Moonfall: All The Classic Disaster Movie Tropes In Roland Emmerich’s Sci-Fi Thriller

Patrick Wilson and Halle Berry sit anxiously in their spacecraft in Moonfall.
(Image credit: Lionsgate)

There is a lot that can be said about Moonfall, Roland Emmerich’s latest disaster movie, but despite having some flaws and not really reinventing the wheel, the movie was a lot of fun. This is especially true for those who love the genre, its trappings, and those amazing tropes that seem to be in every movie of this variety. 

When I saw Moonfall opening weekend (it appears I was one of the few people to do this), I couldn’t help but pick up on some of those classic disaster movie tropes that are liberally sprinkled throughout the movie about a group of astronauts (and a conspiracy theorist) trying to stop an evil force from hurdling the moon into the surface of Earth. 

Spoiler alert! And since we’re about to dive into some of the biggest moments in Moonfall, expect to find spoilers galore throughout this piece.

Patrick Wilson in Moonfall

(Image credit: Lionsgate)

A Once Decorated Hero Falls From Grace

Moonfall kicks off with one of the best disaster movie tropes that is also one that does a great job of starting astronaut Brian Harper’s (Patrick Wilson) hero’s journey. In the opening minutes of the movie, Brian is on a routine mission with Jocinda “Jo” Fowler (Halle Berry) when a disturbance (aka the AI hellbent on destroying all life) destroys their shuttle and kills a member of their crew. Despite flying the ship back to Earth with no electronics, no one believes Brian’s story and he is kicked out of NASA, loses his family, and ends up being viewed as a disgrace. But it can only get better from there, right?

The space shuttle taking off in a wave in Moonfall

(Image credit: Lionsgate)

The Heroes Narrowly Escape A Catastrophic Event

Later on in the movie, Roland Emmerich pulls a scene out of his old bag of tricks with the epic escape scene where Brian Harper, Jo Fowler, and K.C. Houseman (John Bradley) get the Endeavor space shuttle off the ground just moments before a tsunami swallows them (all with only two working thrusters). This is like the White House destruction scene from Independence Day turned up a few notches. I mean there’s even a helicopter crashing into the massive wave at one point. But hey, it looked really, really cool and made for a lot of tension (especially for the guy sitting next to me at the theater).

Eme Ikwuakor standing in a bunker's doorway in Moonfall.

(Image credit: Lionsgate)

The Military Tries To Nuke The Problem Away

There must be some unwritten rule in disaster movie-making that requires the military to be portrayed as a group of war hawks who don’t want to listen to reason and try to nuke their problems away. I kind of get in the sense that they’ve had access to thousands of nuclear bombs all these years and since they’re going to die they should explode some stuff first. This has popped up in Mars Attacks, Independence Day, and hell, even Dr. Strangelove. But the military’s plan in Moonfall is to nuke the moon, which would be in Earth’s atmosphere by the time the bombs reached it, meaning we would all die one way or another.

Moonfall still

(Image credit: Lionsgate)

The Doomsday Countdown

One way of speeding up the plot of a movie is to insert a ticking clock or doomsday countdown of some sort that gives the heroes no time to waste. Not only do we get that in Moonfall, the clock keeps on speeding up because of the moon drawing closer and closer to the planet. At one point, the moon has such an impact on time (because it’s being pulled closer and closer), the heroes find out they have only 28 minutes to launch a space shuttle with no crew to back them up. Talk about a ticking clock…

John Bradley in Moonfall

(Image credit: Lionsgate)

They Literally Save The Cat

I took a screenwriting course in college and one of the textbooks was Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. I mention this because at one point, K.C. Houseman leaves his cat with his grandmother who is then later saved (along with the cat) from a flooding nursing home just before K.C. flies off into space. The whole “Save the Cat” angle is a device used to make the hero seem more likable, but here it works for another reason as well. Disaster movies like Armageddon, Independence Day, and The Day After Tomorrow all have scenes where an animal is saved, and now we can add Moonfall to that list.

John Bradley in Moonfall

(Image credit: Lionsgate)

People With Crazy Ideas Actually Being Right

Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) in The Day After Tomorrow, David Levinson in Independence Day, and Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson) in 2012 all had crazy ideas, or at least ideas that seemed crazy to the establishment, and were all proven right by the end of their respective movies. Add K.C. Houseman to that list in Moonfall because his conspiratorial rants about the moon being a megastructure were on the money by the time everything was said and done.

The moonfall cast

(Image credit: Lionsgate)

Cars Somehow Drive On The Ground As It Breaks Apart

A disaster movie just isn’t the same without an over-the-top driving sequence featuring cars driving off and on roads, houses, and mountains crumbling beneath their tires. And luckily for everyone, Moonfall does that. Even though it doesn’t have anything like the truly sensational destruction of Los Angeles scene in 2012, Roland Emmerich does give audiences some good not-so-clean fun near the end of the movie when Sonny Harper (Charlie Plummer) and other members of the Moonfall cast drive over the Rocky Mountains as they break into pieces. These pieces, however, are large enough for Sonny to drive over with relative ease.

John Bradley in Moonfall

(Image credit: Lionsgate)

An Act Of Heroic Sacrifice

And what would a disaster movie be without some self-sacrifice? Well, Moonfall doesn’t only feature one example of this, it has two (and one is straight up like the Armageddon switcheroo). When attempting to reach shelter with his family as oxygen levels begin to drop because of the moon, Tom Lopez (Michael Peña), Brian Harper’s ex’s new husband, realizes his daughter’s tank is running low and trades with her. Tom was pretty much out to be a bit of a jerk throughout the movie, so his death really kills two birds with one stone.

But that whole scene is nothing compared to the big moment at the end of the movie where K.C. Houseman does his best Bruce Willis impression from Armageddon and sacrifices himself before Brian Harper can lure the swarm of rogue AI and blow them up with an EMP. But as we find out in the Moonfall ending, K.C. somehow becomes digitized during the blast and lives on in a computer program.

Overall, it’s the disaster movie tropes that bring so much of the fun in Moonfall and make the surprisingly fun action thriller all the more enjoyable. Who knows if we’ll get a sequel (fingers crossed), but there are plenty of promising 2022 movies to hold us over while we wait.

Philip Sledge
Content Writer

Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop barking at the mailman, or yelling about professional wrestling to his wife. If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.