Butling the Elements
There's no such thing as a job for life these days, so it's as well to branch out, even in the movie industry. Actually, this sort of diversification has been going on for ages – models become actresses, actors and actresses become directors, writers become directors, producers become directors... hmm, it seems like everyone wants to be the director – except for the odd director who decides to become a producer, anyway.
You can see why – the director gets to make all the big decisions and all the artistic cachet when a movie turns out to be good. All the producer gets to do is count beans and, perhaps, pick up the Best Picture gongs when awards season rolls around. How hard can it be? You get to tell everyone else what to do, in accordance with your creative vision, and wear a pair of Cuban-heeled boots, too. Matthew Vaughn started off as Guy Ritchie's producer and has gone to have the kind of directorial career which Ritchie himself would probably quite like nowadays. All in all, it's enough tempt anyone to give it a try.
Even Dean Devlin, who is best known as the producer and writing partner of director Roland Emmerich, has fallen prey to this dubious impulse. Now, I'm fully aware that Devlin and Emmerich and their movies are hardly cool, and are never going to win any of the noteworthy Oscars, but I honestly really like Independence Day, and I didn't really have an actively bad experience watching Stargate, or their version of Godzilla, or The Day After Tomorrow, or 2012. As you can see, if there's a running theme through the work of these guys, it's that of special-effects-facilitated catastrophes – nothing too serious, just a lot of running and screaming and the occasional one-liner and moment of unmitigated schmaltz. Devlin's new movie as co-writer and director, Geostorm, is very much one of these, so at least he's in his comfort zone.
We open, of course, with a voice-over explaining everything. 'People were warned. People should have listened,' laments a grave voice. Yes, but they went ahead and bought tickets to Geostorm anyway, ha ha. Ahem. Following murderously bad weather in the distant year of 2019, a global weather-control network has been set up, code-named 'Dutch Boy'. Hmmm, I suppose people shouting 'Dutch Boy is out of control!' (as they inevitably end up doing) sounds marginally snappier. Anyway, the system is the brainchild of maverick alpha male climatological engineer Jake Lawson (GERARD! BUTLER!), who proceeds to annoy all the politicians in charge of it and gets himself kicked out and replaced by his kid brother Max (Jim Sturgess). (It is just one of those unfortunate things that the heroes of a movie about bad weather should share their surname with a particularly ridiculous British climate-change denier.)
Very early on you get a sense of what a special movie Geostorm is going to be. Jake Lawson turns up at a hearing and is greeted thusly by the security guard: 'Hey, you're JAKE LAWSON! Jake Lawson! What a great guy you are! You invented Dutch Boy! Any bad weather in the world, you can stop it! You saved everyone! You're a hero, Jake Lawson.' I get the impression the audience is supposed to like him.
Well, anyway, years go by and preparations to turn over the weather-modifying gadgets to international control are underway, but then a village full of Afghans turn up, transformed into corpsicles by unknown means (presumably they casually kill off some Afghans because, well, they don't matter as much as Americans or Europeans or Chinese people, do they?). Could something be up with the weather satellites? Hmmm. Max is obliged to drag a rather grumpy Jake back from exile and pack him off to the ludicrously large space station where the weather network is run from. Soon both brothers are turning up evidence that the system has been interfered with, and lots more absurdly bad weather is on the way...
It is a source of mild embarrassment to me that I was such an enthusiastic promoter of Gerard Butler's career ten or fifteen years ago, back when he was turning up in things like Timeline and Reign of Fire. It is indeed true that he has scaled the peaks of Hollywood stardom and become a proper leading man. But it is also the case that any Gerard Butler-led movie you stumble upon these days is likely to be – how can I put this delicately? – absolutely bloody awful.
The trailer for Geostorm promises a full-on bonkers apocalypse in the true Emmerich style, but it actually starts off by looking more like one of those 'peril in orbit' movies that have become somewhat modish since Gravity came along. Butler spends most of the movie in space (which many might say was the best place for him these days) – luckily, in space everyone can still hear you growl, and quite possibly sweat – leaving Sturgess to run around on Earth trying to uncover the conspiracy. Once again, every time he meets a new character there's a lovely scene where they tell each other at great length who they are and how they know each other, even if they're both already aware of this. What a script this is.
Well, in the end the person behind the conspiracy turns out to be exactly the one you thought it was all along (honestly, only a tree would be surprised by the revelation), and there are various scenes of good-looking extras being chased down the street by bad weather. The Kremlin melts in the sun, but in the name of balance, the Democratic National Convention is struck by lightning and blows up (they really missed a trick by not getting Al Gore to come on and shout 'I did warn you-' at the last minute), and the International Space Station blows up too – it has a rather odd self-destruct device where it blows up a tiny bit at a time over the course of about an hour and a half. Fortunately, the President escapes: the thankless task of playing the leader of the Free World falls to Andy Garcia.
No, really, how are you supposed to include the US President in a movie these days? It was easy when Clinton was in power – just get someone young and a bit roguishly charming, easy peasy. During the Obama administration, you could just hire someone like Danny Glover or Jamie Foxx to be grave and inspiring. But who do you hire these days? Isn't the reality just too bizarre even for a movie like Geostorm? I suspect CGI would be required.
Garcia isn't the only person who seems to have wandered in from a rather more sensible film – Ed Harris phones in his performance stoically, while Abbie Cornish – a pleasing but peripheral presence in dodgy movies for some years now – plays a Secret Service agent who ends up kidnapping the President (in case you hadn't noticed, it's that sort of film). Giving quite possibly the best performance in the whole thing is Talitha Bateman as Butler's daughter: one to watch, methinks.
A friend of mine is also a connoisseur of the Butler canon and his advance word on Geostorm probably lifted my expectations too high – 'this film makes London Has Fallen look like The Dark Knight,' he promised. Well, no it doesn't, I have to say, because Geostorm is just very, very stupid, rather than actually being offensive to the soul. In terms of just this year's films, it's less actively irritating than Hampstead, and has strong competition in the stupidity stakes in the xXx sequel. This still makes it a very bad film, of course.
What it reminds me of most, to be honest, is one of those dimwit TV disaster movies that Syfy churn out by the dozen – as a single man in middle age who's often at home in the afternoons, I end up watching a lot of these on the Horror Channel – movies like Tornado Warning, Solar Storm, Christmas Icetastrophe, Stonehenge Apocalypse, and so on. If you gave the makers of one of these films a $120 million budget and blackmail material on several major stars, I imagine the result would be something like Geostorm. Only the scale of this movie makes it particularly noteworthy.
But hey, at least Dean Devlin has got to direct a big Hollywood movie, which is more than most of us can say we've ever done. Well done, Dean; I would just focus on that and not worry too much about the reviews or the box office returns. Geostorm is pretty much what you'd expect from a movie about Gerard Butler having a fight with the weather, but the fact it's so exactly the film you think it'll be is almost a little surprising. Not actually morally offensive, but still not a film which sensible adults should really go anywhere near.