Oct 9, 2020
At the start of 2017’s Geostorm, a young girl’s narration informs us that in the year 2019, a scant six months from now, the planet will be devastated by a series of catastrophic weather events: In New York, the East River will rise up and destroy much of lower Manhattan. In Madrid, a heat wave will lead to 2 million deaths in a single day. In the face of these (and I would assume other) natural disasters, the entire world bands together under American leadership to solve the crisis.
So the movie’s premise is that in 2019, the United States will lead the world in finding a solution to climate change. I guess that’s how you know it’s science fiction.
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The solution, designed by our youthful narrator’s father, is a system of satellites named “Dutch Boy” (after the famous short story featuring a child who uses his finger to plug up a leaking dike), which regulates the earth’s atmosphere by various methods, including shooting lasers into clouds and detonating explosives inside of hurricanes.
The aforementioned designer of Dutch Boy, as well as the man who brought the project to fruition, is Jake Lawson (Gerard Butler), a brash, mercurial scientist who backtalks senators during a congressional hearing. It’s during this hearing where Jake is informed that he’s being dismissed from the project, with control being handed over to the US government. Specifically, to the State Department under the supervision of Jake’s younger brother Max (Jim Sturgess).
Cut to three years later, and a malfunction in one of Dutch Boy’s satellites causes a village in the middle of an Afghani desert to become all frozen over, killing hundreds. Meanwhile, Hong Kong is rocked by massive explosions which are publicly blamed on gas leaks, but which were in some way or another (it’s never made clear) also caused by Dutch Boy going berserk. President Andrew Palma (Andy Garcia) wants to keep these failures hush-hush and quietly send one guy up to the International Space Station to fix the problem. And guess who that guy happens to be?
Predictably, Jake gets called out of retirement by his little brother and is quickly put on the next space shuttle bound for the ISS. And in this wondrous future of 2022, America apparently maintains a giant fleet of space shuttles with launches happening around the clock. Additionally, it appears rocket fuel gets insanely cheap four years from now, because when Jake’s shuttle launches, he’s the only one aboard.
Once he gets up to the ISS (actually, the “ISS IV”, a new, roided up International Space Station that even generates its own artificial gravity), Jake meets the rainbow coalition that’s going to help him investigate the malfunctions, which conveniently includes one astronaut each from Germany, Mexico, Britain, Nigeria, and France. Jake learns that just before he arrived, there was another accident aboard the ISS XXL which resulted in an astronaut getting blown out of an airlock. As Jake does more investigating, he begins to suspect it was a deliberate act to cover up how the “failures” in the Dutch Boy satellites were no accidents.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, his younger brother Max is informed by a State Department employee that he can no longer access any of the Dutch Boy satellites. Immediately following this, that same employee gets pushed into traffic by a shady guy in a trench coat. A suspicious Max enlists the help of computer hacker Dana (Zazie Beetz) to dig into things, and soon he also comes to believe that there’s a major cover-up going on.
Back on the ISS Triple Deluxe, Jake goes on a spacewalk to retrieve evidence pertaining to that airlock mishap, but his spacesuit has been tampered with, and Jake nearly goes flying off into space and is left holding onto solar panels by his fingertips in a scene far too reminiscent of Gravity. He’s now certain that there’s sabotage afoot, and beams a message to his younger brother where he relates a seemingly random, pointless anecdote about the time their dad took them fishing.
But back on Earth, Max explains to Dana that the message really contains a secret code, and has her cut out every fifth word or something, which reveals a hilariously coherent message about corruption in high places and how Max should not trust anyone.
Soon, the Dutch Boy satellites are going completely haywire, causing a hail storm in Tokyo with chunks of ice large enough to crush cars and kill people, as well as a blast of cold air that hits Rio de Janeiro and freezes beachgoers in mid-stride. Over in Moscow, all the snow melts and Red Square catches on fire, while immense dust devils menace Mumbai.
Meanwhile, President Palma is giving a speech at the Democratic National Convention in Orlando, Florida, because in the world of this movie, 2022 is a presidential election year. Max is somehow able to determine that Orlando is the next city to be struck by a Dutch Boy “event”. He shares this information with his boss, Secretary of State Leonard Dekkom (Ed Harris), but quickly realizes that Dekkom is the one who’s been engineering the Dutch Boy malfunctions in the first place.
Apparently, the secretary’s goal is to use the satellite system to not only wipe out America’s enemies while making it look like natural disasters (since when were we at war with Brazil and India, again?), but also to destroy Orlando, killing the president and everybody else in the line of succession. So why would Dekkom also be in Orlando just before the storm hits? Your guess is as good as mine.
But it gets even worse: if enough storms hit the planet simultaneously, they’ll trigger the titular “geostorm”, causing massive destruction the likes of from which the world will never recover. To stop this, Jake wants to reboot Dutch Boy, but the only person who can authorize this action is President Palma himself, via retinal scan.
