who/what/why of it all. Basically, humanity’s ancestors turn out to be the aliens. They built the megastructure, one of many sent to planets where human life could grow and seeded the planet with their DNA.
The only problem? The artificial intelligence they built to run things turned against them à la Skynet and proceeded to destroy all of humanity to save itself. Now, unless they can find a way to work together, the AI swarm will destroy what’s left of humanity as the megastructure-moon collides with Earth.
Brian reunites with Jo and KC – and in a bittersweet reversal, just when we think we know who’s going to stay behind to set off the bomb – it’s KC who decides to sacrifice himself. And just as the megastructure-moon skims the Earth’s atmosphere, causing huge pieces of moon to break off and rain down on the surface – the human/alien-boosted EMP goes off, destroys the AI swarm, and the megastructure-moon magically returns to its normal orbit.
Jo and Brian manage to land back on Earth safely, and of course, are met by their families. All’s well that ends well, global destruction averted – and in an interesting twist, KC wakes up to find his mom and cat (named “Fuzz Aldrin” – cute) staring at him. When he asks what happened, the alien dressed as his mom tells him they’ve “downloaded his consciousness.” He’s part of the alien tech now, and his mom asks him if he’s ready to get started – hinting at a sequel, providing the box office is good enough.
So here’s the thing: you have to know what you’re getting into when you sit down to watch a Roland Emmerich flick. You’re going to get a big spectacle – sparkly and shiny and maybe even funny. But that’s it. If you go in expecting a story that makes sense and has complex characters and well-crafted dialogue, you’re going to be hugely disappointed.
That said, I have to sadly admit that even among Emmerich’s other work, Moonfall ranks pretty low. For some reason, even turning your brain off and enjoying the visual effects just doesn’t cut it with this one. I appreciate Emmerich keeping the disaster genre alive, but Moonfall feels as hollow as its megastructure-moon.
Emmerich had to turn to independent financing to get Moonfall made because, in the current state of things in Hollywood, none of the studios want to touch anything that isn’t attached to some pre-existing intellectual property (like Marvel, DC, or Star Wars). So in that sense, it’s incredible that Emmerich forged his own way and that Moonfall got made at all. It’s just a shame that the flick couldn’t have been better for all that money and effort.
Directed by: Roland Emmerich
Written by: Roland Emmerich, Harald Kloser, Spenser Cohen
Release Date: Feb. 4, 2022
Run Time: 2 hr, 10 min