Categories: MoonSci-Fi

The Science — and Fun — Behind “Moonfall”

The master of disaster has struck again, and this time our Moon is the ominous villain.  

In “Moonfall,” film director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012) has created yet another sci-fi disaster film where the world faces obliteration from mysterious forces.

The movie opens in theaters today.

Science realists watching the film will likely have complaints. Nearly every known conspiracy theory regarding the Moon is part of the plot, along with implausible twists in the storyline. Then, throw in alien megastructures, artificial intelligence gone wrong and – of course – aliens, and it might feel like a tabloid-inspired film.  

But still, the movie is incredibly fun. The non-stop action starts at the first scene and doesn’t slow down. (Seriously, don’t leave your seat to get popcorn, or you’ll miss an important plot twist). The characters are dealing with relatable, real-life adversities when calamity hits. There are the unlikely heroes we all cheer for and ‘bad guys’ who do the right thing in the end. People actually work together to save the world. The cinematic escapism of a disaster with a happy ending might be exactly what we need in this age of real-life climate-related catastrophes and a seemingly unending pandemic.   

Plus, says geophysicist Mika McKinnon, one of the science consultants for the film, “Moonfall” has plenty of science behind it.

Mika McKinnon, via Twitter.

“It’s never aliens, right?” she said with a laugh. “But this time it was aliens, and that’s why its fiction. Being a science consultant means you are there to add detail and richness, to add possibilities and inspiration.  You know, science is allowed to be fun every once in a while! You can goof around with it, and this is proof that as scientists we don’t need to be deadly serious all the time!”

McKinnon is also a disaster researcher and has been a science consultant for TV and movies for over 10 years, including sci-fi shows like “Stargate: Atlantis” and “Star Trek: Discovery.”

“Working on an Emmerich movie has been on my dream wish list,” she said in an interview with Universe Today.  “He always does gigantic disaster movies, that are huge, over the top and exuberant.”

The Endeavour Space Shuttle moving down the streets of Los Angeles in the sci-fi epic MOONFALL. Image courtesy Lionsgate.

The science consultant team for the film included medical and physical consultants, and an astronaut, Canadian Bjarni Tryggvason, who flew in on the Space Shuttle in 1997. McKinnon said all the consultants had the chance to go into ‘what if’ mode and play around with the science. They were there to bring plausibility, while inspiring the screenwriters to come up with “new and sometimes ludicrous things to add into the movie.”

“In science we build models to try to predict what will happen or to rule things out,” McKinnon explained. “For example, we’d love to be able to predict earthquakes, and for the last several decades we’ve looked at things like tides and built models – which have always said no, we can’t predict earthquakes based on tides. BUT we have the models! And in this case, we can ask, how much stronger would the tidal forces have to be? How much closer would the Moon need to be before tides did start triggering Earthquakes. So that was really fun to start entering numbers into our models, ones that you’d NEVER be able to enter in real life! But we got to do the ‘what if,’ and that was really fun.”

John Bradley (’KC Houseman’, left), Patrick Wilson (’Brian Harper,’ center), and Halle Berry (’Jocinda Fowler,’ right) in the cockpit in the sci-fi epic MOONFALL. Image courtesy of Lionsgate.

As the title infers, the Moon gets inexplicably kicked out of its orbit and is going to fall into and collide with Earth. With only weeks before our planet is destroyed, astronaut and NASA executive Jo Fowler (Halle Berry) puts together a bare-bones team to save the world, including a down-on-his-luck former astronaut Brian Harper (Patrick Wilson), and conspiracy theorist K. C. Houseman (John Bradley). As you might have already guessed, the conspiracy theorist foresees this collision before anyone else. And this unlikely crew are the only ones who can save humanity by – what else – nuking the insides of the Moon and the mysterious forces propelling it.

McKinnon said she also got to delve into her sweet spot: disaster response.

“The core concept of disaster response is, survive together or die alone,” she said. “We need to have people working together in order to save everyone. They need to have trust. But in the film, there’s an element of the characters’ personal history that has disturbed their trust and they need to work their way through it in order to resume that trust and keep moving forward. That’s real-life disaster response right there! That’s interdisciplinary research, and that’s how you create resilience.”

John Bradley portrays Moon conspiracy theorist “K.C. Houseman” peering out the window of the Endeavour Space Shuttle in the sci-fi epic MOONFALL. Image courtesy of Lionsgate.

In her career, McKinnon certainly has experience dealing with conspiracy theorists.

“Every space communicator has dealt with conspiracy theories about the Moon,” she said, “its part and parcel of the profession, it seems! And in this film, we literally have alternative facts and conspiracy theories. But we got to look at how the science might work if it actually was real life, and go from there.”

Even though in real life, the Moon is actually slowly moving away from Earth – and not heading toward us — McKinnon said she enjoyed going down the rabbit holes of science that aren’t part of her usual science career.

“I know some people write off exuberant disaster movies as being too cheesy,” McKinnon said, “and they might pull apart all the ways the science is wrong. But every once in a while, we can let science be playful and let it enhance our thinking. This isn’t a documentary or university lecture, it’s a game where you get to play with real life and that makes it fun.”

The Endeavor Space Shuttle dodging debris approaching the Moon’s surface in the sci-fi epic MOONFALL. Image courtesy Lionsgate.

Nancy Atkinson

Nancy has been with Universe Today since 2004, and has published over 6,000 articles on space exploration, astronomy, science and technology. She is the author of two books: "Eight Years to the Moon: the History of the Apollo Missions," (2019) which shares the stories of 60 engineers and scientists who worked behind the scenes to make landing on the Moon possible; and "Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos" (2016) tells the stories of those who work on NASA's robotic missions to explore the Solar System and beyond. Follow Nancy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/Nancy_A and and Instagram at and https://www.instagram.com/nancyatkinson_ut/

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