The end of disaster movies was something of a disaster itself.
After the genre had its last gasp in the 1990s, with James Cameron’s Titanic sweeping both audiences and Oscar voters off their feet, it sputtered in the 2000s. Even box office hits like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 garnered lukewarm reviews.
The nail in the coffin came when, after the rise of the superhero genre, premiere disaster filmmaker Roland Emmerich pivoted to action thrillers like 2013’s White House Down. An exception, 2016’s Independence Day: Resurgence, was driven far more by market-driven nostalgia and studios’ mining for proven IP than by any rekindled interest in a genre that once ruled theaters.
But in 2017, one Emmerich protégé, producer Dean Devlin, took a stab at writing and directing his own disaster epic with Paul Guyot, a producer on Devlin’s The Librarians TV franchise. Inspired by a question from his daughter asking why the urgent matter of climate change can’t be solved by a machine (a story told in the film’s Blu-ray special features), Devlin crafted a movie where such a thing exists — and is hijacked to become the ultimate weapon.
That movie is Geostorm, an exceedingly dumb disaster movie that’s only worth revisiting to remind us why disaster movies lost their impact in the first place. And it’s the movie you need to stream before it leaves HBO Max on March 31.
Released in 2017 but looking like it came straight out of 2004, Geostorm stars Gerard Butler as Jake Lawson, an engineer who spearheaded the world-saving machine inexplicably nicknamed Dutch Boy. When climate change becomes severe in the movie’s futuristic date of 2019, Jake’s invention — a network of satellites staffed by an international crew of hundreds — saved the world with artificially controlled weather.
But Jake’s roguish “punch first, ask questions later” ways straight out of the American fantasy of independence from bureaucracy gets him kicked out of his job as Dutch Boy commander. And when his younger brother Max Lawson (Jim Sturgess), the Assistant Secretary of State, takes the reigns, a rift grows between the two.
Fast forward a few years, and a freak freeze in the Middle East plus a strange accident that leaves a crew member dead leads the government to recruit Jake for an inspection and repair job. What he discovers is a conspiracy to weaponize Dutch Boy, kicking off a race to find out who wants to end the world through monstrous storms.
Let it be stated for the record that Geostorm is dumb. Like, really dumb. So much of the movie’s faults can be found in Jake Lawson as a character, a very Hollywood vision of a scientist-hero who’s smart but not so smart as to offend audiences, while also being brawny enough to ensure the image of a masculine lead. The execution of Jake Lawson feels like a bunch of half-measures, rendering him creatively impotent despite the testosterone.
Beyond Jake, there are bits that make you question whether this movie actually came out in 2017, or if it was produced a decade ago and held in a vault at Warner Bros. until someone got desperate to fill a release schedule slot. When Max turns to a hacker friend, Dana (Zazie Beetz), the description of her workplace as a “millennial village” is cringe-worthy enough as to grind teeth.
Even the movie’s main attraction — destructive disasters around the world — are unintelligible, CGI-heavy set pieces that are absent of the bewildering impact they should have. Every instance of a disaster is about novelty: What if Rio de Janeiro froze? What if Moscow burned? Interesting, but hardly worth producing a multimillion dollar feature film around. A series of paintings could have saved everyone time and money.
Lastly, the “reveal” of the villain has the consistency of a wet fart. Despite being a driving hook for the movie, the unmasking of the mastermind behind Dutch Boy’s hijacking is underwhelming and philosophically incoherent. I’ll spare you the full breakdown, but I’ll bet real money that you’ll be just as disappointed.
What Geostorm has going for it is what most other disaster movies succeed at: It’s an inoffensive distraction full of characters who are impossibly good at what they do. (Abbie Cornish, for example, co-stars as a Secret Service agent who could qualify for the Avengers.) The idea of a world ravaged by superstorms can be appealing to anyone thinking that the actual news isn’t apocalyptic enough. It’s cartoonish and silly, but such attributes are more features than bugs for the genre.
Geostorm came out in 2017, a mere five years ago, but it feels like a relic from a more distant past. If you watch it today it serves as a reminder of why the disaster genre gave way to superheroes. Even the genre’s “everyman” characters are characteristically superhuman but, without radioactive spider bites or alien origin stories, suspension of disbelief is left to freefall. The absence of verisimilitude, a staple of most superhero movies, also doomed disaster movies to feel like empty spectacles. But deep down, there’s a part of us that always wants to see something fall apart.
Geostorm is streaming on HBO Max until March 31.