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Film Review: Moonwalkers

Moonwalkers (2015; Directed by Antoine Bardou-Jacquet)

Moonwalkers is a tantalizing concept with next to no effective execution. Adapting persistent conspiracy theories about the Apollo 11 moon landing into a wannabe-loopy psychedelic period action-comedy, the debut film by Antoine Bardou-Jacquet fails to even do those imaginative monuments to paranoid anti-establishment fantasy proper justice. A macho crime subplot and splattery sub-Tarantino closing shootout are tacked awkwardly onto a visually-askew spoof of the dissolution of the hippie counterculture and a mild satire of movie production like a pitbull sown back-to-back with a pigeon. Even if any of those constituent parts work for a scene, a line, or a shot, the whole is so tonally amateurish and painfully unfunny (anti-funny, even) that any ground gained is quickly lost.

The core moon landing conspiracy theory that underscores Moonwalkers (the screenplay is by Dean Craig) proposes that NASA was seriously concerned about the PR problems should the 1969 Apollo 11 mission either fail to land on the moon or land and fail to transmit compelling images for television viewers back on Earth. As a failsafe for either of these eventualities, NASA is purported to have approached the renowned director Stanley Kubrick, fresh from his buzzy, technically impressive science-fiction epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, to produce convincing studio-shot moonwalking footage for use in proving to the world that American astronauts had stepped on the lunar surface.

This is one of the more open and generous of the fake moon landing theories. It allows for every potentiality from Kubrick’s footage being a mere unused backup when the mission and broadcast proved successful (Moonwalkers opts for this least-radical option) to the film being substituted for an aesthetically unpleasing landing (this, as far as it’s possible to tell, is the theory advanced by Jay Weidner in Room 237, in which he details his reading of The Shining as Kubrick’s coded confession of his role in the hoax) to the video standing in for a landing (or indeed for a manned flight to the moon) that never actually happened. Whichever potentiality ones chooses, the theory is rich material for a fictional film, bringing together space exploration, movie-geek ephemera, U.S. government cover-ups, and the late 1960s social and cultural milieu into a conceivably fascinating hybrid.

Moonwalkers is not that fascinating hybird film. Indeed, it barely bothers to try and keep you watching. It casts Ron Perlman as Kidman, a CIA agent haunted by nightmare visions from his time in the Vietnam War who is tasked by his superiors to travel to England and speak to Kubrick’s agent about a lucrative offer to produce the fake moon landing footage on a very tight deadline. Kidman, posing as a Hollywood producer, does not meet that agent, the pompous, fashionable, coke-snorting Derek Kaye (Stephen Campbell Moore), but Jonny (Rupert Grint), a perpetually hapless small-time band manager who is begging Kaye for a reference or for some money at the time of Kidman’s appointment and half-unintentionally passes himself off as Kubrick’s representation when the American flashes a suitcase full of cash by way of compensation for the great director’s hoax-crafting efforts.

The arrogant Kaye is one in an overlong line of supporting characters that Bardou-Jacquet and Craig believe to be hilarious but tend to be, above all, obnoxious and irritating. Another is Jonny’s perma-stoned flatmate Leon (Robert Sheehan), whom he casts as a faux-Kubrick to meet with Kidman and pretend to accept the job for just long enough to relieve him of his case of money. Miraculously, it works, but Jonny and his mates unwisely splash the cash at a Swinging London club and draw the attention of the most dangerous of his creditors, a criminal underworld kingpin known as the Ironmonger whose underlings relieve Jonny of the CIA man’s valuable briefcase. Kidman also discovers Jonny and Leon’s ruse (mostly by beating up leather-glad biker Nazis in a pub bathroom, as you do) and, with pressure from the States and a tight deadline looming, forces them to help him make the moon film anyway. The mismatched allies decamp to the sprawling, half-abandoned manor house of Jonny’s acquaintance Renatus (Tom Audenaert), a buffoonish avant-garde film artist and generalized hippie grotesque, who will be their Kubrick substitute, while Kidman confronts the Ironmonger and his army of thugs to effect the return of his bosses’ cash.

