Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum headline this moon landing romcom that fails to lift off

Fly Me To The Moon

Source: Sony Pictures

‘Fly Me To The Moon’

Dir: Greg Berlanti. US. 2024. 132mins

It’s the late 1960s, and the US is engaged in a ferocious space race with the USSR to be the first to get a man on the moon. But with public and political support fading after the death of President Kennedy and the ongoing war in Vietnam, American lunar victory is increasingly in doubt. We all know what happens next, but Fly Me To The Moon takes an audacious, fanciful route to get there — positing that the efforts of a single New York marketing genius fuelled Apollo 11 to the finish, and that a fake moon landing was staged in case anything went wrong. Uneasily blending historical fact with a liberal dose of conspiracy theory and dramatic fiction, this is a tonally unbalanced piece that, despite the star power of Scarlet Johansson and Channing Tatum, never truly lifts off.

Dully familiar opposites-attract romcom territory

Sony will release in cinemas worldwide on July 12 before the film hits Apple TV+, following the same shared release strategy of Ridley Scott’s 2023 epic Napoleon. Audiences may well be tempted by the evergreen material and starry cast — Woody Harrelson and Ray Romano also appear — and this Greg Berlanti-directed picture may appeal to those looking for alternatives to family-friendly Despicable Me 4 and adults-only buzzy horror Longlegs. Given that it plays rather like a rainy-day TV movie, though, it is likely to find a stronger following on streaming.

Fly Me To The Moon is less concerned with celebrating the herculean group effort which enabled Neil Armstrong to take that one small step onto the moon in July 1969, and more with using this immense human achievement as the backdrop for a breezy romantic comedy. Which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, but the chemistry between Johansson’s firecracker marketing maven Kelly Jones and Tatum’s more taciturn launch director Cole Davis is not exactly rocket fuel.

On her own, however, Johansson (who also produces through her These Pictures banner) is electric, oozing personality and charm as the advertising guru who is making her mark on Madison Avenue, a successful woman in a sea of men. (The fact that she routinely deploys subterfuge in order to land a deal will be a shaky running theme.) She is approached by shadowy figure Moe (Harrelson), who claims he is working for President Nixon and asks her to travel to Florida to turn the space race into a palatable, marketable commodity.

The beleaguered National Aeronautics And Space Administration (NASA) did indeed hire PR gurus in the 1960s to help improve its image, and Kelly is the (fictional) embodiment of this effort. Dressed in a succession of professional yet achingly stylish outfits care of costume designer Mary Zophres, she is intelligent, tenacious and fizzing with energy and ideas — deals with soft-drink Tang and Omega watches, media interviews, deploying a fake Southern accent to win over wavering senators; whatever it takes to turn the tide of opinion.

But Rose Gilroy’s screenplay is determined to focus on Kelly’s love-hate relationship with Cole, a former army pilot who hates distraction and deception but is not immune to Kelly’s charms, shifting the story into dully familiar opposites-attract romcom territory. Tatum attempts to dig into the overwhelming guilt his (fictional) character carries for the (real) Apollo 1 command module fire tragedy of 1967, but can’t help but be sidelined by Johansson’s stellar wattage.

Yet the film cannot keep its focus here, either. At other times it plays almost like farce — hack director Lance Vespertine’s (a scene-stealing Jim Rash) outlandish attempts to film the fake moon landing (given the code name ‘Artemis’; the moniker of an existing NASA programme intended to reestablish a human presence on the moon) are genuinely funny, but discordant with the more earnest tone elsewhere. And moments with the friendly-yet-menacing Moe see the film shift into the darker territory of government-sanctioned deceit and conspiracy. (The film is, however, careful to make it clear that Apollo 11 was a success, and that man absolutely did walk on the moon.)

More consistent is the film’s 1960s aesthetic, with production designer Shane Valentino meticulously recreating NASA’s Florida base (on which most of the action occurs, although the film shot largely in Georgia, with key scenes filmed in Cape Canaveral). And it’s all captured in vivid, optimistic colour by DoP Dariusz Wolski. Obviously, the soundtrack is packed with 1960s hits including, of course, the titular classic, made famous by Frank Sinatra in 1964, from which the film takes its name; something of an irony, given that Fly Me To The Moon is more of a failure to launch.

Production company: These Pictures

Worldwide distribution: Apple/Sony

Producers: Jonathan Lia, Scarlett Johansson, Keenan Flynn, Sara Schechter

Screenplay: Rose Gilroy, based on the story by Keenan Flynn & Bill Kristen

Cinematography: Dariusz Wolski

Production design: Shane Valentino

Editing: Harry Jierjian

Main cast: Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Ray Romano, Woody Harrelson, Jim Rash, Anna Garcia, Donald Elise Watkins, Noah Robbins