Monday, February 07, 2022


Sitting through the end credits of Moonfall, I was struck by the sheer number of people on at least three continents who work on visual effects for a movie like this. Lots of names from India and notes that post-production got tax benefits in various states in the U.S. and Australia/provinces in Canada, so that the various effects houses can probably hand off digital assets between various locations and literally work 24 hours a day. It's hardly unique in that; you see this at the end of every movie above a certain scale (and many where you wouldn't expect to), but it's instructive to see just how insanely labor-intensive something like this is even though "computer generated imagery" often conjures up an image of someone creating a wireframe and then hitting a "render" button.

It's an astounding amount of work on what is meant to be eye-popping materia, but in the 2020s, something like Moonfall will spend roughly three to six weeks in theaters and probably won't have that much of a long tail. After all, what's a streaming outlet's algorithm going to grab to push it in front of viewers? Prime probably has a dozen movies with Halle Berry that would get recommended over this. If you just watched one of director Roland Emmerich's better takes on this sort of material, there's no guarantee that the service in question has this one. It's probably never going to get the sheer number of views or high ratings that would lift it terribly high in a general list of sci-fi/action pictures.

That's the really weird thing about the current moment - there's just a metric ton of this sort of movie being produced, but the window for it is crazy narrow unless it's Marvel or Star Wars or something pre-sold and most of it is just going to slip through cracks. It feels like everyone who isn't Disney is entirely betting on long shots because that's the only way you won't get crowded out for the next decade or so. And this isn't exactly me saying studios shouldn't make big expensive movies for what three or four smaller films might cost, at least not yet - I love blockbusters! - but maybe make them better? Like, when you read the screenplay for Moonfall, go, hey, the physics here makes no sense, you're going to have a bunch of folks who cold give you good word of mouth mocking you, and maybe do something with the characters that feels fresh or at least not straight out of Save the Cat!? Like, it's a crowded landscape out there, not just in theaters, but Disney and Batman and Fast & Furious are going to suck up all the media oxygen, and sweating the details in more ways than just pushing the FX crews to do more on less money is the best option you've got to improve your chances.

Anyway, this could have been a lot more fun if Emmerich et al had just run with the weird stuff at the end and given his cast something resembling anything to do.

Oh! One more thing, while we're talking about processed things being squished into a template - after something close to a year of the local AMCs not having chicken tenders and mozzarella sticks due to what must be absolutely insane supply chain issues by now, they've at least put Impossible Nuggets on the menu at the concession stand. They're not bad at all - they're as perfectly-fine a way to get dipping sauces into your mouth as the ones made of chicken - but they seem to have a much more powerful smell which will take some getting used to.


* * (out of four)
Seen 6 February 2022 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax Xenon)

There was a story a few years back about how, when they needed to render a black hole, the visual effects crew of Intersellar programmed their computers with the actual physics rather than the most-common visual, and the results both changed the way scientists visualize the phenomena and made the movie look cooler than expected. I am reasonably sure nothing like this happened during the production of Moonfall, which is dumb enough to cause any scientists in the audience physical pain, sloppily written, and not special enough to make much out of Roland Emmerich being fairly competent at special-effects mayhem.

Its absurdly high-concept.idea is that the moon has somehow begun a decaying orbit, which will rain all manner of destruction on the Earth within a month. L.A.-based crank KC Houseman (John Bradley) has long theorized that the moon is a megastructure of alien origin, and while astronaut Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson) saw something strange during a catastrophic space shuttle mission ten years ago, his co-pilot Jocinda Fowler (Halle Berry) was unconscious, and now he's a disgraced has-been and she's the deputy director of NASA. As if that wasn't enough reason to worry, they've both got exes they have uneasy relationships with and kids who need to get to safety while they launch a last-ditch mission to try and neutralize the swarm of nanobots that they think is responsible.

This is incredibly stupid, and it really only gets dumber as it goes along, in large part because at no point have Emmerich and his co-writers really thought anything through, and not just the howlingly bad physics. There are more mundane things, like how Fowler seemingly does hours or days worth of work while Harper and Houseman are apparently talking in a hotel diner for a few minutes. There are matters of logistics that fall apart when you give them a second's thought - how in the heck do they get a functioning launch pad at Fort Vandenberg in this time frame, let alone deliver the booster rockets and fuel that the decommissioned shuttle Endeavor at a nearby air and space museum needs, much less the Chinese prototype lunar lander after it's already been established that the tides are hostile and the country has descended into anarchy? There's not a moment in this movie that rings particularly true until the crew is inside the moon and the audience can sort of shrug that sort of thing off because they just have to assume impossibly advanced technology in that situation.

A lot of sci-fi adventures get past that sort of thing by being charming or offering up engaging characters, but Moonfall takes a lot of that for granted. I don't necessarily blame Emmerich for regularly returning to a formula that worked with Independence Day, but it's hard not to notice that Fowler, Harper, and Houseman map to familiar types, and it seems like the writers have to stretch to make them fit those templates but don't actually do anything with it. Given half a chance, Halle Berry and Patrick Wilson could probably do a lot with their characters' histories and parallel trajectories, but they aren't given half a chance beyond some weak banter at the start and vague allusions later. Movies about the imminent destruction of human civilization become kind of tacky when that sort of cataclysm's primary role seems to be to spur one or two people out of several billion to resolve their issues, but what's all this for if not to put some spark in their scenes?

Meanwhile, John Bradley is in the Jeff Goldbum/James Spader/Matthew Broderick "outcast nerd" spot and the comparison does him no favors; the particular mix of smart and eccentric just doesn't work here. There's bits with Charlie Plummer as Harper's estranged son and a bunch of other characters looking for shelter that seem transplanted from another disaster movie because he can't just disappear after being used to establish Harper's "screwed up his life in every way possible" bona fides, with Michael Peña pulling duty as the character actor who is both a bigger star and better actor than this playing his stepfather. Donald Sutherland shows up for a scene or two to give gravitas to some nonsensical backstory. It's a mess of material that never makes the fantasy seem more thought-out and which is too rote to provide the human stakes that the screenwriting books say a big adventure needs.

Emmerich was never particularly good at either of those things - he's benefited from casts better able to sell them - and his films have always been sold on large-scale action and calamity. To watch Moonfall is to realize a couple of things: First, that the sort of disaster scenes that were centerpieces of a summer blockbuster 25 years ago are now first-act obstacles in a movie that opens in early February, and even if the finale is more impressive, it's hard to ramp up as much. Second, he's probably still as good as anybody at building those big climactic action scenes; he gets enough explanation in that the audience knows what they're seeing, frames to emphasize scale without letting the protagonists get lost, and doesn't overload a shot. There's imagery like the glow of an oversized moonrise in the Rockies that inspires a bit of awe and shows some care; it doesn't feel like it passed from the pre-visualization team to the effects house without the attention of the filmmakers who get the "A Film By" credit the way these things often do.

Is that enough to make Moonfall a good movie? Heck no; it's enough to send a viewer out of the theater mildly diverted rather than actively annoyed. There are some interesting pieces here, but in 2022, when Hollywood releases something on this scale every other month with half tied into something the audience is already excited for and one of the others at least trying something interesting, a movie like this is just not exciting enough to get away with weaknesses that used to be acceptable tradeoffs.

Full review at eFilmCritic

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