What if Armageddon but weather? That seems to be at least one of the half-baked pitches that led to Geostorm, a disastrous disaster movie that is actually quite low on the disasters to its own detriment.
Geostorm doesn’t open with Charlton Heston intoning, “This is the Earth.” But it’s close! Here, as fake newsreel footage of horrible natural disasters plays onscreen, a young woman (actress Talitha Eliana Bateman) explains that as “extreme weather” only got more xtreme, Earth reached a tipping point. “We didn’t just lose towns or beachfront. We lost entire cities. The East River swallowed Lower Manhattan. A heatwave killed 2 million people in Madrid in just one day.” Faced with extinction on a global level, the leaders of Earth did what anyone would in that situation: build a “net of satellites, each deploying countermeasures designed to impact the basic elements of weather: heat, pressure, and water.” The citizens of Geostorm decided to call this historic, globe-spanning world saver “Dutch Boy,” after the story of the boy who plugged a dam with his finger. Makes sense. “This is what saved us all, and it was built by a team, led by one man,” the young girl says, before a pause for dramatic effect: “My father.”
Her father is Jake Lawson, played by Gerard Butler because Bruce Willis was busy. Jake’s a man so famous that he’s recognized by a security guard outside the congressional hearing that opens the movie. (Hello and goodbye, Richard Schiff, playing a hateful politician who in another movie would be later squashed by a hail meteor; in Geostorm, he never appears again.) I only mention this detail because Jake’s fame factors heavily in the opening sequence of the film and then is later forgotten completely. After a “three years later” jump (sure), Jake is drafted to return to the international space station to fix “Dutch Boy” following a string of fishy malfunctions. When Jake arrives and gets introduced to his new team — a group of brilliant scientists who work on the installation he helped create, which saved the world — no one recognizes him.
That’s Geostorm in a nutshell: a bunch of supposedly connected scenes that don’t seem to even know each other and were maybe shot years apart. Geostorm, which wasn’t screened for critics and didn’t offer Thursday night showtimes in most theaters, began production in October 2014 and reportedly underwent massive reshoots after bad test screenings last year. Whatever they changed didn’t help. The movie that exists now is bad, but not bad enough. It’s too miscalculated. Most of its running time is devoted to a “mystery” involving the person or persons who have taken control of “Dutch Boy” with their eyes on creating a string of disasters that will lead to a catastrophe on a global scale, the title Geostorm. Anyone who has seen the poster can probably figure out which government official is behind the conspiracy — hint: his name rhymes with Ned Barris — but Geostorm teases out the reveal like his identity is Keyser Söze. The movie was seemingly called Geostorm for a reason. Stop with the geo and give us the storm.
The rest of the film is taken up by the relationship between Jake and his brother, Max (Jim Sturgess), which has fractured in the years since “Dutch Boy” was created. Also in play is Max’s relationship with a secret service agent, Sarah (Abbie Cornish), who is tasked with protecting the President of the United States (Andy Garcia), a Democrat who seems to govern from the middle out. (Garcia is in Terry Benedict-mode here and he mails it in but for one line-reading late in the film: “I’m the goddamned President of the United States.”)
Geostorm is the feature directorial debut of Dean Devlin, the writer and producer behind Independence Day — and it’s clear his film is made in the image of that movie’s director, Roland Emmerich. But whereas Emmerich seems to intuitively understand audiences go see movies like Indepedence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012 to watch stuff blow up real good, Devlin has somehow lost that thread. Emmerich treats his disaster movies like roller coasters, a brief build-up before the fun begins; Devlin’s feels like homework, where learning about how the roller coaster was made accounts for most of the ride. (The rough visual effects are a problem here too: think SyFy by way of The Asylum. The film’s biggest surprise might be that Alan Smithee isn’t credited as the FX supervisor.)
Is it weird watching Geostorm in 2017, after a string of real-life, weather-related tragedies, and then wishing the destruction was moredestructive? It certainly is. But it’s also almost calming to imagine the world where Geostorm first started production: Donald Trump hadn’t even announced his candidacy for president at that time and the leaders of the world seemed to realize something large-scale needed to be done to combat the deadly effects of climate change. In the three years since, some of the worst hurricanes in recorded history have killed thousands and left millions homeless. Trump is president and pulled out of the Paris climate change accords. The world presented in Geostorm was maybe meant to invoke a cautionary future — Biff Tannen’s Pleasure Paradise Casino and Hotel by way of global warming. Now it’s just starting to feel like the world. Too bad we don’t have Jake Lawson around to build a space net that controls the weather.