Max knows there’s no way Dekkom will let anyone get close to the president, so he comes up with a hairbrained scheme: he just so happens to be in a serious relationship with a Secret Service agent named Sarah (Abbie Cornish), so he gets her to stage a fake assassination attempt and use the ensuing chaos to kidnap the president, stuff him in a cab, and escape from the convention center just as the entire building is obliterated by lightning. This forces Secretary Dekkom to switch to Plan B, which involves pulling out a rocket launcher for his bodyguard to fire at Sarah’s cab, but luckily it’s an autonomous self-driving cab (the future!) that Sarah is using as a decoy, and no one’s inside.
Sarah and Max are able to get the president to a secure location where he authorizes the Dutch Boy reboot, but the danger isn’t over yet. Dekkom’s co-conspirator is one of the astronauts aboard the ISS 360 (it turns out to be the British guy, in case anyone cares), who’s just triggered the space station’s self-destruct sequence. The station is quickly evacuated, but Jake (and the one German astronaut) make the ultimate sacrifice and remain aboard to ensure the satellites get rebooted.
But after they both put on spacesuits, they somehow manage to survive the space station imploding and disintegrating all around them. They then climb into a Dutch Boy satellite and are quickly saved by one of those plentiful space shuttles (coincidentally piloted by the Mexican astronaut), and everyone at the Pentagon and NASA cheers Jake’s survival as if thousands of people didn’t just die horrible deaths from storms all across the planet. Jake has the expected tearful reunion with his daughter who then takes us out with another overly precious voiceover.
Geostorm is the directorial debut of Dean Devlin, best known as the writer of Stargate and Independence Day, both directed by his former creative partner Roland Emmerich. And this movie seems to be a conscious effort by Devlin to copy a few of the films Emmerich went on to make without him, chiefly The Day after Tomorrow and 2012. It’s frankly stunning how much this film cribs from Emmerich’s similar efforts: from random tidal waves hitting whenever things get dull, to characters literally outrunning cold air, to the one guy who proves it’s still idiotic to carry a gun on a space station, it’s all here. We even get a total Independence Dog moment where a young boy chases down his pup on the streets of Mumbai while the entire city is in the process of being blown off the map.
Of course, none of those apocalyptic Emmerich films of the 2000s were any good, so there’s certainly room for improvement here, but Geostorm never tries to be anything more than a pale imitation of movies that were already pale imitations of 1970s disaster movies in the first place. There’s nothing fresh or unique at all here; the imploding space station stuff was done better in the aforementioned Gravity, and the concept of a government controlled system of satellites creating havoc was already done… well, not better by any means, but certainly earlier in the Armageddon knockoff The Core.
When you see Gerard Butler’s name headlining a movie these days, you certainly know what to expect, especially given his recent star turns in dismal films like Gods of Egypt, Den of Thieves, Olympus Has Fallen, London Has Fallen, and hell, let’s just throw the upcoming Angel Has Fallen in there too, because it’s guaranteed to be just as terrible. But unlike those movies, Geostorm can’t even muster the ability to be enjoyably stupid; even the scientifically implausible stuff isn’t ridiculous enough to make an impression.
It’s impossible to tell from the movie if the Dutch Boy satellites are causing all of the storms, or if the failure of the system means that the world is now enduring disasters that would have otherwise been suppressed. Either way, it’s hard to imagine how a satellite could generate and/or prevent the sort of atmospheric conditions that would lead to a tsunami large enough to topple the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. Also, I’m not quite convinced of the feasibility of car-sized hailstones in Tokyo, but I’m also not really motivated to go and fact-check it. Geostorm is so vanilla that it’s not even any fun to debunk it.
There’s a moment where all the ISS computer screens are flashing an auto-destruct countdown in everyone’s faces, and the other astronauts still demand to know why Jake outfitted the station with a self-destruct sequence in the first place. His explanation turns out to make perfect sense (it’s a safety measure, in case the station ever lost power and came crashing down to Earth), but in a movie where satellites somehow cause Hong Kong to spontaneously combust, that’s the plot hole they thought needed explaining away?
But that’s Geostorm for you; its flaws seem less like the product of wanton stupidity and more the result of last-minute reshoots and rewrites and filmmaking by committee. The movie actually began shooting in 2014, and was held back for years thanks to poor test screenings. And in view of that, a lot of aspects of Geostorm make more sense. It feels very much like the product of a pre-Trump era that assumed that by 2022 we’d all be living in a liberal utopia of renewable energy and international cooperation. I wouldn’t call it a boring movie, especially thanks to a final act that’s 20 minutes of non-stop frenetic nonsense, but most of it is hopelessly bland and feels utterly irrelevant to the world we’re currently living in.
Other than a few notably expensive CGI sequences, the whole film looks like a direct-to-streaming effort, and I assume the only reason the studio didn’t go that route is because of the insane amount of money they poured into trying to fix this thing. Geostorm ended up as one of the biggest bombs of 2017 anyway, and we can only hope this puts the kibosh on future global weather catastrophe movies from either Devlin or Emmerich that have no real reason for being.