The “disaster movie” is mostly dead. The genre that seemingly defined the 1990s with titles like Armageddon and Independence Day, wasn’t new at the time but it was more explosive than it had ever been. The genre dates back as far as 1933 with Deluge, which was based on the 1928 S Fowler Wright novel of the same name. In it, we follow a group of survivors in New York City after a series of natural disasters including an earthquake. It blended model shots on a green screen with footage of actors to give the illusion that the monumental damage was happening on a large scale, a practice that continued well into the 1970s. With the boom of technology in the late 80s/early 90s, films began to experiment with CGI, leading to a landslide of titles in the latter half of the 90s. However, there is a noticeable drop-off in disaster movies as the 2010s approach, with it practically becoming dormant once the modern superhero blockbuster arrived in 2008. One man who didn’t seem to get the memo is Roland Emmerich, director of such disaster classics as 1998’s Godzilla and the aforementioned Independence Day.
His latest project is Moonfall, which follows a small band of heroes as they attempt to fix the moon’s orbit, which has unexpectedly changed course. As with previous Emmerich titles, there are three key elements at play – namely the characters, the destruction, and the overall message. Our heroes are a disingenuously disgraced ex-astronaut, his former co-astronaut, and a conspiracy theorist-who will end up having his theories proven. The first two characters are practically to be expected in a plot like this but it’s the surprisingly correct conspiracy theorist who serves as the main protagonist. He’s fun, quirky, and astoundingly likable for somebody who constantly praises Elon Musk. It would have been easy for Emmerich to make this guy the butt of all jokes and the movie’s own personal punching bag but instead, he chooses to humanise him. It’s a respectable decision and one that pays off.
The conspiracy theories themselves are wild. The classic “moon is a hologram” and “moon landings were faked” are tossed aside for stellar megastructures. It’s a new angle for this genre that allows for a vast array of imaginative ideas and grandiose shots. The reason for the moon’s orbital change is an issue slightly closer to home than expected, featuring the classic sci-fi message about how untrustworthy AI is. Here is where Moonfall’s message finally comes into view, although it’s a little blurred by the sheer madness occurring on-screen. Even when his message isn’t 100% on point, Emmerich’s destructive capabilities are never questionable.
While the main trio head moonward, the remainder of the plot follows their families back on Earth. This leads to some great character work, especially from Micheal Pena, as well as some astounding shots of the moon from the ground. Shots like this are why films like this are best experienced in a cinema. It’s all about the spectacle, which is something Emmerich continues to expand upon.
Moonfall may not be his crowning achievement but it’s wholly unapologetic about what it is…an experience.