This movie may sound like it would be a freewheeling, edgy genre-mixing romp, like Guy Ritchie meets Terry Gilliam with some Coen Brothers quirkiness along for the ride. But it isn’t. Dear me, how it isn’t. As soon as its magnificent yet derivative Yellow Submarine parody opening animated credits sequence ends, Moonwalkers begins striking wrong notes. Craig and Bardou-Jacquet are unerring in their shared conviction about the inherent comedic strength of foul language, drug use, and brutal violence. It’s quite simply funny to them (or at the very least cool) when someone swears or snorts coke or beats up another person, an assessment divorced entirely from the vital specifics of context, timing, and delivery. When the climactic fake lunar film shoot is threatened by an armed assault by the Ironmonger and his gang, the ensuing bloodbath clashes unproductively with Jonny and Leon’s goofily inept attempt to portray astronauts for the camera.

Of course, the effectiveness of the climax is greatly reduced by the ineptitude on display up to that point. Rupert Grint is the least successful of the Harry Potter movies’ central trio of young actors for a lot of reasons, but Jonny is enough of a honorary Weasley that he ought to be able to get a grip on this good-natured loser of a character. But Grint is a lost boy here, his panicked exasperation seemingly directed increasingly not at the movie-within-a-movie but the larger movie itself. Perlman – a grizzled vet of every kind of genre B-movie, many surely much worse than this one – does better, embodying the threatening hard man with his granite-block bulk and injecting some much-needed if brief levity in the midst of a psychedelic acid trip. Audenaert has some mildly amusing moments as the perpetually shirtless, pot-bellied Renatus (his previous film, a black-and-white slow-motion loop of himself bouncing on a trampoline wearing only underwear which he claims took him years to make, is a good joke that is pushed too hard), but mostly the supposed colourful supporting characters are merely grating (especially the preening, ridiculous lead singer of the band Jonny manages, played with excessive broadness by Eric Lampaert).

Bardou-Jacquet is not incapable of brief gasps of visual interest, and loving attention is given to the rambling countercultural detritus of the production design of Jonny’s shitty flat and Renatus’ tumble-down great mansion and hippie burn-out flophouse. Indeed, as a winking goof on those damned dirty hippies and their narcotics-fueled creative crud-piles, Moonwalkers manages near-miss moments of wit and inspiration. But these are mere flashes amid the confused, unsightly mess, which can be laid at the feet of Craig’s problematic hash of a screenplay first but might have been cleaned up by a director of more experience and confidence (and, frankly, of some semblance of driving vision) than Bardou-Jacquet.

The inconsistency of overall vision is laid bare in the film’s conclusion, an incongruously reverent and celebratory montage of archival footage of the national (indeed, global) awe and appreciation that greeted the news and the televised footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Scored by Creedence Clearwater Revival’s fiery protest anthem “Fortunate Son”, this sequence is profoundly mixed-up in its intention and in its relationship to all that has come before it. Moonwalkers depicts a wasteful, secretive, and personally deplorable military-intelligence cabal (Kidman’s superior, the crude order-barking Colonel Dickford, played by Jay Benedict, is likely a tribute to General Jack D. Ripper from Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove) willing to deceive its own citizens and the entire world for the sake of a Cold War PR triumph, indulges paranoid anti-government conspiracy theories in a quasi-comedic fashion, but then busts out the pom-poms for this boomer culture landmark anyway? Or is the chosen licensed song, a blazing broadside against the greedy wars of unaccountable elites, supposed to be ironic, undermining the tone of triumphal achievement around the lunar missions? Either Bardou-Jacquet doesn’t know, can’t decide, or is insufficient to the task of conveying his thoughts clearly through sound and image. Moonwalkers could have been fun, hilarious, and transgressive, but it is also insufficient to its task.

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