When it comes to the issue of global warming, the world divides into two camps: those who believe in science, and those who adopt an actively skeptical position toward other human beings’ ability to interpret and in any way impact what nature has in store. An inanely spectacular disaster movie — though perhaps “spectacularly inane” would be more apt — from the producer of “Godzilla” and “Independence Day,” Dean Devlin’s “Geostorm” attempts to have it both ways, treating a gang of scientists who’ve “solved” the problem of global warming as its heroes while exploiting how little its target audience knows about the subject to supply an extreme-weather clip reel with contributions of variable quality from a dozen different visual effects houses.
If you’ve ever wanted to see a tidal wave sweep over the horizon of a waterless desert or eggs frying on a superheated city street, “Geostorm” is the movie for you! And if you’re one of the millions of human beings on this planet who was recently impacted by hurricanes and tropical storms, well, Devlin’s ill-timed destruct-a-thon (already delayed more than a year from its intended March 2016 release) succeeds in being even more callously insensitive/offensive than our president’s response to your plight. Then again, the only thing more reliable than bad weather is bad movies, and in that respect, “Geostorm” is right on forecast.
Thanks to the immersive “environmental effects” of 4DX cinema technology, audiences in participating theaters who pay the upcharge can experience “Geostorm’s” freak weather phenomena for themselves, sitting in seats that jostle and shake along with the action, while lightning flashes, wind blows and a fine watery mist is blasted into their faces as they watch the movie. Introduced in South Korea around the time of “Avatar” and now available around the world, 4DX is an elaborate and thoroughly obnoxious add-on to the moviegoing experience worth trying once, and “Geostorm” may as well have been conceived for the occasion.
For the century prior, a filmmaker’s toolset was limited primarily to sight and sound, but 4DX assaults audiences with touch and smell as well, improving on such short-lived 1959/’60 gimmicks as “The Tingler” (an in-seat joy buzzer rigged to vibrate on cue) and Smell-O-Vision (which spritzed nauseating perfumes at pre-programmed intervals). During “Geostorm,” puffs of air hit your neck as bullets whizz by a character’s head, and hydraulically mounted four-seat segments shake fast enough to simulate whiplash during car crashes and other traumatic on-screen moments. Thankfully, we’re spared the sensory equivalent of Gerard Butler’s breath, although a soothing summer-breeze aroma does accompany the denouement, and they haven’t figured out a way to recreate the movie’s many exploding fireballs indoors.
By comparison, one can only imagine how frustrating “Geostorm” must be for audiences seeing it on a normal megaplex screen, where, without the added distraction of trying not to puke up one’s popcorn, they are directly confronted by the ghastly preposterousness of it all — as in a scene when a random Asian (later revealed to be an important character) tries to outrace a sudden Hong Kong heat surge, dodging toppling skyscrapers and cracks in the road from behind the wheel of his tiny Smartcar. Why are these things happening, you ask? Well, Devlin has engineered an elaborate plot under the pretext of cautionary entertainment, when in fact, his true motive is to show as much devastation as possible. (Sure, his characters are racing to prevent a massive “Geostorm,” but audiences want a taste of what that might look like.)
Up front, a reasonably eloquent opening narration from Hannah Lawson (child actress Talitha Bateman, whose earnest line readings and ability to cry on cue puts her adult co-stars to shame) establishes a near-future scenario in which all those inconvenient truths Al Gore has been urgently warning might happen to the environment have come to pass, but skips forward to a world already stabilized by the solution: Hannah’s dad, Jake (Butler), invented an elaborate satellite net, known as “Dutch Boy,” in which powerful weather-managing equipment allows scientists to control the weather by raising and lowering the temperature of virtually any location on earth at will.
In the alarmist tradition of virtually everything Michael Crichton ever wrote, Devlin (who collaborated with Paul Guyot on the script) has no sooner introduced a really terrible idea than he’s deconstructing all the ways it could go wrong. Someday, screenwriters will actually tell a story about how science makes the world a better place, but this is not that movie. Devlin can already imagine how a system like Dutch Boy could be weaponized to strike America’s enemies (for the moment, the U.S. is in charge of the controls, which makes it more than a little suspicious that a remote outpost in Afghanistan, communist China and downtown Moscow are among the first places for deadly weather malfunctions to occur).
To address the problem, the president (Andy Garcia) asks Jake to return to the space station he built and reboot the system, which is being sabotaged by a virus planted by someone on board (hint: the more suspicious and flop-sweatier a supporting actor looks, the less likely they are to be the culprit). Jake’s a colossal hothead with a bad habit of jumping to conclusions, and the only way he’ll succeed is with the help of an international team (led by Romanian actress Alexandra Maria Lara) up there, and his bureaucrat brother Max (Jim Sturgess, weak) back in Washington — where he’s joined by Abbie Cornish (bland), Ed Harris (brusque) and lesser-known “Atlanta” star Zazie Beetz (literally the only one in this ensemble you don’t want to see crushed by a taco-truck-sized piece of hail).
Devlin, whose first four feature producing credits were Roland Emmerich movies, seems to have learned most of what he knows from the German director, although Emmerich was never all that good at writing characters we care about (mostly, he relied on the actors’ natural charisma to compensate for the obvious deficits in his scripts). In addition to adopting Emmerich’s screw-the-humans, save-the-dog philosophy, Devlin understands that you need a few attractive extras to convey the ground-level destruction (which explains why he follows a random bikini-clad Brazilian through the Rio de Janeiro insta-freeze sequence, however ridiculous it seems to have her outrun the fast-spreading cold front).
But where in tarnation did he get the idea that once two dozen such natural disasters had been unleashed, it could all be reversed if Jake just flushed the virus from the system? Better not to ask questions. Up on the space station, “Geostorm” plays so fast and loose with physics that James Bond’s “Moonraker” (or “Godzilla,” for that matter) suddenly looks plausible by comparison — although, in its defense, the movie seems to know no one came here for a science lesson. If audiences really, truly cared about science, they’d be out trying to stop global warming in the first place, rather than reveling to a worst-case clip reel of where it all could get us.