The complete and disastrous failure of Moonfall, the new apocalyptic sci-fi action flick from Roland Emmerich, is worth taking a moment to ruminate on.
Once upon a time, Emmerich was the king of big-budget spectacle (or at least a crown prince in The Court of King Bay). From Stargate to Independence Day to Godzilla to The Day After Tomorrow to 2012, Emmerich made a string of successful flicks that were basically premised on “X is happening and the world is ending so someone you know and love has to stop it.” Try it out!
“Aliens are invading and the world is ending so The Fresh Prince has to stop it.” “The ancient Mayan doomsday prophecy is happening and the world is ending so Lloyd Dobler has to stop it.” “We’ve discovered a portal to a world that resembles ancient Egypt and the pharaoh wants revenge so Sex Lies and Videotape and Big Trouble in Little China have to stop it.”
You get the idea. And audiences got the idea! These movies were all more or less hits. Some bigger than others, for sure, and some were kind of surprise misses. (How Roland Emmerich botched a Godzilla movie, I’ll never know, but Bulwark Goes to Hollywood guest Kevin Goetz has an idea, noting in his book Audience-ology that a rushed schedule led to the studio skipping audience testing.) Even when these movies were bad, audiences didn’t really care; 2012 is very bad and it grossed three-quarters of a billion worldwide and God only knows how much in DVD and Blu-ray sales.
Somewhere along the way this formula stopped working. White House Down grossed a little over $200 million worldwide, Independence Day: Resurgence grossed less than half of its predecessor, and Midway bombed with just $127 million worldwide. Moonfall, meanwhile, has grossed a ghastly $17 million worldwide and will be lucky to hit $30 million domestic.
What happened here? Moonfall is clearly part of the formula that was successful for so long: “The moon is going to crash into Earth and the world is ending so Storm and Aquaman’s villainous brother have to stop it.” It has big action set pieces and a ridiculous grasp of physics and a decent run time. It’s fun and funny; it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
And it is utterly out of step with the times. Making this movie today is a bit like releasing an MGM musical today or a John Wayne cowboy flick today. It’s almost … quaint.
As Katherine Miller noted in a smart essay for BuzzFeed a little while back, the need to see the end of the world played out onscreen and how we’d all deal with (and defeat it) has been sublimated into the never-ending series that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe: “It's a series about the world ending via surreal external forces that never really deals with what it means for the world to end.” Katherine tied that to our feelings about the pandemic, which drags on with people shouting at each other about how open or how closed the nation is, relatively speaking, even as a couple thousand people who have the disease die every day.
And maybe that’s why the big, cinematic, explosive catastrophe that is the hallmark of the Emmerich picture doesn’t really make much sense in a world where with background noise that is a monthly five-figure death toll from disease or the looming threat of climate change causing a series of minor catastrophes around the globe that make life more annoying but not necessarily immediately deadly.
Add to that audience taste for the familiar (hence the relentless fracking of intellectual property reserves while whole fields of original content lay untapped) and you have a world with which Roland Emmerich is, simply, out of step. It’s too bad: I’ve generally found his films’ brand of goofy earnestness to be pretty entertaining. But unless you can make a Goofy Earnestness Cinematic Universe, well, you’re pretty much out of luck in this day and age.
At least at the $200 million budget level.
Did you know that you can sign up for Across the Movie Aisle and The Bulwark Goes to Hollywood on your preferred podcast apps? Click on the links above to find your favorite. And if you sign up for Bulwark+, you’ll get access to a bonus ATMA every week. On this week’s members-only episode we talked about the appeal of Jackass … but more than that, it was about the idea of male friendship. Sign up today!
This week I reviewed Death on the Nile, an important movie to watch if you want to understand the meaning of Hercule Poirot’s mustache.
I’ll just plug BGTH one more time, as I think this episode with John Zaozirny is a must-listen if you want to understand what life as a working screenwriter is like. And his insights on breaking into the business are incredibly important for anyone trying to find their place in the Hollywood ecosystem. Plus: He’s a Bulwark+ subscriber! I had no idea until we started chatting.
Make sure to check out Addison del Mastro’s essay on the parody-song writer Allan Sherman and his uncanny ability to capture mid-century American concerns.
Tim Miller on why we should’ve boycotted the Olympics is a must-watch.
Apparently Eminem was in the running to star as Mad Max in Fury Road. That’s uh … hm.
The Entertainment Strategy Guy suggests that the films nominated for best picture were more popular than last year’s. Which makes sense, given that Don’t Look Up is the second-most-popular Netflix flick ever.
Steven Soderbergh has a new flick out! It’s on HBO Max! It’s called Kimi. Seems to have pretty good reviews. I’ll probably watch it today!
Assigned Viewing: Step Brothers (Netflix)
I miss the days when Adam McKay was making dumb movies that he knew were dumb instead of dumb movies that he thinks are smart (cough Don’t Look Up cough).
Step Brothers is just endlessly entertaining, a true marvel of half-witted fools butting heads with one another. The number of jokes, in the traditional sense, are fairly low; but watching Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly antagonize one another until they come to blows is just magical filmmaking. And the rest of the cast—Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Richard Jenkins, Mart Steenburgen—is gold. I love this dumb movie so much.