Review by Daniel Lima
Lamenting the state of the blockbuster today almost feels redundant. It seems even general audiences are growing tired of the way these films are made, not only in terms of the reliance on weightless CGI-driven set pieces, but also with regards to their lack of authorial voice, failure to generate emotional stakes, and entirely interchangeable aesthetic. Though its budget is paltry compared to American studio tentpoles, the South Korean film The Moon has all glitz and gleam expected from a modern blockbuster, as well as all the flaws.
Set in the near-future, the film begins with the failure of South Korea’s first attempt at a manned moon landing. It then falls on the ground crew to help get their lone surviving astronaut back home safely. Will they succeed, or will the crowd-pleasing summer movie spend two hours on a narrative where the only real stake is the life of one man, only to end with his death? It’s bound to keep the entire audience at the edge of their seat, so long as they have never experienced a traditional narrative in any medium ever.
Truthfully, a foregone conclusion isn’t actually an issue for a survival story. After all, there are plenty of compelling tales of survival, fictional and otherwise. When handling a narrative like this, the hook is in the details — the depth you give to the characters, how harrowing the set pieces are, even the social commentary offered. As boilerplate as the skeleton of a film like this is, there is room to deliver something interesting.
That does not happen here.
A hallmark of disaster movies is a large ensemble of stars, playing idiosyncratic characters, who are given ample opportunity to bounce off each other. Unfortunately, this film is so narrowly focused on the procedural plot that the limited amount of character work goes to waste. The actors do what they can with the scraps of melodrama here and there, but scenes meant to humanize them move with the same haste as the set pieces, making these moments feel inessential.
This lack of depth is compounded by a lack of distinct characterization. As most of the runtime is focused solely on the mission, most of the performers get nothing to do besides speak technobabble and react to screens. Even the astronaut who serves as the driving force of the narrative lacks a personality beyond "determined." Considering how long the film is, and how little time is spent on action where the astronauts' life is in immediate danger, it’s confounding that these individuals aren’t given any idiosyncrasies.
The action that is here is serviceable by modern standards. That this movie has a budget more comparable to an American studio comedy than a superhero movie goes to show how bad Western standards have gotten, as this looks leagues ahead of the computer-generated slush those films produce. It makes moments like a meteor shower, or the astronaut’s spacecraft tumbling through the vacuum, feel more grounded and real than it otherwise would.
Of course, that’s a double-edged sword when most of the film is set in a featureless void. As impressive as the effects work is, the emptiness of space doesn’t provide the ever-shifting environmental challenges that make for the most compelling action. The film boils down to the astronaut trying to outrun rocks, or tumbling around a vessel, neither of which are visually dynamic. That he is so reliant on the team on Earth also robs him of agency within the set pieces, undercutting the tension even more. For their part, the ground team spends the entire runtime in a big command center, staring at large screens and sitting in board rooms, the kind of spaces you’d find in any movie tackling this subject matter.
This could be livened up by some dynamic camerawork, compositions that communicate something about the characters, maybe even an editing style that lends weight to scenes where characters figure but what to do. Alas, there is a profound lack of imagination in the basic craft of the film. Nothing is egregiously bad, but every element feels entirely conventional and machine-like. That both the procedural plot on Earth and the action in space look and feel the same renders the set pieces just as inessential as the attempts to flesh out the characters.
While not every disaster movie needs to offer a message, it can certainly help differentiate one from its peers. Space movies especially tend to display pro-science and pro-government attitudes, for obvious reasons, and an emphasis on international cooperation. The Moon hits all those familiar beats, with a particularly heavy dose of jingoism. While that’s not inherently bad, it does feel lazy, relying on the audience’s sense of national pride to carry the emotional stakes. It feels particularly distasteful here, where a character’s past misdeed is meant to be ignored in favor of their noble contribution to this particular mission. At least, it would if there were any reason to be invested in their character in the first place.
All that said, this is not an incompetently made movie. The effects work is good, the actors are making the most of what they’re given, the craft elements are perfunctory but never egregious. The film never becomes an endurance test — it’s an easy enough watch. If all you ever want from a movie is something to pass the time, there are certainly worse options. For anyone looking for something exciting, something memorable, something that generates any emotion at all, however, know that The Moon is every bit as bland and nondescript as its title.
The Moon hits theaters August 18.