(TNS) – Jazz great Slim Gaillard’s interpretation of “How High the Moon” includes this existential pearl: “Everybody’s wondering how high the moon/ The moon never wonder how low you are.”
It’s something to think about, which is more than a sane viewer would say about Roland Emmerich’s new disaster film “Moonfall.” It’s as ber-zak as Gaillard’s creation, and in Emmerich’s career of perpetually putting Earth at the edge of violent extinction with “Independence Day,” “The Day After Tomorrow,” “2012″ and others, this one’s the trippiest of all.
Ever since the 2008 drunken history lesson “10,000 BC,” I’ve been a guilt-free advocate of Emmerich’s escapism. Outside the outlandish mediocrity of “Stonewall,” which is actually less historically accurate than “Moonfall,” he’s a filmmaker with a delightfully consistent sense of scale and concerns (starting with broken families repaired by global calamity). He’s an ideal blend of form and content. There’s his pushy, arrhythmic editing, especially when darting between three subplots at once; blithe, bloodless carnage, often featuring big, watery threats; and comic relief clunky enough to complement the periodic rest stops laden with pseudoscientific exposition. Same ingredients, new dishes, every time.
His movies are daft narrative blurs, full of calamity, yet there’s zero meanness on screen, which makes him the good-time polar opposite of Michael Bay in “Transformers” mode. Emmerich’s payoffs may be ridiculous but they’re sincere. His vision of the world, and how to save it, again, contains multitudes of both punishment and payoff, and “Moonfall” offers a unique hybrid: the payoffishment.
Emmerich wrote “Moonfall” with Harald Kloser and Spenser Cohen. Its production budget was a tick under $150 million. Halle Berry gets top billing if not a lot of room to maneuver as astronaut-turned-NASA hotshot Jo Fowler. Patrick Wilson portrays frenemy and fellow space cadet Brian Harper; John Bradley (“Game of Thrones”) plays the socially awkward savant KC, who’s the first to realize that something, some … unexplained … force has knocked the moon out of orbit and now it’s on a collision course with Earth.
Fragmented-family problems ensue, along with the gravity problems, plus tidal waves; moon chunks howling into mountains and skyscrapers; and, because the plot depends on a massive government conspiracy to hide the truth, a brief cameo from Donald Sutherland in “JFK” mode. The military wants to nuke the moon as a Hail Mary. Berry’s no-nonsense character, blithely underreacting to each new dire development, wants to find out firsthand what’s actually going on, and below, the lunar surface. In the 10-years-earlier prologue (already online, and a shameless rip-off of “Gravity”), Fowler and Harper lose a NASA colleague during a routine satellite maintenance mission when they’re beset by an apparent malevolent force. The digital creation resembles an amalgam of Squidward and one of those wiggly steel-wool scrub pads.
My response to “Moonfall” and its speculations about the moon’s true contents and purpose, and humankind’s long-hidden origin story? It’s simple. First hour: pretty loud and not much fun. Second hour: pretty lousy but more fun, and the movie has the benefit of getting stranger and stranger as it gyrates. It’s a drag, though, to see Berry dutifully playing ball with two bowls of vanilla pudding as co-leads, both of whom are better actors than they come off here.
I was hoping for a Halle Berry vs. moon smackdown, and this isn’t that. Still, between “Don’t Look Up” and “Moonfall,” I’m still wrestling with which one I’d recommend second.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for violence, disaster action, strong language, and some drug use)
Where to watch: Now in theaters
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
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