REVIEW: 'Geostorm' sweeps in bad ideas and blows away the fun

Gerard Butler stars as Jake Lawson in  Geostorm , directed by Dean Devlin.

Gerard Butler stars as Jake Lawson in Geostorm, directed by Dean Devlin.

No one goes to see a disaster movie for a thought-provoking cinematic journey. You go to see destruction play out on impossible scales, laugh at the stupid luck of the main characters, and bask in the escapism of knowing real life is immeasurably better than what’s on screen. Disaster movies are one of the genres that offer the purest entertainment-only movie experiences.

Often, this is because we get a rise out of a disaster film that unlocks the unquantifiable “so bad it’s good” feeling, which is harder to harness than you might think. And after an initial teaser back in March, set to a subversive performance of “It’s a Wonderful World”, the new film Geostorm seemed like it might be a perfect example. The teaser showed off all the bombastic cataclysms we could ever want: tornadoes dropping like Pythonesque 16-ton weights, hail the size of cars, a Gerard Butler performance that seemed to be mostly his lower jaw.

Sadly, the feature-length experience of the film offers none of that joy. Unlike its genre brethren (The Core, The Day After Tomorrow or 2012), Geostorm is a deadening facsimile of earlier apocalypses. The main characters are only once physically threatened by the storms they’re racing to stop. The filmmakers woefully underuse their core concept - a malfunctioning weather-controlling satellite network - wasting opportunities to see wild remixes of typical weather. The cardboard characters interact as if they’ve all wandered into the proceedings from other movies. And perhaps most disappointing, the filmmakers spent so much godforsaken money on Geostorm that it can’t even aspire to the kind of grubby, homemade production values that might bring a smile to your face, in the vein of Birdemic or Troll 2.

Hey look! A new sequel to Sim City!

Hey look! A new sequel to Sim City!

The story begins, as it must, with an exposition dump. A young girl’s voice informs us (over stock footage of real disasters) that climate change gets so bad in 2019 that humanity bands together to build a massive array of satellites to monitor and dissipate storms before they can hurt people. This system is masterminded by Jake Lawson (Butler) a growly, genius engineer. The system is credited with saving the planet from certain doom, but Jake’s unwillingness to play politics with the suits in Washington costs him his job, which is handed to his rule-abiding younger brother Max (Jim Sturgess).

Three years later, just a few weeks before the American-led mission is handed over to international oversight, the technology begins to go haywire. If it isn’t fixed, the system will trigger a global, self-perpetuating storm system that will wipe out civilization. And you guessed it: the only man who can fix it is Jake. Cue tearful goodbye with his daughter, and let the madness begin.

Butler’s character is, unsurprisingly, a cartoon. He’s a man’s man who lives in a well-appointed Airstream trailer in view of Cape Canaveral, who retrofits old muscle cars to run on electricity. When faced with authority, he lobs unoriginal insults. He has a precocious daughter whose dialogue sounds like it was written by a sociologist. Oh, and he has a successful younger brother that he resents. You hear that clicking sound? It’s the filmmakers constructing their hero from clichés as if they were using Lego bricks.

Granted, it doesn’t usually make sense to fact-check the premises of these things. Nevertheless, it’d be helpful to know whether, at any point when the producers were frittering away their $120 million budget, they looked up the definition of the word “weather”. Kinda seems like a solid first step if you’re making a movie about storms run amok. It’s certainly not apparent on the screen, where it becomes clear the filmmakers think “weather” also includes skyscraper-toppling tsunamis (normally need an earthquake for that, guys!) or lasers from space.  

Andy Garcia as President Andrew Palma and Jim Sturgess as Max Lawson.

Andy Garcia as President Andrew Palma and Jim Sturgess as Max Lawson.

It’s this kind of laziness that becomes the key theme of Geostorm. Just about every aspect, from the editing to the dialogue to the blocking of action scenes, reeks of an attitude of slapping things together and hoping people won’t notice. Case in point: it wasn’t enough to threaten the characters with a planet-sized storm; the film devotes literally half its runtime to a lacklustre mystery in the space station. Butler’s character barely feels a wisp of wind from  the chaos raging on the planet below, and so the actual storm is rendered mostly impotent - a threat that’s mowing down extras but is otherwise just background noise.

And as if that’s not enough, they toss in an espionage subplot for good measure! Apparently the President (Andy Garcia) is the only man who can shut down the satellites, so it’s time to kidnap him with the help of Max’s girlfriend (Abbie Cornish), conveniently a Secret Service agent.

Let’s not forget, either, how the film also tries desperately to be about weightier topics. Climate change is bad! The Lawson brothers hate each other! Surprise villains who cite nationalist politics! In an already clogged movie, these attempts at subtext barely register. What’s the point of taking a dig at Trumpian protectionist rhetoric while you’re trying to depict a lightning swarm razing Miami? It might sound good in a screenwriter’s head, but the ideas cancel themselves out on screen.

Unsurprisingly, the movie spawns enough questions to keep video essayists going for years, and I’ll leave a few of my own in the Stray Thoughts section below. Bizarrely, I still believe that a guilty pleasure sort of film was hidden inside this premise - something tongue-in-cheek, darkly comic. But that would require a film aware of its own stupidity, which Geostorm surely is not.

With his directorial debut, Dean Devlin has scraped together a shabby knock-off of his longtime producing partner Roland Emmerich’s already-abysmal disaster porn. Geostorm is a howling maelstrom of bad ideas, stuffed with actors who can (and often have) done a lot better in their careers. Sadly, you can’t even say the cast is doing this for kicks - they genuinely look like they’ve given up hope of being in a decent film again. My only hope is that Devlin is eventually treated like a distant growl of thunder: a sign to take cover - something bad is on the way.

Geostorm gets one star out of four.


Stray thoughts

  • The storm-controlling villain is literally tricked into giving up his plan by a self-driving electric car, which he blows up with a bazooka. Can subtlety be measured in negative values?
  • Why does a rash of lightning bolts cause an arena to explode as if it’s soaked in gasoline?
  • Why do characters conduct mega-size Skype calls in dedicated hologram rooms, when they could just use Facetime? What's the benefit?
  • If a space station the size of the one of the film blows up, wouldn’t the falling debris cause unimaginable carnage on the planet below?