You Can’t Fake the Old-Fashioned Star Power of Fly Me to the Moon

Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum’s rapport lifts this historical rom-com.

Columbia Pictures
Inverse Reviews

The conspiracy theories about the Apollo 11 moon landing being faked have proven unfortunately durable, and have been echoed on screen for decades as well. 1977’s Capricorn One switched the mission to a Mars trip, while the justifiably obscure 2015 comedy Moonwalkers took off from the rumor that Stanley Kubrick, who at the time had redefined cinematic travel to the cosmos with 2001: A Space Odyssey, oversaw the bogus Apollo jaunt.

Now it has fueled part of the plot of the romantic comedy Fly Me to the Moon, though not quite as much of it as the promotion might have you believe.

The chief emphasis in Fly Me to the Moon is not so much faking the historic mission, but promoting it — which, to launch director Cole Davis (Channing Tatum), is an equally unattractive proposition. A straight-arrow, by-the-book Korean War veteran, he has no time for marketing executive Kelly Jones (Scarlett Johansson), who’s been brought in to boost support for the U.S. space program among both the public and politicians. It’s a turbulent time in America, with the Vietnam conflict sparking dissent in the streets, and the “space race” with Russia — who succeeded in getting the first person into orbit — in danger of losing much-needed financing. Which is why government agent Moe Berkus (Woody Harrelson) convinces Kelly to leave her successful Madison Avenue practice and serve her country. Operating in a man’s world, and not averse to employing a little deception (like pregnancy-simulating padding) to land a pitch, she’s clearly up to the job from her first scene.

Winning Cole’s approval won’t be so easy. Of course, in classic rom-com tradition, he’s immediately attracted to Kelly upon their first meeting in a diner near Cape Canaveral, before he knows her true purpose there. Once she officially arrives at the base, he’s put off by her plans for an Apollo 11 advertising campaign encompassing everything from watches to Tang. “I am not turning this ship into a flying billboard,” Cole says, and part of the fun of Fly Me to the Moon is how it presents the dawn of an America in which anything can be sold anywhere (which will certainly resonate with anyone who sees it in a theater that subjects patrons to multiple commercials before the feature).

Tatum and Johansson’s sparkling chemistry is the fuel that drives Fly Me to the Moon.

Columbia Pictures

Johansson and Tatum radiate both individual charisma and strong chemistry as two people who are very good at what they do, and dedicated with laser focus to the task at hand. Cole not only wants to make good on the late President John F. Kennedy’s promise to the nation to put an astronaut on the moon; he sees a successful landing as redemption for a past tragedy. Kelly has her own, more secret traumas in her past, which have been uncovered and are being exploited by Berkus, given an effectively wily/sinister reading by Harrelson. Kelly and Cole may be coming at the Apollo 11 mission from different directions, but they’re clearly alike in the ways that count, which makes them both plausible and rootable as potential romantic partners.

The eventual decision — by Berkus, forced on a disapproving Kelly — to create a secret moon set in an off-site hangar and create the “landing” for the world to watch at home eventually becomes the crux of the story, and the conflict between Kelly and Cole. It also allows for some very funny moments, as preparations go anything but smoothly, despite the best efforts of Lance Vespertine (Jim Rash), the flamboyant, pretentious director Kelly has chosen to oversee this clandestine production.

Fly Me to the Moon treats the real moon landing with appropriate reverence.

Columbia Pictures

One of the keys to Fly Me to the Moon’s success, however, is that director Greg Berlanti, screenwriter Rose Gilroy (from a story by Keenan Flynn and Bill Kirstein), and the rest of the team treat the actual Apollo 11 planning and execution with appropriate honor and reverence. This real-life star trek was a monumental event in American history and is treated as such here, and it’s hard to not be stirred by the scenes of this piece of history being made. (Fine visual effects help convince us in the Fly Me to the Moon audience that we’re watching the real thing; just bear with a few dodgy digital tricks in the early going.)

Though the resolutions of both the main storyline and the key subplot are a little too tidy, Fly Me to the Moon is overall a winning mix of old-fashioned relationship comedy and a modern point of view, historical fact, and playful speculation. At a time when movies like this are becoming an endangered species in theaters, it’s nice to see a film centered on two charming stars sharing smart, sharp dialogue getting a wide release. The events around them are certainly of a scope that benefits from big-screen viewing, even as the two principals keep the focus down to Earth.

Fly Me to the Moon opens in theaters July 12.

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