There was a time not long ago when Rolland Emmerich was one of the most profitable and popular filmmakers alive. He was the man behind massive blockbusters like Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, The Patriot, 2012, and White House Down. He was untouchable and he could make any schlock action movie he wanted popular. Now his newest film Moonfall has only grossed roughly $20 million of its $146 million budget back at the box office, at the time of writing. The second weekend box office is expected to drop 70%. What happened here?
Moonfall is a weird film, mostly because it feels out of date. In a time when the most popular films are Spider-Man No Way Home, Ghostbusters Afterlife and Venom: Let There Be Carnage, you would think that nostalgia would sell. This new Emmerich film is another kind of nostalgia though. It’s a film that feels like it was supposed to have been made a decade ago. Disaster movies have seemingly fallen out of the public favor. By that I mean, nothing without a brand name breaks $100 million at the box office anymore…
Moonfall is a very dumb movie. It’s shallow, unscientific, and falls back entirely on its over-the-top spectacular to sell a bizarre high concept premise designed to sneak in a preachy message about the dangers of artificial intelligence. That hasn’t stopped Emmerich films from being successful before though. Most of his blockbusters have been very successful. Up until Independence Day: Resurgence in 2016, he was a dependable name for blockbuster success. He even maintained that financial record with 2019’s wonderful and modestly successful WWII film Midway.
His movies are always about conspiracy theorists and average folks who have to save the world from a disaster while cowardly government bureaucrats get put in their place to watch as guts and down-home common sense save the world from climate change or aliens. Moonfall is the epitome of that premise.
So why is Moonfall bombing?
Despite all of the claims of “superhero burnout” among the film press and grumbling among my fellow cinephiles, they’re the only films making money anymore. The only other avenue for successfully releasing a film in 2022 is via streaming service where the likes of Don’t Look Up can worm their way into the online film discourse purely by being free at the point of service.
So where does a film like Moonfall fit into that equation? As film critic Sonny Bunch points out in a piece for The Bullwark, part of that fatigue might just be a distaste for disaster films in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“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.”
There’s always the possibility that audiences just didn’t think the trailers for Moonfall looked very good. Frankly, it’s not very good. It’s dumb, emotionally stunted, and shallow. It is however a film filled with great spectacle. It’s a film where you get the watch the moon nearly crash into the earth some of the images are enormous and striking. In a previous decade, this movie would’ve at least earned its budget back.
As the film industry continues its strange cascade – both shrinking in size and bloating itself with massive budgets and nostalgia – one wonders when the next stage of Hollywood will come about? When will this strange wave crest and give way to smaller stories and more personal artists? For a minute, it looked like COVID-19 would be the death blow to studio filmmaking but 2021 showed that audiences will still show up en mass, just not for original films. Even Christopher Nolan is struggling in this new paradigm with his excellent 2020 film Tenet bombing at the box office.
Say what you will about Emmerich but a blockbuster director who takes off time to make movies as personal and opinionated as Anonymous and Stonewall with his spare time, money, and clout isn’t someone who lacks a voice. Emmerich, for all of his sins, is an artist with a unique voice much like Michael Bay. And now the tide has turned on them both. It would appear that the path forward in Hollywood is bigger and more nostalgic and that artists who were once dependable can’t be depended upon anymore, at least for now.