‘Moonhaven’ Review: Meaning Gets Lost in Meandering Expository Plot
Peter Ocko’s Moonhaven feels a bit like AMC’s answer to Apple TV+’s Foundation adaptation and HBO Max’s freshly cancelled Raised By Wolves. Set 100 years in the future, the sci-fi thriller is set on the moon, within a utopian community that was designed to find ways to keep Earth’s civilization from coming to an end. But humans, no matter how evolved, enlightened, or educated have a way of deconstructing whatever utopia they are placed within.
Moonhaven opens with the murder of Chill Spen (Nina-Barker Francis), which rocks the idyllic moon community, especially considering the fact that they’re “protected” by an artificial intelligence system that is supposed to prevent this kind of violence from occurring. Despite this, the community does have a pair of cops—Arlo (Kadeem Hardison) and Paul (Dominic Monaghan)—who arrive at the crime scene to investigate Chill’s murder.
Back on Earth and concurrent with these unexpected events in Moonhaven, cargo pilot Bella Sway (Emma McDonald) is hired to transport the determined politician Indira Mare (Amara Karan) and her bodyguard Tomm (Joe Manganiello) to the settlement for reasons. Bella’s arrival is the crux of the entire series—she’s blamed for Chill’s murder, caught up in a dangerous coup, and stranded in a community that she wants nothing to do with. Bella’s disinterest in Moonhaven comes full circle when a deeper connection is made between her and the recently deceased Chill, further fueled by the community’s ability to converse with residents who have passed on. The mystery of Chill’s death is just as intriguing as the mystery of her life.
The first episode sets up an intriguing mystery to solve, but the next five episodes meander towards a rather disappointing conclusion. While the ethos of Moonhaven is compelling—a utopian world that gets ensnared in dangerous conspiracies—the execution of that on-the-nose allegory is lost in translation. Building a world from scratch is an arduous task; even for a world that is built on the bones of our own. The stripped-down basics of Moonhaven often feel at odds with the surrounding technology. From the utilitarian garb to simplistic traditions and carefully constructed belief systems, it all feels out of concert with the technology that they use. The plot seems to consider itself to be very series, but it gets lost beside campy dialogue and the burden of a half-baked world. It doesn’t help that Moonhaven seems unbothered by leaving so much of its worldbuilding as an afterthought.
If you take Isaac Asimov’s philosophical postulations, Children of the Corn, and Midsommar, you may end up with something closely resembling Moonhaven. Beneath austere scientific perfection, the idyllic moon community is suffering from the same affliction that has brought a near end to their earthly home. This is a community of people who believe themselves to be future gods, the sole saviors of a fallen people, and that sort of elevated opinion gives way to something dark and sinister.
There are plenty of breakthrough moments where Moonhaven really shines, showing that it has the potential to stand on its own as a new sci-fi world to get lost in, but no sooner than you start to buy into this utopian paradise, then it undermines itself with awkward singing, bizarre jargon, and pure nonsense. The rules of this world are delivered in small doses throughout the six episodes, leading to more questions than answers as everything unfolds. This unusual choice is made even more frustrating by the flip-flopping loyalties. And maybe that’s the point: everyone is out for themselves, and you can’t really trust anyone.
McDonald is the strongest performance of the cast. She largely acts as an entry point for the audience, discovering new aspects of the Moonhaven community from a point of naïveté. She’s the only one among the core cast that doesn’t feel like a massive miscast. Manganiello is the most egregious miscasting, and it’s not even his fault; the text requires him to straddle a line that it doesn’t even seem to comprehend. It’s unclear if the scripts want his flirtations to seem sincere or if it’s a part of his war-worn and duplicitous persona. Monaghan is at his best when he’s paired with McDonald or sleuthing with Hardison, allowing him to be tenderhearted and kind, but then he’s saddled with cringey dialogue, or directed to sing or dance and everything breaks down. Despite valiant attempts to give these characters layers and backstory, it all comes across as surface-level attempts to give them just enough to serve the cobbled-together plot. It’s frustrating to see characters that have so much potential be left to muddle through middling attempts at development.
After six episodes of trying to connect with this utopia in peril, Moonhaven culminates in a cliffhanger that feels like a cruel tease. If Raised By Wolves’ recent cancellation was any indication, complex science fiction without a pre-existing IP is a difficult market to navigate, and it’s hard to imagine a Moonhaven fanbase rising up to embrace this series with enough passion to conjure up a second season. Moonhaven is certain to appeal to sci-fi fans looking for an off-beat series to spend their summer with, especially if they don’t mind corny tech-speak and the marriage of primitive living with intricate technology.
It’s disappointing to see a project like Moonhaven, one rife with potential and bursting with compelling ideas, culminating in a boring, disjointed, and ideologically unsound series.
Moonhaven premieres on AMC+ on July 7.