The great trope of a confined romance of (in)convenience sparking on a long-distance trip, like on a transatlantic crossing, has long complicated the cinematic lives of charismatic, magnetized yet seemingly incompatible people. Taking that to the stars, the final frontier for everything including narrative contrivances, is a logical progression. Space tourism is here and the kind of space travel that would mirror past generations’ oceanic voyages palpably nears. Enter Moonshot, director Chris Winterbauer’s movie that forces together two romance-adjacent up-and-comers (Lana Condor of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Cole Sprouse of Riverdale) in order for them to question their ambitions, their current relationships and their present infatuation. Giving it all a sci-fi coat of paint—colorful jumpsuits, sliding Star Trek doors, snippets of interplanetary CG scene-setting—can’t cover up how standardized Max Taxe’s script feels, nor the sparklessness of its leads. Unfortunately, even though Moonshot aims high, its misfire falls all the way back down to humble terra firma.
Sprouse’s Walt spends his days pining after Mars, partially colonized by his local college’s space program, and slinging lattes. He’s singularly focused and singularly unskilled—his 30-odd applications have all been rightly rejected, while his snippy robo-manager at the coffee shop has been programmed with ten times his personality. He runs into Sophie (Condor) by earthbound happenstance, crunching the device she uses to communicate with (and pine after) her long-distance Martian boyfriend. The pair’s antagonistic meet-cute culminates in an unlikely scheme to sneak Walk aboard her flight to Mars, with both parties looking to visit a significant other…or at least using their significant others as excuses to leave their sad lives behind.
In this way, the destination doesn’t matter. It rarely does in these kinds of movies. But it’s almost exhausting how little Moonshot does to separate Walt stowing away on say, a steamliner, from smuggling onto a spaceship. The aesthetics are barely distinct; the lingo only slightly altered. It’s simply an excuse to confine Walt and Sophie together in the same room for 35 days, pretending to be a couple, where their relationship inevitably turns from snarky disdain (delivered by Sprouse as a would-be motormouth charmer and by Condor as a more entertaining, cutting stick-in-the-mud) to a begrudging crush. The pair aren’t entirely unlikable, though their zingers and emotional development are partitioned off so distinctly that it draws attention to just how by-the-numbers the screenwriting is. Rather, they’re just…trope vessels, stuck on a spacefaring trope vessel, shot and edited into another. The setting feels like such a tacked-on afterthought that they might as well have called it Rom-Com: In Space.
That is, until they finally arrive. There, they’re confronted with the fallout from their new feelings and the man in charge of the Mars project: “Self-made” billionaire astronaut Leon Kovi (Zach Braff), a walking parody without the anagramic decency to at least go by Leon Skum. But he’s amusing and weird and brings a strange specificity to a script which badly needs something to hold onto besides banal banter. Braff’s pie-eyed, self-important delivery is finally a choice in a movie designed to run on autopilot. His plans—for space, for Walt, for the future at large—are more engaging in his few scenes than the rest of the movie combined. But once Walt and Sophie finish their journey, there’s barely any story left to tell or movie left to unfurl. You’ve known where it was going this whole time, and the one character interesting enough to not quite fit into the fill-in-the-blank script comes too late to affect things.
Moonshot’s interests lie in remapping its ancient premise onto the #wanderlust generation. Life is a constant grass-is-greener journey to some Other destination, though exactly where or why doesn’t matter. The goal is simply to never stop moving. To be liminal is to have the excuse of still being a work-in-progress; to settle down is to confront reality. Sophie and Walt’s well-worn route through their rom-com might take them to the stars, but their need for constant bland “adventure”—just like our need to follow the same arcs we’ve watched for decades, now featuring interstellar imagery—reveals a sad fear of actually facing something new.
Director: Chris Winterbauer
Writers: Max Taxe
Stars: Cole Sprouse, Lana Condor, Mason Gooding, Emily Rudd, Zach Braff
Release Date: March 31, 2022 (HBO Max)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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