It's difficult to enjoy a disaster movie about extreme weather in the wake of a summer of extreme weather. Difficult, too, to enjoy a film premised on the reality of climate change without getting distracted by bitter thoughts about the current political climate. None of that is Geostorm's fault. What is its fault is that it utterly fails in its one apparent aim: to provide a silly disaster-based diversion.
Dean Devlin, who wrote and produced Independence Day and Godzilla, makes his feature directorial debut with this tale of geoengineering gone wrong. Setting numerous scenes on the International Space Station, he and cowriter Paul Guyot seem to have hoped to combine the terrestrial destruction of ID4 with the vertiginous wonders of Gravity. Instead, they give us a meat-and-potatoes conspiracy thriller with predictable twists, stock characters and an all-too-parsimonious serving of catastrophe.
Geostorm takes place in the near future, when extreme weather has finally induced humanity to take climate action. Because this is a movie, that means encasing the Earth in a nifty-looking network of satellites that control the weather.
In the venerable disaster-movie tradition of hunky scientists, Gerard Butler plays hunky satellite designer Jake Lawson. Fired from the project for being too much of a maverick, he cedes command to his younger brother, Max (Jim Sturgess), a schmoozy State Department official. But three years later, two satellites go on the fritz, zapping Afghanistan with a flash-freeze and turning Hong Kong into an inferno. Jake is sent to the ISS to find the problem, while Max and his Secret Service agent girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) begin to uncover a high-level conspiracy.
Could the malfunctions have something to do with the impending transfer of power over the satellites from the U.S. to an international committee? Such geopolitical questions take a back seat to far less compelling personal ones: Will Jake return safely from space to hug his precocious daughter (Talitha Bateman)? Will the two brothers stop snarking on each other and bond long enough to save the planet?
Schmaltzy character arcs are disaster-flick boilerplate, so we could forgive them if only Geostorm had more disasters. For better or worse, these movies exist to feed viewers' appetites for grand-scale digital destruction: national monuments laid waste, whole continents in ruins.
But when it's time for Devlin to bring the main course, he just keeps offering us amuse-bouches. One brief glimpse of tornados in Mumbai or beach babes freezing in Rio, and then we're back to Washington, D.C., skulduggery or brotherly bickering. The film keeps teasing us with global spectacle only to return us to scenes of people sneaking around offices or tensely video-conferencing. And it's not smart enough to make any of that interesting.
Geostorm only had one job: to make us feel the gut-wrenching, existential terror of weaponized weather. That shouldn't be hard; watching the Weather Channel is already a pretty scary experience. But the movie doesn't present enough of the on-the-ground, facing-death perspective to fill us with dread. It doesn't even have the saving grace of so many disaster movies: camp. The closest the script comes to self-awareness is a throwaway line that seems designed to explain why Butler and Sturgess keep flubbing their American accents.
What Geostorm does have is an anti-jingoist, pro-internationalist thrust that feels practically daring these days — at least until one takes into account the indispensability of international box office to Hollywood's bottom line. Neither that nor anything else is a reason to weather this tempest of tedium.