Sunday, February 6, 2022

Falling Skies: MOONFALL and DON'T LOOK UP

Moonfall is so perfectly awful I was almost charmed. In this high-gloss chintzy approximation of an A-level blockbuster 90s disaster picture, the moon has been knocked out of its orbit. Every time it circles the Earth, it gets closer. That thing’s bound to crash. It’s such total lunacy—and gets weirder by the reel—presented with casual pomposity stretching beyond its budget. It has a choppy opening hour that over-complicates every subplot and races through exposition as if it half-heartedly realizes we won’t care about its convolutions. As the ensemble is brought on stage and the moon looms larger, the vast cast is sketched in with shorthand and cliche. There’s disgraced astronaut Patrick Wilson and glamorous NASA chief Halle Berry and annoying pudgy British wannabe scientist John Bradley, each with a part of the solution as to how to get the moon restored to its proper place before it touches down. Also in the mix are the usual ex-wives, step-fathers, elderly mothers, conspiracy theorists, foreign exchange students, troubled adult sons, adorable moppets, and a general with a key to the nukes and a reluctant trigger finger. All the while, passable effects whip up CG floods as tides go wild, flooding cities of panicking refugees and looters before, during, and after the gravitational disruption kicks off earthquakes.

Where once these sort of big-screen natural disasters lingered on their big effects moments, now they can just wallpaper indiscriminately until it leaves little impact. It’s the kind of movie that relocates the top of the Chrysler building and barely blinks an eye. (The best moments are the most novel, in a crackpot derivative way: a space shuttle outracing an enormous gravity wave, or exploring the secret inner chambers of the moon.) But there’s an odd underplaying throughout, like when a son looks at his father, on the brink of potential apocalypse, at the moment a last-ditch plan has fallen through and shrugs: “I’m sorry that didn’t work out.” The second hour is a little zippier, and moderately wilder, as the apocalyptic stakes cut between a daring mission into the center of the moon, and a family trying to get what appears to be a mile or two down the road back on Earth. The imbalance is a little funny. Par for the course is when the general stares down a guy who wants to bomb the moon and says: “You can’t do that! My ex-wife’s up there!!”

So it’s good for a few laughs, and it might remind you passingly of better sequences in other movies like it. But that the production is helmed by Roland Emmerich, a king of the industrial-strength big budget ensemble disaster flick, having Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012 on his resume, gives it the distinct feeling of a director making his own knockoff. It hasn’t the balance between the spectacle and melodrama that the better versions of the disaster ensemble can pull off. Heck, even his own former co-writer Dean Devlin did a better spin on the all-star global calamity space-junk explode-o-rama with the under-appreciated gargantuan cheese wheel that was Geostorm a few years back. One of that movie’s stars, Gerard Butler, even did it well in a more serious register with the oddly affecting meteor-on-the-way thriller Greenland from Christmas before last. (It went VOD, like the bulk of that season’s offerings, so who knows how many actually saw it?) Just goes to show you we are in a little boom for talking our destruction to death. Gee, what could cause that? We can't expect every attempt to work well.

At least all of the above are better than Don’t Look Up. That movie imagines a world-ending calamity is on the way, and getting people to care about or even accept the reality of the situation, let alone examine possible solutions, is nigh impossible. Sounds familiar. Adam McKay wrote the movie as a climate change parable, but the intervening pandemic and its response surely fed into it as well. Here we open on two scientists at Michigan State University (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) identifying a planet-killing meteor that’ll hit Earth in a matter of months. They try to alert the government, but the president (Meryl Streep) is too image-obsessed and election-focused to care and demands the information hidden. (The movie’s funniest joke is her son (Jonah Hill) insisting on double checking the info with experts from a better college. Ha.) So the scientists try to leak it to the media, but most outlets don’t care, and the best they can do is getting laughed off a morning show whose hosts (Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry) can’t bring themselves to understand what their incongruously serious guests are trying to say. There’s clear anger in this telling, a well-intentioned ranting about humanity hurtling toward its doom and too ignorant and selfish to face it and fix it.

