Geostorm: The crazy you love, the stupid you need

There is a single, foolproof indicator of whether or not a piece of disaster entertainment is wasting your time, and that is when it starts throwing raw data at you in the hope you’ll have an emotional response. Geostorm – saddled with a title and premise fit for a gas station DVD rack – makes it commendably deep into its runtime before this happens. But when it does, oh boy: A vector line world map with a countdown TIME UNTIL GEOSTORM. A $120 million movie, built around an egg timer.

There was a time when a movie about an array of weather-control satellites wreaking havoc with the world’s climate would have been premium summer popcorn fare; a release in the bottom of October indicates lack of confidence in the finished product. But there’s nothing here that’s more objectively stupid than, say, The Day After Tomorrow or Independence Day. Director Dean Devlin has a long history as a writer and producer for Roland Emmerich (the thinking man’s Michael Bay!), but this is his first directorial feature. (His IMDb credits include a fair number of TV episodes and something called “Untitled Bounty Hunter Project” that may or may not have come out in 2013.) Left to his own devices, Devlin defaults to Emmerich’s voice, creating a movie that feels like it could have been made in 1998 and set in 2005.

Gerard Butler plays Jake Lawson, a scientist of unclear specialty who is kicked off a geoengineering project for being an all-around asshole. The man forced to fire him is his brother, Max Lawson (Jim Sturgess), who speaks every single line he’s given like he’s about to throw something at a wall and then burst into tears. Jake retreats to a small business in Florida where he replaces the gas engines in sports cars with electric engines, although for some reason he hoists the electric engine up on the shop crane before pulling the gas engine out. He does not appear to have a second crane. When Max eventually needs his help (after a “Three years later” card), Jake bravely says that the business is going well.

The geoengineering system, named “Dutchboy” by whatever dark impulse convinced James Cameron that “unobtanium” was a good idea, is starting to malfunction. US President Andrew Palmer (Andy Garcia) wants it back in running order before it’s handed over to an international body the following week. Max puts Jake on a shuttle up to “International Space Station IV” to save the world, which Jake seems to feel minimal pressure for.

The politics here are fascinating. The 1990s action movie plot commits to 1990s Third Way globalism so completely that it verges on tragic. Geostorm asks you to believe that nations and the people in them can work together, a view that crashed out of popularity sometime in 2015. More than any of the usual sci-fi bullshit (I will never stop hating see-through displays), this seems far-fetched.

Still, through Butler’s unsteady American accent, the US is presented as first among equals. He takes shit for America in a really amazing scene where he first meets the rest of the station brass, who have no idea who he is. “You’re Jake Lawson?” asks one of them. Butler is wearing a jumpsuit with a patch that says J. LAWSON on it. The patch, unlike actual ISS patches, does not reproduce the name in Cyrillic for the benefit of Russians, because let’s not get crazy here.

Butler’s half of the plot is a capsule mystery in search of someone sabotaging Dutchboy. The second act of Interstellar made excellent use of this on the ground/in the air narrative split, but in Geostorm, space events are mostly naked exposition in service of disaster sequences on the ground. This is a shame, because the sussing of clues here leads to some of Geostorm‘s best stupid moments, including:

  • A spacewalk to recover a blast door that has its own hard drive for some reason
  • A video call to Max where Jake talks in an abstruse code that yields a secret message so inane that I won’t spoil it for you, and
  • My personal favorite, the classic bit of cinematography where the camera is inside a locker and the shot ends when the door is shut and it goes dark, except that they fucked it up and you can see light getting in around the edges.

Max’s half of the story is comparatively dull. He spends a lot of time exchanging flirty banter with Secret Service agent Sarah Wilson (Abbie Cornish), who seems just as baffled with her dialogue as he does with his. Only his scenes with computer tech Dana (Zazie Beetz) are any good. There, he’s reduced to a straight man in the comedy sketch known as Geostorm. Beetz approaches the material with a tone that suggests she knows it’s stupid, but also respects that this is a job and she has to do it well to get paid.

Something I’ve always wondered about 1950s rubber alien horror movies is when, exactly, the audience got wise. The prevailing mythology is that teens of the day took them seriously, and the genre died when the teens grew up. Nobody ever assumes that maybe 1950s teens went to see shitty movies because they liked shitty movies. Lest future generations make this mistake about us, I want it on the record that the theater I was in laughed early and often at Geostorm, a movie of almost trembling sincerity. A particular crowd-pleaser was a late scene where a bad guy pops the trunk on his car and produces a rocket launcher, which is already loaded.

The whole of Geostorm is studded through with stuff like this – failed attempts at action movie shorthand. You’ve got your stock footage, your giant video displays, your computer voice that has a lot of improbable phrases pre-loaded into it… and for what? The biggest secret of this bomb-in-the-making is that it’s not really an action movie. There are only a couple thrown punches and one so-so car chase. More than anything, it’s a movie about people trying to run far enough away from danger that they can catch their breath and say they’ll be smarter next time. Geostorm is your dad trying to fix the lawn mower.