RogerBW's Blog

Geostorm 26 December 2017

2017 science fiction disaster film, dir. Dean Devlin, Gerard Butler, Jim Sturgess: IMDb / allmovie. Earth's climate problems have been casually solved by a network of weather-control satellites, but now they seem to be going wrong.

When I first heard about this film, my assumption was that Dean Devlin, here directing for the first time, was feeling disaster-envy for former partner Roland Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow (2004, nothing to do with the Heinlein novel), and I was expecting it to be bombastic but not terribly clever. Then I found out that this film had been put back 18 months from its original March 2016 release date (rumours suggest for a very aggressive editing job), and took under $14 million on its opening weekend against a production budget of $120 million. (It was #2 after Tyler Perry's Boo 2! A Madea Halloween.) So I really wasn't expecting a masterpiece.

The signs of desperate patching come in the first few seconds, with a voice-over that ends up being inconsistent with the rest of the film – but that's OK, the film isn't consistent with itself either. So it seems there's this network of satellites which were a global construction project, but somehow they're under American control because that's the way these things always are, but they're going to be handed over to the UN, but one of them seems to have just flash-frozen an Afghan village so maybe we oughtta fix that before the UN notices… and all that's just the setup.

The story of the "Dutch boy" after whom this network has been named is of course about a very temporary fix while waiting for the real solution to come along, but nobody seems to notice that. And how you fix an over-energetic system by feeding more energy into it is its own problem that you can't really solve with the word "sonic". (From orbit. Uh-huh.) But this is a film which is happy to talk about "the Hong Kong satellite" and clearly mean "the satellite that's permanently stationed over Hong Kong", so, you know, Mr Plausibility has left the building.

I think that a lot of the problem is that the film doesn't have the courage of its convictions: it's trying to be a space thriller about weather doom, but it keeps cutting back to the other side of the story, which wants to be a conspiracy thriller. Aha, here some guy leaves a cryptic message, and then gets "accidentally" killed. Whom can we trust? But there's no effort made to establish the "sides" in this conspiracy (partly because it ends up being one guy's plot, the villain whom you will spot during his first scene), and so there's never any sense of the heroic good guys against the corrupt establishment. The climax of this part is meant to be one of those "I have to tell someone, but am I telling the right person" scenes, but, well, see above re obvious villain.

Although there are a few scenes of environmental disaster, it seemed to me that there wasn't as much of the weather-pr0n as there was in The Core (2003) – which is odd, since it's all CGI anyway and one might as well have fun with it. Maybe The Core just did a better job of it. There are cracks spreading along the ground that have it in for major characters personally, which I haven't seen since 2012.

There are quite a few space shuttles here – did I mention that all this space infrastructure is meant to have been built by the early 2020s? – and they are the same old spaceplane, external tank, dual solid booster combination that the filmmakers grew up expecting spacecraft to look like (even if a substantial chunk of their audience now don't) – but to make them Future!y, they've had the central wing section cut back to make a delta compounded with a high aspect ratio squared-off dihedral wingtip, just what you want on a re-entry vehicle. And five main engines, because five is better than three, the top two of which appear to have air intakes. And the passenger seats are fitted sideways, at 90 degrees to any plausible direction of thrust or acceleration. After all that, an obviously airborne fly-round, approach and landing on the space station is really a pretty minor sin. This space station has a "gravity threshold". Uh-huh. The whole "geostorm" idea, that if enough extreme weather events happen there'll be a permanent megastorm that destroys humanity, is in very much the same general area of sense as the "can of gasoline" theory in Plan 9 From Outer Space.

As for the characters, there's really nobody here to cheer for. The film makes what to me is the classic error of disaster films: it tries to put the human element into the macro-scale catastrophe (you can't identify with millions of people at risk, but you can identify with this cute kid who's lost his dog), and it does it very very badly. The "humanising" troubles between brothers are laid on with a trowel, particularly with the way each of them has to Learn Something from the other; Sarah (Abbie Cornish) is (under-)written as desperately keen on her job and keeping her oath of service, and yet she breaks that oath the moment there's any slight conflict with something she wants; Hannah (Talitha Bateman), the young daughter of one of our protagonists, has a horrible few lines but almost manages to make them sound convincing. (On the basis of what she pulls off here, Bateman is someone to watch.) Really the only characters I liked at all were Dana (Zazie Beetz), who has about two scenes of tech nerdery, and Ute (Alexandra Maria Lara), who casually trumps the Big Heroic Man's "I built this space station, I know every nut and bolt" with "I've been living in it, I know everything we had to change from your design, and unlike you I'm actually capable of being diplomatic". Really, everything done by the hero could have been done by her instead, and she'd have done it better.

The station's self-destruct (of course it has one) does its best to create the ultimate orbital débris problem. Who paid the mass budget for all those explosives? Why do the unmanned satellites have crew compartments? With hatches? I know, I know, eat your popcorn and turn off your brain; but even mindless action films can sometimes get this sort of stuff right, without compromising the mindless action, and then smart people can enjoy them too.

I really wanted to like this film, dammit. I knew it was going to be crap, but there's crap that's got some life to it and there's crap that just sits there and stinks. All in all this feels like one good idea, with filmmaking-by-the-numbers spackle applied all round it; at some point it apparently suffered a collision with another script and not all the bits were picked out of the wreckage. (Only two writers though, Devlin himself and Paul Guyot who's done some television work on Devlin's shows and others.) But the lost dog, and probably the Brazilian bikini babe, live, even if millions of non-white people (and a camel) die. So that's OK.

Trailer here; MaryAnn Johanson's review here. (MaryAnn is a friend, as well as a professional critic who's been reviewing since 1997.)

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  1. Posted by John Dallman at 11:39am on 26 December 2017

    It sounds as if the disaster move cliché writers' union threatened action unless they were allowed to supply a lot of the script.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 11:50am on 26 December 2017

    If it had been an all-out cheesy disaster movie rather than blending in the conspiracy stuff I think it would have worked rather better. (It still wouldn't have been good by any reasonable standared but it would have been rather more enjoyable.)

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