Wednesday, February 21

‘Moonfall’, or why disaster movies continue to fascinate us in catastrophic times

There is a certain flavor of what is already known in ‘Moonfall’ -which arrives in theaters this week-, a comfortable wing chair of a genre that we know by heart, which does not demand anything of us – only that we disconnect common sense- and that gives us emotion and spectacle to the nth degree. We couldn’t expect less from Roland Emmerich, director of ‘Independence Day’ and who has been shaping the modern catastrophic blockbuster with films like ‘The day after tomorrow’ or ‘2012’.

The essential codes of the genre are clear from its very origins, back in the seventies, with films such as ‘The burning colossus’, ‘Airport’ or ‘Earthquake’: choral protagonist, often with the action divided into different scenarios, and set pieces of destruction and chaos that underline the insignificance of humans in the face of disasters, natural or not, from which they escaped based on ingenuity and courage. The iconic image of the White House exploding in ‘Independence Day’ gave Emmerich carte blanche to recast the genre by scaling it up to sheer insanity.

Although there is room for the human drama (the ‘Airports’ were basically a bunch of motley people suffering together in a very tight space), the ecological message (Emmerich himself spoke about climate change in ‘The Day After Tomorrow’) and the pure show (with the whole wave of cosmic disaster films unleashed by ‘Armaggeddon’, and whose echo reaches this ‘Moonfall’), Disaster movies hadn’t been in theaters for a while. At least not in its current form, because films like ‘Contagion’ or ‘Immune’ are in a certain sense.

But we hadn’t known about classic disaster movies for a long time (although Emmerich himself has continued to fool around with his tropes in films as diverse as ‘Assault on Power’ or the sequel to ‘Independence Day’). That’s why this movie has a nice, comforting old-fashioned feel to it: in it, the Moon falls out of its orbit, threatens to crash into Earth and a bunch of rogue astronauts are sent in extremis to fix the ballot.

the moon is coming

In these times when fantasy is judged on its degree of plausibility and superhero films are praised for their realism, the healthy brainlessness of ‘Moonfall’ is almost soothing. The final stretch, in which the science-fiction of invasions / revelations converges with a kind of catastrophic ‘Jackass’, there are collisions of celestial bodies that defy all the laws of physics. As always in these cases, ‘Moonfall’ is funnier the more it seems like an improvised story by a child who wants to be an astronaut just to be able to blow up planets.

Some successful element in the definition of characters (the nerd played by John Bradley gives a peculiar human touch to the code of the infallible hero) shakes hands with a healthy humor around the conspiracy culture that surrounds the Moon. That, plus a relative concise narrative that always makes them choose the craziest option (for example, the rocket they have to use is full of graffiti because they borrow it from a museum… and of course it works) make it clear that ‘Moonfall’ is pure fun and without prejudice. A very enjoyable insane adventure film that nevertheless raises a very convenient question in these times.

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Why, after having gone through a global pandemic we are still interested in this type of film that still sound more unreal and frivolous to us than a few years ago? The answer may lie in the original ‘Godzilla’ movie, Ishirô Honda’s 1957 classic that showcased all that mass panic and destruction of public property before anyone else. And that channeled, for the only time in black and white in the character’s history, the atomic fear of the Japanese population, who had suffered the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki only a decade before.

Fantastic cinema is the best symbolic scheme of the fears of society at all times. Perhaps this resurgence of catastrophe cinema (along with the return of the classic: Godzilla is in better shape than ever with films of monstrous excess like ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’) will serve to help us assimilate how necessary cures of humility are in the face of very real phenomena such as a global pandemic. We have the science, we have the technology, but what makes us human is to go on living in fear of the sky falling on our heads. Or, in this case, the Moon.