This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
With Independence Day, director Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin managed to single-handedly resuscitate the disaster movie – a genre that had wheezed to a halt following an increasingly daft sequence of examples in the late ’70s and early ’80s (for a stunning night in, check out the low-rent majesty of Meteor, The Swarm, or When Time Ran Out). Sure, Independence Day was an alien invasion movie straight out of the ’50s, but its scenes of global panic and destruction were pure Irwin Allen. A certified hit in 1996, Independence Day sparked a wave of incendiary movies in the same vein, with scenarios varying from exploding volcanoes (Dante’s Peak and, well, Volcano), a giant monster (Godzilla) and duelling asteroid movies Deep Impact and Armageddon.
Armageddon, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by explosion auteur Michael Bay, thoroughly upstaged Devlin and Emmerich’s Godzilla back in 1998 – Bay was even cheeky enough to include a little toy kaiju in one early sequence. After watching this year’s Geostorm, it’s a wonder whether Devlin’s ever quite forgotten that box-office defeat almost 20 years ago; certainly, Geostorm – Devlin’s directorial debut (which he also co-wrote) – feels remarkably like a belated sequel to Armageddon. Is this Devlin’s attempt to wrest the sci-fi disaster genre – which he helped create – from the director who made billions by applying it to the Transformers franchise? Whatever the truth is, the result is tacky, daft, messy – seldom less than fascinating.
In the near future, Earth’s scientists have averted environmental catastrophe by building a huge network of weather-controlling satellites, all deployed from (and monitored by) a similarly vast space station. Thanks to the work of bull-necked scientist-engineer Jake Lawson (Gerard Butler), who designed the system, Earth is finally safe from the assorted tornadoes and droughts caused by years of global warming. But then an unexpected series of malfunctions causes the entire weather-control system – called Dutch Boy, brilliantly – to gradually go haywire, causing freak mini ice-ages in the middle of a desert, soaring temperatures in Hong Kong and deadly hail in Tokyo.
Jake is therefore blasted into space to discover the cause of the malfunction; could it be a normal computer error, or are there more sinister forces at work? Yeah, you can probably guess which way the plot goes from there. Geostorm throws in some other stuff, too, including Jake’s lingering resentment for his younger brother Max (Jim Sturgess), a pencil-necked Washington type who fired him three years earlier (in fairness, Jake mostly lost his job because he wouldn’t stop shouting). Max, in turn, is having a secretive relationship with Secret Service agent Sarah (Abbie Cornish), who’s on the president’s security detail. (The president’s played by Andy Garcia – an actor who, 20 years ago, would have probably been cast in the Max role).
You’ll learn a lot of these relationships through some studiedly literal dialogue. Ed Harris, who plays the secretary of state, Leonard Deckom, says helpful things to Max like, “I hired you 10 years ago because you’re good at your job and I trusted you.” Max usefully says to computer geek Dana (Zazie Beetz), “You’re the best at what you do, and therefore I need your help”, or something to that effect.
In essence, this is just Devlin (and co-writer Paul Guyot) moving all the pieces around for the main event: the moment when Jake’s weather machine goes completely bonkers and starts setting off a string of natural disasters – the titular Geostorm, which is flashed up on a huge LED screen with a count down to the end of the world, or, as it’s sometimes known, Armageddon. Can Jake stop the cataclysm in time? Who’s behind all this craziness, anyway?
Adding a sci-fi element to the traditional disaster movie is pivotal to its success. It’s all very well having an all-star cast flee in terror from an earthquake (as seen in, say, 1974’s Earthquake), but beyond that, there isn’t much for the central characters to do other than rescue each other or die heroically in the attempt. In a sci-fi disaster movie, the writers can dream up some kind of technological scenario where a hero can valiantly save the day. So in Armageddon, we had Bruce Willis and his team of blue-collar friends drill into a Texas-sized asteroid to plant a bomb and save the world. We still got to see people fleeing in terror from explosions and special effects, but the disaster bit of the plot was backed up with an exciting ticking clock scenario full of bravery and self-sacrifice.
In Geostorm, Gerard Butler assumes the Bruce Willis role as the no-nonsense hero who plays by his own rules; Jim Sturgess takes the Ben Affleck part of the boyishly handsome, younger co-star. In the place of the asteroid, we have Dutch Boy, which is essentially a random number generator that can recreate classic scenes of devastation from other movies for our viewing pleasure. Want to see a guy on a camel gallop away from a tidal wave engulfing a desert? Your wish is Devlin’s command. Want to see a muscular chap in swimming trunks frozen into a popsicle on a Brazilian beach, followed by a passenger plane falling from the sky and shattering into a thousand pieces? Dutch Boy can help. Fancy watching Abi Cornish at the helm of a taxi as lightning blows up half of Florida? Book your tickets now.
Like Armageddon, Geostorm intercuts those earth-bound scenes of devastation with Jake and his international team of side-kicks (including Alexandra Maria Lara as a thinly drawn yet endearing German scientist) in their race against time. They prod and scowl at computer terminals. They bang on airlock doors and shout instructions. They come up with brave plans that might… just… work. It’s hare-brained, it’s naff, it’s far from original or particularly smart – but all the same, Geostorm is constantly, magnificently entertaining.
Before its release, there was some talk of trouble behind the scenes, with director Danny Cannon (the ’90s Judge Dredd, TV’s Gotham) heading in to take over a round of reshoots when Geostorm fared badly with test audiences. Jerry Bruckheimer was reportedly brought in to oversee the additional photography, which was extensive enough to add a heft $15 million to the budget.The resulting movie has its disjointed moments, but nothing like those of The Snowman, director Tomas Alfredson’s thriller that was so visibly cobbled together that the director hasn’t made any secret of its problems in interviews. All the same, there are some odd moments: it’s established that Jake has an estranged wife and daughter, which might imply that they’ll end up in mortal danger by the third act; instead, they just sit at home, watching the drama unfold on television.
Whether the changes were, Geostorm is at least coherent in its absurdity: from its opening shot, this is a self-evidently ridiculous film that wants its audience to have a good time – and for the most part, it more than succeeds. Like Armageddon – arguably among Michael Bay’s best films – its cheesy dialogue seems to have been written with a nudge and a wink. When Jake sends his younger brother a secret message by embarking on a monologue about a childhood fishing expedition, there’s the distinct feeling that the writers aren’t expecting us to take the exchange seriously.
What’s revealing about Geostorm, at least at the time of writing, is how it’s being handled by its distributors. There were no screenings for critics, and its embargo was held, unusually, until 13 hours after its public release in cinemas. A growing fear of the Rotten Tomatoes effect – where unanimously bad scores are thought to harm a movie’s opening weekend – might explain why Geostorm was kept under wraps. We can’t help thinking that, had Devlin’s movie come out in the late ’90s, it would have been a decent box office hit.
At present, it looks as though it’ll have to play second fiddle to other late-October fare like Tyler Perry’s Boo2 and Blumhouse’s sensibly-priced horror, Happy Death Day. Whatever Geostorm’s financial fate (and it’s looking pretty cloudy out there right now), we can’t help holding a certain amount of affection for what Devlin’s managed to whip up. For better or worse, it’s the Armageddon sequel we never got 20 years ago. And incredibly, we have to say we’ve missed movies as daft and eager to please as this.
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