As someone who typically enjoys rom-coms, it was hard to watch Moonshot and not find a single thing good about it. The basic premise of the movie focuses on the relationship of college students Sophie (Lana Condor) and Walt (Cole Sprouse) have with Mars. It is almost impossible to detect any chemistry between the two ‘love’ interests, reading instead like a girl and her best himbo. It’s supposed to be a sci-fi, near-future type of romantic comedy – easy to watch and not much to think about. But I, for one, was unable to turn off my brain, and not in a good way.
Walt’s character is exactly like that of other real-life billionaire worshippers. He wants to go to Mars because he desperately wants to escape the boring life that he has as a coffee shop barista and to follow in the footsteps of his idol, Leon Kolvi (played by Scrubs lead Zach Braff). Leon Kolvi is an amalgam of all the billionaires that populate American culture: Jeff Bezos rich, Elon Musk eccentric, and Bill Gates philanthropic. Except, that philanthropy comes with a huge asterisk: Leon Kolvi’s “brand” of philanthropy involves ‘conquering’ Mars as a new space for the rich and intelligent to jet off to once Earth’s environment becomes untenable.
This is exactly what Sophie’s boyfriend (Mason Gooding) does. He and his family (who basically adopted Sophie after the death of her parents) moved to Mars, turning a long-distance relationship interplanetary. And, as Walt so thoughtfully points out during the It’s-Time-To-Hurt-Each-Other’s-Feelings phase of modern romantic comedies, Calvin does so without a second thought as to what Sophie may or may not want. For one, his thesis makes no sense to apply to Mars in its present state (already established as human-safe). During their elaborate ruse to establish Walt as Calvin 2.0 for the journey to Mars, Walt briefly attempts to explain terraforming, which is basically the process of modifying the atmosphere of a space to be similar to the environment of Earth. For two, he somehow forgot that Sophie’s whole thesis is about how plants can consume garbage (which sounds like a very real solution that maybe we should be working on to combat climate change to me), an idea that would be most successful on Earth. Despite that, he still puts her up for a twelve-year-long position on his team once she gets to Mars, without consulting her or even thinking about what she might want. By basically stranding Sophie on Mars to accompany him throughout her career, Sophie finally has a light-bulb moment that she needs to look out for her own best interests. While the details of the position are relatively murky, probably something about reducing the literal trash that gets dumped onto Earth every now and then, I think we can all agree that Earth itself has more need in developing plants that can eat trash.
Walt, on the other hand, uses a one-dimensional character, Ginny (Emily Rudd), as his justification for not-so-secretly stowing away on a trip to Mars. Ginny’s whole presence in the movie serves as the backdrop to explain Walt’s sudden urge to go to Mars – in fact, her video to him is what gave him his escapade to hide on the ship. The whole movie struggles to explain Walt’s obsession with Mars. Maybe that was because they made his character canonically stupid, or maybe there’s no reasonable explanation for why he impulsively, dangerously, hopped on a rocket to Mars. While Sophie was obsessing about how to maintain Walt’s cover as her boyfriend, Walt was too busy trying to determine if Ginny actually liked him, something he had failed to consider. Three days without a text in modern dating? Consider yourself ghosted. What you shouldn’t do is follow them to another planet to shoot your shot for a lot of reasons, but at the top of that list should be that you BARELY know her. We know almost nothing about Ginny, not her last name, not how she got a ticket to Mars, but here Walt is, ready to jump on a rocket and fly to his one true love. Only it turns out to be Mars, or maybe Leon Kolvi who fills that role for him.
At the end of the movie, after Walt sells his image and his entire himbo personality to Leon Kolvi for the purposes of yassifying his colonial campaign through the Milky Way, Walt realizes that what Sophie said was right. He has no significant person in his life. No one was concerned about him impulsively stowing away on a rocket to Mars. While he briefly talks about his mother in the beginning – a single mom, working too hard and moving around too much, there is no mention of her for the rest of the movie. Similarly, Sophie’s parents are barely brought up. Her relationship with Calvin’s mom, who she fondly calls Jan (played by Christine Adams) is as significant to her as her relationship with Calvin and is almost a justifiable reason to herself for staying with Calvin, despite the shallowness of their long-term relationship.
The moral of the movie is supposed to be that even if some man checks all the boxes, sometimes you need someone who’s not even remotely what you’re looking for. At best, it’s demoralizing to heterosexual women everywhere with high standards. And let’s face it, most of the things on Sophie’s list weren’t so unreasonable. These ‘high’ expectations that modern women have for men have recently come under fire with TikTok star Drew Afualo coming after misogynists on the internet (who by the way, has her own show now). Walt is someone that has no career ambitions, no long-term goals, an insane obsession with Mars, and is almost too dumb to understand that having high expectations, or even just standards at all for considering a romantic partner, is completely normal. At its worst, Moonshot is a humiliating heteronormative failure: two male leads who completely ignore their supposed love interest’s thoughts and feelings for the whole movie, but still end up with her at some point.
I was hard-pressed to find something to latch on to throughout the movie, and to no one’s surprise, it was my emotional-support queer couple opposite Sophie and Walt on the month-long journey to Mars. Their love was something that was used as a punchline, something to offset the tension between Sophie and Walt. And yet, I can’t help but cheer them on. Recently, there’s been a lot of discourse surrounding the double-edged sword that is marginalized identities represented in the media, with A24’s latest episode with Kogonada and Michelle Zauner and a particularly biting article by Bitch Media in honor of Trans Visibility Day. While I’m grateful that a queer couple’s love can be ‘normalized’ enough just to be included in a romantic comedy, I have to ask, what purpose did their presence serve? Similarly, Lana Condor’s casting as the main lead follows the success of the To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before series, but what was the idea behind this casting choice? To show that Asian women too can be considered romantic interests, and walked all over as a result? Representation for the sake of including diverse faces has to include diverse voices as well. The burden of representation, as Michelle Zauner and Kogonada discussed, comes from needing to tell our stories right, because who else will? From HBO’s latest attempt in Moonshot, we have a long way to go.