Fiction Science Club

The realities behind the ridiculousness of ‘Moonfall’

Even geophysicist Mika McKinnon, one of the science consultants for a $140 million disaster movie called “Moonfall,” admits that the moon-crashing tale is ridiculously exuberant.

So what’s wrong with that?

“A movie is supposed to be fun, and science is allowed to be fun,” McKinnon says in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the intersection of science and fiction. “You don’t need to nitpick at it, or rip it all apart.”

Science-minded spoilsports would probably find it about as easy to rip apart the plot of “Moonfall” as it was for giant tidal waves to rip apart the space shuttle launch pad at California’s Vandenberg Space Force Base in the movie. (One of the plot twists involves taking the shuttle Endeavour off its L.A. museum perch and blasting off from Vandenberg, which was once set up as a shuttle launch site.)

The movie is based on a premise that’s even harder to imagine than resurrecting a space shuttle for a lunar mission: A conspiracy theorist (portrayed by portly John Bradley of “Game of Thrones” fame) discovers that the moon is spiraling out of orbit toward Earth, and eventually persuades NASA to go into world-saving mode (with Halle Berry and Patrick Wilson playing leading roles).

“Moonfall” riffs on the recent scientific speculation over alien megastructures, throws in a villainous swarm of nanobots, and adds a dash of Apollo moon-hoax hokum. It’s the kind of ripped-from-the-tabloid-headlines approach that’s worked in the past for the film’s director, Roland Emmerich, in movies like “Independence Day,” “2012” and “The Day After Tomorrow.”

“There are some who believe that the moon is not a natural object,” Emmerich says in the “Moonfall” production notes. “I thought that was an intriguing idea for a movie. What happens if this object falls down to Earth?”

McKinnon and the movie’s other science consultants were tasked with providing plausible answers to that implausible question.

“The science is there to add some plausibility,” she told me. “It’s there to add some details. It’s there to inspire the writers to come up with new and more ludicrous things to add on.”

McKinnon, who lives in Vancouver, B.C., said she’s been doing this sort of thing for more than a decade — for successful sci-fi shows like “Stargate: Atlantis” and “Star Trek: Discovery,” as well as for “pilots that have never been aired.”

Mika McKinnon is a Canadian geophysicist, disaster researcher and science consultant. (Image via Twitter)

That’s in addition to her day job as a co-investigator for Project ESPRESSO, where she draws upon her expertise in terrestrial landslides and hazard mapping to assess the risks that robotic and human explorers might face on the surfaces of other celestial bodies.

As a geophysicist with a master’s degree from the University of British Columbia, she’s well aware that the moon is actually moving ever so slowly away from Earth, due to tidal friction with Earth’s oceans. (The same tidal phenomenon is behind the lengthening of our planet’s day at the rate of about one second every 40,000 years.)

“But there’s no reason you couldn’t change your input numbers, and just push it in the other direction and find out what happens,” McKinnon said.

The computer models that scientists use to analyze tidal effects came in handy to flesh out the spectacular special effects in “Moonfall.”

“Is there more frequent earthquakes during particular times of the tides? No, there is not, but we’ve done the models enough that now we know why not, and go, ‘Oh, so how much closer would the moon need to be in order for it to impact your earthquakes?'” McKinnon said.

McKinnon loved being able to dive down rabbit holes of scientific lore — for example, to figure out how close the moon could get to Earth before it starts breaking up (11,470 miles) or to tease out how a giant wave caused by tidal forces (also known as a tidal bore) differs from tsunami waves (which are often erroneously called tidal waves).

“Geophysics is one of those obscure sciences where even the other scientists don’t quite know what we do,” she said. “And to be able to have this incredibly technical aspect of my field and our casual slang of how we talk about it make it into a script was quite fun.”

It was even more fun to interact with the writers as well as the other science consultants on Emmerich’s team — a team that included astronauts, planetary scientists and NASA officials. Much of that interaction occurred via Zoom sessions during the pandemic.

“This idea of being able to take this ridiculous scenario of the moon crashing into the Earth and go, ‘OK, and then what? And then what? And just keep piling on the disasters and amping them up. … It’s just like having the cotton candy job,”  McKinnon said.

So is there anything from the movie that can be applied to real life? Yes, according to McKinnon. For example, it’s good to know that irritable bowel syndrome isn’t a deal-breaker when it comes to flying in space. And it’s good to know where to seek refuge in the event of a crisis of “Moonfall” proportions. “If you’re looking for geological stability, Colorado’s a good choice,” McKinnon said. “You’re not going to really get many earthquakes there.”

But the most important lesson from “Moonfall” may well have to do with people rather than planetary science.

“One of the core tenets of disasters is that you’re going to either survive together, or die alone,” McKinnon said. “We actually have research … where neighborhoods that have a history of house parties, where they invite their neighbors over, have higher survival rates and stronger community resilience.”

That message comes through loud and clear in the way the characters in “Moonfall” respond to the ridiculous disasters they face.

“They have to overcome their backstory, their past elements of distrust in order to now be able to trust each other’s expertise and move forward,” McKinnon said. “That character healing is actually a core part of their survival. And that makes sense in real life — that you have to have that trust.”

Cosmic Log Used Book Club

If you’re looking for a somewhat less ridiculous tale that involves the moon’s destruction, check out “Seveneves,” a novel by Seattle sci-fi author Neal Stephenson that hews more closely to the real-world physics of smashing the moon to pieces.

Seveneves cover
“Seveneves” by Neal Stephenson (William Morrow)

“I went to some effort to pay attention to the orbital mechanics and the physics,” Stephenson told me a couple of years ago. “I’m not saying the whole thing was completely nailed down, scientifically, but it was rooted in at least the science of orbital mechanics.”

“Seveneves” came out in 2015, and I included the 880-page novel in my book recommendations for that winter. Now it’s been around long enough to qualify for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club (and perhaps for a movie adaptation as well). The CLUB Club highlights books with cosmic themes that are likely to be available at your local library or secondhand book shop.

“Moonfall” opens in theaters on Feb. 4. Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via AnchorAppleGoogleOvercastSpotifyBreakerPocket Casts, Radio Public and Reason. If you like Fiction Science, please rate the podcast and subscribe to get alerts for future episodes.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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