Fly Me to the Moon review: "Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum's sassy NASA rom-com fulfils its mission to entertain" (2024)

Kate Stables

·4-min read

Two of the biggest stars in cinema’s firmament shoot for the moon in this jaunty if somewhat overstuffed space-race romcom. A sparky Scarlett Johansson plays rule-bending advertising maven Kelly Jones, who’s hired to ‘market the moon’ to an uninterested America, putting her on a collision course with NASA’s workaholic launch director Cole Davis (a straight-shooting Channing Tatum).

Properly paired for the first time (they didn’t overlap in 2016’s Hail, Caesar!), Johansson and Tatum’s sheer star wattage gives this nostalgic high-concept comedy an Old Hollywood feel, a throwback to the days when trailers yelled, ‘Together at last!’ Set in the feverish run-up to the 1969 Apollo 11 Moon landing (and released just before that event’s 55th anniversary this summer), it’s a bold, retro-styled original story, one that stands out in a sea of safe summer sequels.

A pleasingly big picture, both in its expansive visuals and its story scope, Fly Me to the Moon takes off rapidly once Woody Harrelson’s cheerfully devious White House fixer Moe Berkus has booted Kelly off Madison Avenue and into Cape Canaveral’s vast rocket hangers, where Cole wrestles with NASA’s underfunded, breakage-plagued moonshot programme.

Rose Gilroy’s confident script isn’t afraid of a classic awkward meet-cute (Cole sweetly saves Kelly from a diner-table candle disaster). But director Greg Berlanti (best known as the TV powerhouse co-creator of You, Titans and Arrow) is eager to milk laughs from the friction between Cole’s exasperated high ideals and Kelly’s worldly smarts.

One of her savviest moves is making astronauts Aldrin, Armstrong and Collins ‘bigger than the Beatles’ through relentless TV exposure, until all the licensing (Omega watches, Rice Krispies) rains money into the moonshot programme. Kelly’s got the kind of smiley ruthlessness that will swap Cole for an actor doppelganger in news footage if he refuses to play ball.

Like 2022’s The Lost City, it’s a romcom where Tatum jostles for screen space with a spirited female lead, but this time Johansson (who also produced the movie) has the lion’s share of the fun stuff. Tatum, whose physical prowess lights up his best roles, is unhelpfully confined to pacing crossly through offices or delivering control-room pep talks, while Johansson floors a convertible or bowls a bin through a shop window. Die-hard Chan fans (aka ‘Tatum-tots’) may also rue the slow-burn love story’s old-school lack of smooching. The only thing here getting its top torn off when things get fiery is the Apollo 11 space capsule.

Fly Me to the Moon review: "Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum's sassy NASA rom-com fulfils its mission to entertain" (1)

As a female striver in the 60s, Johansson keeps Kelly unashamedly flirty at work and play, teaching the reluctant Cole how to manipulate arrogant senators into voting for vital NASA funding. Her disruptor energy and perky period frocks add a shot of Mad Men raciness to the film’s tone, punched up by seamless use of TV news footage, Moon-themed 60s soundtrack hits, and Harrelson’s God-given ability to steal every scene he enters with his "The President wants this" swagger and sh*t-eating grin.

All this playfulness runs nicely around the outsize glamour of the Kennedy Space Center’s giant launch pads and rockets, whose world-changing mission the film pays (mostly) careful respect to. Using the 60s space race for backroom dramas isn’t a new idea – The Dish (2000) and Hidden Figures (2017) forged feel-good tales from its IRL events. But Fly Me to the Moon boldly goes where no similar film has gone before, by inserting a cheeky (and definitely fictional) conspiracy plot into the mix. When Berkus orders Kelly to stage a secret fake Moon landing – ready for broadcast to a watching world as a backup – both Kelly’s integrity and her relationship are suddenly placed in jeopardy.

Winking at the famous conspiracy theory that Stanley Kubrick shot the ‘Moon landing’ (as outlined in 2002 mockumentary Dark Side of the Moon), the film plays the sham lunar rehearsals for laughs, pivoting to a chaotic farce spoofing movie-set tensions. (Jim Rash’s diva director curses the fact that, "My Armstrong is a whiny little bitch.")

Berlanti works hard to blend a range of moods into the film, its lively LOLs tempered with some melancholy secrets that both Cole and Kelly are keeping. But his knack for combining an intimate story nimbly with an historic event doesn’t quite last the course. Fly Me starts to drag a bit late on, from the sheer weight of winding real history, confected conspiracy and a fictional love affair together, and trying to keep it all airborne.

The aspect that needs more plot propellant is the surprisingly low-key romance. Johansson is at her sultry, husky-voiced best, but she and Tatum don’t have rocket-fuel-strength chemistry (the role was originally planned for Chris Evans, to ignite that spark their Marvel encounters showed off). They wind up creating a sweet and gentle simmer, rather than the explosive Hepburn/Tracy-style screwball energy needed to get this ambitious movie into high orbit.

Fly Me to the Moon is released in UK cinemas on July 11 and in US theaters on July 12.

Fly Me to the Moon review: "Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum's sassy NASA rom-com fulfils its mission to entertain" (2024)
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