But as the movie spirals and complicates for over two hours, it stays on that grinding pitch of justified anger. It starts to seem less sharply targeted and more tiresomely mismanaged. The characters, no matter how well-acted by an all-star cast, are broad caricatures, and McKay’s rush to condemn doesn’t leave time to actually understand their motives. This is a bloated political cartoon stumbling backwards toward preordained conclusions. Compare it to, say, Dr. Strangelove, and you’ll see how Kubrick’s classic dark comedy of nuclear annihilation is a witheringly hilarious look at nightmarish Cold War logic precisely because it understands how fallible and specific personality types could stumble toward accidental apocalypse. Here, though McKay has understandable outrage at the prevailing forces of prevaricating pundits and the corrupt short-term individualism eroding all sense of common good, he’s made a movie that’s the equivalent of a “raising awareness” campaign. Yeah, I know, and I agree, somewhat, I think. But now what?

This sociopolitical comedy is still somehow McKay’s best of that sort, though this, Vice, and The Big Short are all considerable steps down from his Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and Step-Brothers heyday. He no longer makes exuberantly goofy comedies with serious subtext. Now he’s making self-serious political comedies where his Big Ideas are all on the surface where they won’t stop needling, jabbing, scalding, and condescending at the expense of entertainment and, just as deadly, a point that can get past the surface of the matters on display. Attacking shallowness with shallowness without even the deceptive nuance that, say, Verhoeven might bring, is awfully wearisome. He’s clearly an intelligent and passionate thinker—but when his works about Wall Street corruption or Dick Cheney flatten out the issue as they scream to the choir that it’s all our fault, too, well, if you’re going to think so little of your audience, at least you could actually be better than them. These movies are both contemptuous and scatter-brained. He really thinks he’s telling you something new and vital instead of repackaging common complaints. It looks at massive systemic issues and futilely wags its finger at the viewer. We’re all implicated, yes, but now what do I have to do about it?

As Don’t Look Up widens its lens, with some vigorous absurdities that sparkle here and there, it bogs itself down and clutters itself up with characters and plot lines all pushing in the same direction at the same grim pitch: our society is incapable of saving itself. Everyone’s pathetic and cringingly one-dimensional. There are red-meat military men (Ron Perlman) and weary astronomers (Rob Morgan) and social media celebrities (Ariana Grande and Scott Mescudi) and right-wing propagandists (Michael Chiklis) and progressive journalists (Himesh Patel) and a tech billionaire cutting a real Musky Zuckerbergian Bezoar (Mark Rylance), among others. No one can meet the moment. Of course there’s even a right-wing messaging movement to just avoid the issue entirely. “Don’t Look Up” becomes their rallying cry. (Years of “if climate’s changing, why do we have winter?” and “if masks and vaccines work, why is there still COVID?” make even that sadly believable.) To watch a government and society flailing in the face of overwhelming disaster is painfully familiar. That the movie is willing to condemn a shallow media, lying right-wing authoritarians, and neoliberal corporate shills is not nothing. But the cast is stranded in a movie with ugly blocking and clanking rhythms, scenes that feel hacked together and indifferently covered, unable to build up character or perspective beyond the movie’s insistence that all of these horrible, fallible people are worthy of our scorn.

Though there’s plenty of blame to go around, the movie ends up somehow too much and not enough. Yes, this is a close match to the lunacies we’ve seen lately, and it carries that out to its logical calamitous conclusion on an apocalyptic scale. But it’s not exactly a thrill to see a movie as mean and absurd and judgmental as those it’s trying to condemn. Its final image of cynical comeuppance—spoilers: a nude body double standing in for a beloved actress getting chomped by a CG creature—is the ultimate grotesquerie. By then, the whole final stretch of the film leading up to it, a wild mix of surprise unearned sentiment and nihilistic cynicism and cheap nasty gags, has already made it clear the movie has nothing meaningful to explore or suggest. What a bracingly stupid movie: whipping up a frenzy of ugliness to serve as a funhouse mirror of our current problems and expecting us to thank it for its meager insight. Hey, at least it has a couple laughs, too.

No comments:

Post a Comment