Early into Moonfall, former astronaut Jocinda Fowler (played by Halle Berry) gets a call in the middle of the night, with the caller ID indicating, simply: “NASA.” If you can accept that someone would save an entire space agency as a contact, you’re in the right headspace for Moonfall, the latest mind-numbing blockbuster from disaster movie auteur Roland Emmerich. In the film, the moon is knocked out of its orbit by a malicious extraterrestrial artificial intelligence and is put on a collision course with Earth, giving humanity three weeks to come up with a solution before an extinction-level event.
While Moonfall’s silly premise indulges fringe conspiracy theories about the moon being a “megastructure” that was built by aliens, the movie’s biggest twist might be that it has NASA’s stamp of approval. During the making of Moonfall, Emmerich and his crew collaborated with NASA, with the agency sharing high-definition photos of the moon, advising on matters of physics to ensure (some) scientific accuracy, and allowing the film to use the agency’s logo. (It’s unclear whether NASA also helped the official Moonfall Twitter account come up with fire moon tweets, but we’ll assume the agency gives this content the thumbs-up, anyway.)
To better understand what kind of input NASA has on a ridiculous blockbuster about the moon, uh, falling, I pulled a Halle Berry and got NASA on the line. More specifically, I spoke with Jim Green, who served as a scientific consultant for the film. For Green, who has held the position of NASA’s chief scientist since 2018, being a consultant for Moonfall probably doesn’t rank high on the list of career achievements, which includes overseeing missions throughout the solar system and contributing to more than 100 scientific papers. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t want Moonfall to depict apocalyptic moon mayhem as accurately as possible.
How did you end up consulting for Moonfall?
I’ve done a fair amount of consulting. I was the lead consultant on The Martian, which was just a joy to work on. I’m sure you’ve seen it—it’s a pretty fantastic movie. I also moderated an episode of PBS’s Nova about 10 years ago on the search for life beyond Earth, which turns out to be one of the most popular Novas ever.
What happens in all these cases is any organization that would like some NASA consultants, or to bounce ideas off NASA scientists as a reality check, they get approval through the Office of Communications. The person that runs that is Bert Ulrich. And so, when the Moonfall group called NASA, he said, “You need to talk to Jim Green.” Now, I spent, I don’t know, an hour or so on the phone with them talking about the physics of the Earth and the moon, the importance that the moon plays in providing a stable environment for the Earth for life to have exploded the way it has. It’s not commonly known how important the role the moon plays in stabilizing our rotational axis, modulating our climate, keeping our spin to a point where 24 hours is a good cadence.
We talked about what would happen if the moon came closer to the Earth. The Earth would spin up. The tides, of course, would get greater. There’d be a lot more volcanic activity. And they were delighted because they could see that, I think, “Oh, here’s disaster one, disaster two, disaster three.” [Laughs.]
What are the considerations for NASA when choosing whether or not to consult with a movie? I have to admit, NASA collaborating with a movie as silly as Moonfall took me by surprise.
Those organizations have to connect with NASA at the right place. You don’t just call Jim Green up and expect him to be on the set tomorrow. No, that ain’t going to happen. I think last year we were involved in more than 120 different types of productions. We can only do so much. We can’t say yes to everything. From my perspective, if I have time, I will do it. It’s a fun thing, I like science fiction.
Science fiction gives us an opportunity to think about our future. You’ve got to have time to think about your future, or you don’t have a future. But science fiction can be hard science fiction, more like The Martian, or completely wild like Moonfall. And, for me, I love it all. I’ll get some popcorn, go to the theater, check my science at the door, and just go on in and enjoy the movie. It’s a movie: The visual effects, dialogue, the entertainment, the comedy, the tragedy played against a space theme is really quite fun. You’re not going to find me like some prominent people that like to tear apart all the details of a movie. I’m just going to enjoy it.
Some of the military characters in Moonfall propose nuking the moon, which seems like a terrible idea. What would actually happen to Earth if the moon was destroyed, and how would that differ from what would happen to Earth if the moon slowly moved toward our planet?
All the effects that the moon provides the Earth that allows mitigation of huge climate changes would go away. The Earth turns out to be very lumpy in gravity. So that means that as the Earth goes around the sun, we’re in a slightly elliptical orbit. So when we’re really close to the sun, we get a big tug. But during the time as it spins, there’ll be times of the day for which there will be a mass of the Earth pointing to the sun and the sun will give it an additional tug. And just like a top spinning, it’ll start laying over. So it will change our rotational axis. Well, if you can imagine the Arctic Circle where it’s really cold, and now you tilt the Earth, then the latitudinal range of the Arctic Circle is not the little cap we have. It probably goes down well into the United States.
Having the United States get, for instance, only getting 40 or 50 percent of the sunlight we get to grow food because we’re at an angle—with a shorter day in terms of daylight, that’s a game-changer. I mean, it wouldn’t take long before life on Earth would be quite severe. We’d be all huddled down in the equatorial area, and I got news for you: There’s not a lot of land in the equatorial area.
We think about these things, in all honesty, because as we see other planets that are Earth-sized and at similar locations from their star that make them get the energy and warmth, we want to know what that climate is like. We want to know what the rotational tilt is and how things change. We are looking for moons around other planets right now. Just last week, we now believe we’ve seen not just a large planet, a Jupiter-sized planet, but a healthy sized moon that goes with it. So that’s the start. We want to be able to find more planets with moons. Those things may be extremely important in terms of finding an environment where life that’s complex and intelligent like us would have a chance of occurring.
For NASA, are there any concerns about collaborating on a movie like Moonfall that indulges conspiracy theories about the moon being a megastructure that was built by aliens?
Well, as I said, that decision’s not made by me. It’s really all about the science I could talk to them and tell them about. It’s about understanding the real physical world as we know it. And we don’t know everything, I’ll be the first to tell you that. How movies use that, that’s the fun part. That is all up to them. But we do more documentaries than we do science-fiction films, and all that adds up to helping science literacy. That’s really important to us. If this movie causes kids to say, “God, could that really happen?” Or, “What about megastructures?” Well, guess what. We are looking for megastructures around other planets.
Moonfall is far from the first movie or TV show to focus on the moon. Why do you think the moon remains so fascinating and mysterious through the lens of pop culture?
When humans came into being, evolved the way they did, they looked up. The moon has major significance in cultures throughout the ages. What does it mean to them? The moon’s ability to provide light at certain times of the month means something. Some cultures believe that when you die, your soul goes to the moon. It’s such a prominent feature.
Now, as I said, what we’ve come to realize is that the moon is incredibly important to maintain life on Earth. What it’s done to mitigate huge changes in climate has been the biggest benefit in modulating our day, such that we have a nice time period of day and night for plants to grow and then that growth period be distributed equally, nicely, on both the day and the night side. All that is what we have benefited from [because of] the moon creating an environment for an intelligent species to come and evolve to this point.
Moonfall doesn’t exactly check a lot of boxes in terms of realism. What is the most realistic space movie that isn’t based on historical events or figures?
You really have to start with the top of that pyramid and that’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. 2001 had so many realistic space scenes associated with it and with the way it was put together. Let me give you an example: Any movie today, your Star Wars or anything, space has sound, you blow this up and you hear the explosion and all that. You watch 2001, and when there’s a space scene, it is dead silent. There is no sound. You are not entertained, you are there. That is exactly what it would feel like.
The Martian is another one that comes pretty darn close because even though there are several things about it that are complete fantasy, like the dust storm, everything else is really quite solid. The Martian is unique, and so is 2001. Going into space provides plenty of tension—trying to live and survive in such a harsh environment where everything around you is trying to kill you.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.