Despite the last few years, it’s not the end of the world. Yet. That hasn’t stopped filmmakers from predicting it. Recently two high profile films have dealt with a disaster about to devastate the Earth: Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up and Roland Emmerich’s Moonfall. Despite the similar themes, the films have had very different reactions. Moonfall has garnered a reputation as a dumb popcorn flick, while, although not receiving unanimous praise, Don’t Look Up has an Oscar nomination. So just why are these two films so different?
Moonfall is a classic Roland Emmerich disaster movie. Having directed films such as The Day After Tomorrow, Independence Day, and 2012 Emmerich has defined the disaster movie genre. His latest sees a mysterious force knock the moon out of its orbit, causing it to “fall” towards the Earth. It’s full of cliches as the characters fly to the moon to try and save the world. Full of one-liners and scenes of destruction. Emmerich is well known for these types of films but seems to be having diminishing returns with each film. With only two features, one of which is Independence Day being certified “fresh”. From the title and first trailer, audiences knew what to expect. It’s big, loud and dumb, which is part of the charm, depending on your view.
By contrast, Don’t Look Up is a very different film. Focusing on the media’s (especially American) reaction to the end of the world. Scientists desperately try to warn people but are unable to get their message across. It’s more of a satire than a straight comedy, as people react with disinterest and mockery. McKay is known for directing many of Will Ferrel’s features, such as the Anchorman films and Step Brothers. Recently he has moved into more serious works, with Vice and The Big Short looking at real-world events and corruption. Though it’s not very subtle, it has an important message and some good laughs
Why The Reception?
The reaction to both films has been mixed, but for the most part, Don’t Look Up is fairing better with critics and audiences. It also has an Oscar nod for Best Picture, something McKay has now managed three times. Moonfall is currently considered a flop, opening with a less than $10 million gross against a $150 million budget. The Oscar conversation and message of the former is doing a lot to increase its profile, whilst Moonfall appears to be struggling at the box office.
Whilst most of Emmerich’s films haven’t been critical darlings, they have been huge at the box office. His films are designed to be seen on the big screen, with wide shots of cities being destroyed or characters looking on at the devastation. It is possible that the pandemic is responsible for the poor box office, as many people are still unsure about returning to cinemas. The other explanation is that audiences are simply tired of it. Emmerich’s disaster films have a formula, often with the same character dynamics each time. This has led to them all feeling predictable. There are also some moments that can be seen as sending the wrong message. Elon Musk and Space X are mentioned several times, and one of the main hero characters is a conspiracy theorist. With all that has happened in recent years, conspiracy theorists and the end of the world don’t seem like a fun afternoon at the movies.
Whilst Don’t Look Up isn’t much cheerier, it allows audiences to laugh at the absurdity of the situation. The characters are intentionally enhanced and absurd for comedy and satire, rather than feeling underdeveloped. The cast is made up of several Oscar winners and nominees, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett. Combined with McKay’s recent success, it seemed almost destined for an Oscar nomination. The film is very of its time, poking fun at the current media and political landscape and the fears of concerns people have, as well as the divisions. In short, things look scary, and some things seem less scary if you can laugh at them.
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