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Geostorm: the latest climate action blockbuster (that you shouldn’t watch)

Gerard Butler at the US premiere of Geostorm. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Writing for The Conversation is not, sadly, a paid gig. If it were, I’d have asked for danger money before seeing the mesmerisingly bad movie Geostorm. But as the weather is now political, I braved the terrors for you, gentle reader.

The plot starts promisingly enough. Against an introductory montage of horror heatwaves and storms, a young girl explains how “weird weather” (the words “climate change” and “carbon dioxide” never pass anyone’s lips) in the year 2019 served as a wake-up call that prompted the world’s governments to build a space-based weather control system known as “Dutch boy” (after the fabled juvenile dike engineer).

Read more: Can 'cli-fi' actually make a difference? A climate scientist's perspective

The opening scene then shows our hero Jake (Gerard Butler, at the peak of his acting prowess), the scientist who built Dutch Boy, falling foul of the obligatory Evil Republican Senator (sadly never seen again).

Cut to three years later, when things start to go wrong: an Afghan village is flash-frozen; Hong Kong goes up in flames. So Jake is called back from exile, amid treason in the White House, and the fight against the eponymous “geostorm” (a spate of simultaneous worldwide weather disasters) ensues.

This film is basically a cobbling-together of all the worst bits of Armageddon, In The Line of Fire, at least two Bond films (Moonraker and Die Another Day), and Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, with a few offcuts from Michael Crichton’s unreadable novel State of Fear thrown in for good measure.

Meanwhile, those hoping for full on disaster-porn will be left frustrated. As another reviewer noted, too much reel space is taken up with other stuff besides what you came to see: that is, entire cities being sent to their CGI-induced doom.

Not even the reassuring presence of Ed Harris, who has some impressive eco sci-fi on his CV, is enough to save it.

Plotting the end

So we’ve established that Geostorm is chock-full of planet-sized plot holes, and makes the aforementioned Moonraker look like it was directed by Ingmar Bergman. I’ve watched it, so you don’t have to.

But that’s not to say it’s not worth writing about, as part of the growing canon of climate-in-chaos depictions that have now crossed our screens.

Nature and the apocalypse have provided many a movie plot. There are “nature bites back” films such as The Birds, the unjustly overlooked Long Weekend, and the eerie Peter Weir vehicle The Last Wave (“hasn’t the weather been strange?”).

There are movies that are explicitly about men changing the weather (it’s usually, but not always, men), either by accident or design. The “accident” camp features the classic The Day the Earth Caught Fire, based on real fears that nuclear explosions might knock Earth off its orbit(!), while the “deliberate” end of the spectrum includes Doctor Who and the Moonbase.

Then there are movies in which aliens change our weather, much to humankind’s chagrin – a sub-sub-genre that includes The Kraken Wakes and The Arrival, in which Charlie Sheen plays a literal rocket scientist.

Hollywood’s willingness to include climate change as a plot pretext dates to the 1973 Charlton Heston vehicle Soylent Green. By the late 1980s, as Australian scholar Ruth Morgan notes, scientific and literary depictions of changed climates were becoming more prevalent.

However, until recently – with the notable exception of The Day After Tomorrow, which was basically a climate-themed retread of a World War 3 disaster movie – climate change was not a topic for mainstream fiction or film-making.

The Great Derangement

In his excellent The Great Derangement, the Indian author Amitav Ghosh points out that western movie and literary narratives tend to focus too much on the plight of individuals in the face of threats that should more properly be acknowledged as system-wide. Geostorm is certainly guilty of this (although, and I cannot stress this highly enough, do not waste two hours of your life verifying this).

James Bradley copes nicely with this problem in his novel Clade, as do many authors in the burgeoning “cli-fi” genre. Ghosh argues:

When future generations look back upon the Great Derangement they will certainly blame the leaders and politicians of this time for their failure to address the climate crisis. But they may well hold artists and writers to be equally culpable – for the imagining of possibilities is not, after all, the job of politicians and bureaucrats.

Meanwhile, recent blockbusters such as Blade Runner 2049 and Interstellar feature climate catastrophe as part of the backdrop, rather than the central plot theme (although the latter hedges its bets with a “corn virus”).

A sci-fi tragic friend told me:

As with all cinematic sci-fi it’s a bit late to the genre party. Most near-future literary work has been using casual mention of some sort of massive geoengineering project, strange passing weather events, or some coastal city in trouble happening offstage to prove its “serious realist” bona-fides since the early 2000s. It’s even started to get common in space operas (if they’re explicitly human-centric) – it is now standard practice to mention “old Earth” as some sort of eco-ruin (lost or otherwise) or to make it clear that we’re only out here because we knackered it up back there.

In the same way that zombie films allow us to rehearse either the apotheosis of neoliberalism or the total collapse of civilisation, films like Geostorm (again, please skip this atrocity) allow us to rehearse the coming apocalypse.

Read more: How 19th century fairy tales expressed anxieties about ecological devastation

But, just as it is in politics, reality is becoming scarier than the most grand guignol nonsense that Hollywood can throw at us.

Perhaps the only worthwhile lesson to be learned from Geostorm is to confront approaching disaster head-on. But while you’re waiting for it, I’d just like to remind you to avoid this disaster of a disaster film.

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