The Moon (2023) Review

The Moon (2023) Review

“The Moon” Theatrical Poster

Director: Kim Yong-Hwa
Cast: Sol Kyung-Gu, Do Kyung-Soo, Lee Sung-min, Kim Hee-ae, Jo Han-chul, Jo Seung-yeon
Running Time: 130 min. 

By Paul Bramhall

The Korean film industry is having somewhat of a love affair with science fiction in the 2020’s, a genre which had remained largely ignored since the Korean Wave era of the early 2000’s. In the past 3 years we’ve had dystopian visions of the future presented in the likes of Peninsula and Time to Hunt, colourful space adventures with Space Sweepers, and explorations of cyborgs with artificial intelligence in Jung_E. Thanks to the success of 2021’s Squid Game, the amount of money Netflix has been willing to throw in Korea’s direction has even seen the emergence of sci-fi K-drama’s like Black Knight and The Silent Sea. It’s the latter’s mission to the moon plot that’s used as the same jumping off point for the countries latest big screen outing, which sees visual effects studio Dexter founder Kim Yong-hwa returning to the director’s chair for the appropriately titled The Moon.

It’s the first time for Yong-hwa to return to directing since helming the 2 Along With the Gods movies with 2017’s The Two Worlds and 2018’s The Last 49 Days, productions that were considered landmark moments in showing off Korea’s special effects capabilities, and saw a further 2 immediately green lit. However 5 years later there’s still no sign of the third and fourth instalments, and seeing Yong-hwa back at the helm of another special effects heavy spectacle is perhaps a sign that we shouldn’t hold our breath. Also penning the script, The Moon sees him re-team with K-pop stalwart Do Kyung-soo, who starred in both Along With the Gods movies prior to his mandatory military service, and is here cast as a green behind the ears Navy Seal selected as part of a 3-man mission to the moon.

A flurry of news broadcasts and documentary style interviews open proceedings, providing all the necessary backstory to effectively bring the audience up to speed. It’s December 2029 and there’s a race to be the 2nd nation on the moon, driven by the need to research its water and hydrogen resources, which are hoped to be used for greener energy on Earth. Korea already tried 5 years ago, however their spaceship tragically exploded shortly after take-off, killing everyone onboard. Thrown out of the international space committee for the disaster, the Korean space agency have been left to pick themselves up and go at it alone, and now the time has come for them to launch their 2nd attempt. It’s a historic moment for the country, and being a disaster movie, expect that (bar shortly exploding after take-off) everything that can go wrong does go wrong.

This is established almost straight off the bat, with the news clips subsiding to throw us straight into the thick of it. The crew are already close to the moons orbit, however an unexpected solar flare has caused complications, cutting off communications and other technical trouble. Remember I mentioned the news broadcasts tell us everything we need to know? Included in the clips are interviews with each of the 3 crew members – 1 has a wife pregnant with a daughter who he plans to name while “standing on the moon looking at the Earth”, while the other has a young son who’s gifted him a cuddly gorilla. Short of flashing the words “THESE CHARACTERS WILL NOT SURVIVE VERY LONG” up on the screen, such details of course mean their fate is already sealed. So it’s not too much of a surprise when strong solar winds strike while the pair are outside the ship attempting to conduct repairs, resulting in their expected deaths.

The scenario leaves Kyung-soo as the only surviving member, and least experienced of the trio, who’ll need all his wits to survive the next 2 hours. I mention the time, because at 130 minutes, The Moon manages to cram in more epic ‘just about to die’ speeches and teary-eyed histrionics into its first 15 minutes than the average Hollywood tearjerker fits into its entire runtime. With communications restored he’s able to reconnect with the command centre, resulting in what’s essentially a Korean version of Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, just swap the cool-headed approach for one where everyone’s ridiculously highly strung and seemingly incapable of keeping calm. Thankfully The Moon isn’t based on a true story.

With options limited the command centre staff decide they need to contact the 2 men responsible for designing the failed space mission from 5 years ago, since a lot of their work was still utilised this time. However one committed suicide out of guilt (who appears in flashbacks played by Lee Sung-min – The Witness, The Beast), and the other is living a solitary existence manning an observatory in the wilderness, getting his kicks from hunting CGI boars. Played by Sol Kyung-gu (Kill Boksoon, Kingmaker), his characters backstory is already rife with classic Korean melodrama tropes, however it turns out Yong-hwa’s script is only just getting started.

Feeling like a Korean melodrama beamed straight from the 2000’s, a number of contrived connections are established between the characters, maximising opportunities for impassioned yelling and incessant bawling. Its revealed that Kyung-soo is the son of Sung-min, offering the chance for Kyung-gu to save the offspring of his colleague who killed himself. Not only that, when it’s decided to seek support from NASA who have a space station in the vicinity of Kyung-soo’s ship, it turns out the director of the space station is Kyung-gu’s ex-wife! Played by Kim Hee-ae (Moonlit Winter, The Vanished), in one of The Moon’s lesser unintentionally humorous scenes, her American superior sneers that she wants to help her “Korean husband”. Picking up a family photo from her desk that reveals she’s married to an American, she sternly responds “This is my husband!” One hopes the real NASA is a more professional environment to work in.

Guilt driven suicides, sons who want to complete their dead father’s ambitions, divorces, and casual racism all play just as important a part in The Moon as the unexpected meteor showers and out of control landing modules. However only one element is handled competently, and with a visual effect’s maestro at the helm its expectedly the latter, with The Moon’s visuals delivering the goods, even if they’re not anything we haven’t seen before in similarly themed productions like Gravity and Ad Astra. Just how poorly the more drama driven elements are handled is where The Moon’s struggles lie. In a way Yong-hwa’s economic storytelling is admirable, foregoing any need for establishing scenes or characterisation, and had the runtime been 90 minutes there could well be a lean sci-fi disaster flick amongst the wreckage.

As it is, the fact that everything is turned up to 11 in the initial minutes, then needs to maintain that same intensity for over 2 hours, inevitably results in only 2 options – audience fatigue, or unintentional hilarity. For a non-Korean viewer like myself, I found it to be the latter, with the near constant mishaps and frazzled reactions from everyone becoming increasingly comical. Interestingly at least one cast member seems to understand how ridiculous everything is, with Jo Han-chul (Ashfall, Hide and Seek) playing a government minister. Coming across like a cartoon villain, Han-chul clocks in a hilariously over the top performance, one that takes full advantage of Yong-hwa’s habit of cramming in as many cutaway character reaction shots as possible. Like scenes out of Airplane, in one we see him clinging to the person next to him, and in another he’s cowering in the background, almost like he’s in another movie altogether. 

That same lack of subtlety doesn’t do The Moon any favours in other areas of the production though, the perfect example being we get not one but two sequences that juxtapose scenes of Kyung-gu crying in the past and the present. Perhaps the biggest elephant in the room though, is that at one point it’s revealed a certain character is responsible for the deaths of those on the doomed mission from 5 years earlier, a revelation that apparently has precisely zero consequences for the character in question. At the end of the day, The Moon is basically a Korean daytime TV drama masquerading as a big budget sci-fi flick, and to that end I’m sure it’ll find an audience. To go back to the Apollo 13 comparison, there may be no iconic line like “Huston, we have a problem”, but rest assured, The Moon has many. The challenge audiences will have in making it to the end credits is just of them. 

Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 4/10