GEOSTORM Review: Cue The Dumb

A disaster movie with a weird distaste for disaster.

We all know the basic concept behind Geostorm by now. In the near future, humankind has elected to combat the extreme weather events caused by climate change with an elaborate net of satellites - the unfortunately-dubbed "Dutch Boy" - that can deploy countermeasures to effectively control the weather.

Put aside the logistical questions of the resources required to build such a thing, and that's actually a pretty cool sci-fi idea - not even that far removed from some proposed real-life climate change solutions. Geostorm posits a surprisingly utopian future in which dozens of countries band together to fix the world with science; where the International Space Station is manned by hundreds of people and has artificial gravity; where Cape Canaveral presents the hilarious sight of dozens of next-generation Space Shuttles lined up for launch. We can control the weather; but what if someone used that system for eeeeeeevil?

Now, look: silly title aside, there’s nothing inherently more ridiculous about Geostorm than any other movie made by Roland Emmerich types. You know that people are going to try to outrun the weather, or outdrive explosions, and that the camera will totally focus on the easy drama of a boy and his dog amidst a city-wrecking calamity. You know this before you walk into the theatre, and shit, you probably get a little thrill out of it, don't you - so it’s a hypocritical to get on one’s high horse about it when it delivers just that. The real question is whether or not Geostorm actually delivers what people want from this kind of movie.

For its first forty minutes, Geostorm actually kinda works. It sets up an intriguing mystery (who on Earth would weaponise the weather anyhow?); it moves along at a decent clip; it introduces its characters in the silly, efficient way these movies do. Gerard Butler plays the engineer who supervised Dutch Boy’s construction; Jim Sturgess, his estranged brother in the State Department; Abbie Cornish, Sturgess’ secret girlfriend in the Secret Service; Ed Harris, the Secretary of State; Andy Garcia, the goddamn President of the United States. There’s also a strong cast of support roles and cameos: Richard Schiff, Alexandra Maria Lara, Zazie Beetz, and the great Mare Winningham all show up in varying quantities, all elevating their material. Butler also has a daughter, who somewhat misleadingly delivers the opening voiceover (she’s barely in the movie, and this review's header image never takes place); the family drama is all surface-level, but whatever. You need these things in disaster movies. They're the glue that holds the smashy bits together.

Anyway - the important thing is that when Dutch Boy starts “malfunctioning,” Gerard Butler’s convinced to go back up to space to save the world, in a manner that doesn’t require an R rating. 

While Dutch Boy’s initial malfunctions - a cold snap in Afghanistan; a gas-main-igniting heat wave in Hong Kong - are visually spectacular and mysterious, it’s the cover-up that really pushes Geostorm into the silly territory we love. Once Butler reaches the space station (for a movie called Geostorm, a surprising amount takes place offworld), “accidents” begin occurring to prevent him from finding out what’s really going on - accidents like astronauts being suddenly blown out airlocks, docking arms smashing satellites into smithereens, and space suit thrusters going haywire. It’s the kind of cover-up that requires enormously more work than the initial crime, and it’s so obviously a cover-up that it seems like a waste of time. But again: the main plot involves assassinating the President by engineering lightning to strike the Democratic National Convention, and creating so many storms that the entire planet gets engulfed in, yes, a “geostorm.” This is the stupid, wonderful shit we came in for.

(Spoilers ahead, but I doubt you care)

Unfortunately, and somewhat shockingly, there just isn’t enough of that stupid, wonderful shit. The problem with these movies is that to avoid a bummer ending, you have to stop short of total follow-through on your destructive promises. As a result, while the destruction scenes we do get are mostly well-rendered (a few ropey effects shots and poor 3D conversion aside), we never actually get to see a full-on geostorm. In fact, if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve already glimpsed most of the money shots.

Perplexingly, Geostorm would be better if it was either smarter, or meaner. Its sci-fi positivity holds it back from being a great disaster movie, and its appetite for destruction prevents it from being great sci-fi. In 2017, when CGI has given us tornado clusters and Himalayan tidal waves and more, the one new thing Geostorm could have brought to the party was a goddamn geostorm - but it’s not misanthropic enough to commit to that. Instead, the plot revolves around preventing the geostorm, a feat which - unsurprisingly - is achieved with mere seconds to spare, because weather is that precise. No geostorm for you, audience.

Believe it or not, Geostorm’s most intriguing element actually lies in its story. Though early scenes play with audience expectations that the satellites are being hacked by terrorists (with angular-faced Egyptian actor Amr Waked dutifully serving as an oh-so-sinister red herring), the perpetrator turns out to be Ed Harris’ Secretary of State, who explicitly lays out his motivation as wanting to destroy all of America’s enemies and competitors - to “turn back the clock to 1945” when America ruled the world. The film underwent some considerable reshoots in December 2016, right after Donald Trump’s election; though Harris’ character stops short of saying “make America great again,” he carries a version of the same violently nationalist spirit. It says quite something when an American government official actively makes the climate worse in order to achieve geopolitical goals. Given the sledgehammered-home message about international co-operation (slightly undone by depicting foreign locales in the broadest of strokes, and having one American save the day), and the fact that extreme weather events are fast becoming the norm, Geostorm is - surprisingly - very much a movie for our time.

Geostorm is dumb. We all know that, and I suspect director Dean Devlin (producer of Independence Day and actually making his feature directorial debut here) knows that too. There are moments of absurdity that will delight some (i.e. me) as much as they irritate others. But Devlin lacks the teeth to truly deliver on his dumb promise. He can’t bring himself to destroy the world, to deliver the downbeat deluge of destruction that would make Geostorm a big-budget trash all-timer - and as a result, the movie whiffs its ending. Geostorm isn’t aggressively bad in the way that opportunistic film critics (who'd rather write spiteful clickbait than actually engage with the film) would have you think. It's just kind of mediocre - and in this genre, that's worse.