Moonshot HBO Max review: Cole Sprouse’s trip to Mars never takes off

The new sci-fi romantic comedy stars Lana Condor and Cole Sprouse.

Boy meets girl. Girl flies to a Mars colony the next day. Boy sneaks onto rocket a month later in hot pursuit.

Say what you like about Moonshot, but it’s brought something relatively original to the rom-com table. We don’t remember Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey ever sharing a merry dance while floating around in space.

It’s questionable whether this HBO Max original, co-produced by The CW’s superhero maestro Greg Berlanti, can be considered particularly romantic. Taking a break from the multiverse madness of Riverdale, Cole Sprouse imbues his Mars-obsessed barista, Walt, with an average guy charm. Even so, risking life and freedom to chase a manic pixie dream girl just a few hours after meeting each other? Well, that’s more in the realm of restraining order than romantic gesture.

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Admittedly, the film, set in the year 2049, does recognize that this imagined relationship is not the healthiest nor one to root for. It’s simply a ruse to get Walt in a confined space for 35 days with another love interest, one who’s inadvertently facilitated his illegal journey. Still, despite the best efforts of leading lady Lana Condor as Sophie — a brutally honest college student privileged enough to afford the $1 million space shuttle price tag — this “will-they-won’t-they” isn’t very convincing either.

Walt (Cole Sprouse) and Sophie (Lana Condor) on more grounded territory.HBO Max

Condor became the poster girl for the rom-com revival with her star-making turn in Netflix’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. She even achieved the genre’s ultimate accolade – the MTV Movie Awards’ Best Kiss – thanks to her smooch with Noah Centineo. However, there’s a reason why Moonshot’s trailer left some believing this would be a strictly platonic tale: her chemistry with Sprouse is virtually non-existent.

Even when they’re forced to act all loved-up to avoid getting sent back to Earth (or even worse) by the powers that be, the pair can’t find a semblance of a spark. And the moment that’s supposed to set the wheels in motion for their romance to truly begin — an excruciatingly awkward conference speech in which Walt needs to pass as Sophie’s engineer boyfriend Calvin (Mason Gooding) — fails to land.

Idealist Walt, in particular, is also lumbered with the kind of greeting card dialogue even Hallmark would turn down for being too corny. The worst culprit is, “Maybe when you find that thing you’re willing to cross the universe to be with, just make sure they’re ready to do the same for you.”

Zach Braff doing his best Elon Musk impression.HBO Max

Moonshot might not bring much in the way of romance, yet it does fare better with its comedy. Max Taxe’s script is peppered with quotable putdowns (“You are the ingrown toenail of humanity”), which leave you wishing Sophie and Walt would have remained at loggerheads for the entire 104 minutes.

Elsewhere, Zach Braff is given plenty of satirical one-liners (“I’m a billionaire, I don’t pay taxes”) during his late-in-the-day showing as the smarmy Elon Musk-esque figure responsible for turning the Red Planet into a second home. Meanwhile, podcast queen Michelle Buteau nearly steals the show as the captain who is more interested in throwing parties than reaching the destination.

Walt and Sophie are about to embark on a spectacular spacewalk.HBO Max

Director Chris Winterbauer also has fun building the film’s near-future world, albeit on a limited budget. Indeed, you’re never going to mistake this for the $146 million CGI fest that was Roland Emmerich’s similarly named Moonfall, that’s for sure. A thrilling theme park-style take on the spacewalk is one of the few times Moonshot ventures outside the ship’s sparse corridors.

Nevertheless, the neon-hued color palette and swoonsome soundtrack boasting everyone from German synth-pop duo HAERTS to French DJ Breakbot, not to mention the fetching green/orange jumpsuits, at least give the film a sense of style. Following up his 2019 debut Wyrm — an alternative 90s-set tale about a society that places shock collars around teens yet to have their first kiss —Winterbauer is quickly cornering the rather niche market of offbeat YA sci-fi rom-coms.

For all of its shortcomings, Moonshot manages to escape the curse that has befallen the likes of Mission to Mars, Red Planet, and John Carter. It’s certainly more appealing than its closest counterpart, The Space Between Us, the Asa Butterfield-starring flop in which a lovestruck kid travels in the opposite direction. But similar to why Walt suffered no fewer than 37 rejections in his previous attempts to journey through space, it’s just a little too mediocre to ever truly get off the ground.

Moonshot releases March 31 on HBO Max.

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