Posted on November 1, 2017

The Dangerous Politics of Geostorm

Dawn Keetley

Critics are in the process of hammering Dean Devlin’s cli-fi action / horror film Geostorm (2017)—and one of the most damning charges has been how stupid it is. “The stupidest film I have ever seen,” claimed Mark Kermode, tweeting “I have seen Geostorm. My brain is now cowering in a dark corner of my head and refusing to speak to me.”

Mark Kermode’s assessment of Geostorm

I did not, for the most part, experience Geostorm as stupid. As a long-time fan of disaster movies, part of me actually enjoyed it. More than that, though, I was disturbed by the relentlessly dangerous message of Geostorm—and I say that recognizing that director Dean Devlin had nothing but good intentions. In an interview, Devlin describes talking with his young daughter about climate change, trying to answer her anxious question: “Why aren’t we doing anything about it?” He goes on to say that Geostorm emerged from that conversation: it’s a “cautionary tale—a fable. What could happen if we wait to deal with this.”

As the opening credits to Geostorm roll, we learn that in 2019 a series of devastating storms struck the planet. As a result, humans across the globe banded together and created “Dutch Boy” (named after the story of the boy who stuck his finger in the dike)—a series of satellites that control the weather across the globe. Shortly after the film begins we see a scene suggesting that this feat of geoengineering has gone dramatically wrong: a village in the Afghan desert is swept with such extreme cold that the 300 villagers are instantly frozen (a nod to this Geostorm’s cli-fi progenitor, Roland Emmerich’s 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow). More glitches in Dutch Boy create more devastation, and the scenes of weather running amuck across the globe are intertwined with both political intrigue and the heroic story of two brothers. Scientist Jake Lawson (Gerard Butler) led the international team that created Dutch Boy, but he was kicked off the team for not playing nice with the uniformly loathsome politicians (a sign of our current historical moment). Unfortunately, Jake’s brother Max (Jim Sturgess) works for those politicians, though it turns out he’s the lone good guy in their midst, along with his girlfriend and secret service agent Sarah Wilson (Abbie Cornish).

The political thriller strand of the plot grinds along as you would expect: everyone’s looking out for themselves and all sense of global solidarity and cooperation in the face of a common threat to humanity means nothing to American politicians who seek only their own personal power. (Even though Dutch Boy was created and managed by an international alliance, American politicians seem to be the only game in town, but only to demonstrate either their selfish depravity or their cluelessness.) The Lawson brothers—scientist and the one redeemable politician—take on the expected mantle of virtually single-handed heroism, aided by a supporting cast of helpful women, not only Cornish as the handy secret service agent cum girlfriend but also Alexandra Maria Lara as Ute Fassbinder, German commander of Dutch Boy, and Zazie Beetz as super-hacker Dana.

While the plot is predictable and uninspired, it’s the politics, as I said, that really drew my attention. Indeed, despite the fact that Devlin intended to make a film about the dangers of humans not addressing climate change, he made a film that unwittingly endorses exactly why we are experiencing anthropogenic climate change: Geostorm is from beginning to end about humans exerting control over nature.

Aside from the first few scenes, which end even before the credits do, there is not a scene in Geostorm that doesn’t portray humans controlling – or trying to control – nature (the weather for the most part). Dutch Boy itself is an invention designed (although the film evades this truth) to allow humans to go on doing exactly what they’ve been doing, while satellites far above the earth control for the dire effects of heedless human behavior. And when cataclysmic weather events puncture the narrative of the film, they are the direct result not of nature itself, not even of a random malfunction of Dutch Boy; they are the result of human perfidy and political power-mongering. Science is portrayed unambiguously as god here—having already “solved” the problem of catastrophic climate change and, during the course of the film, solving (again) the problem of human / political evil.

Gerard Butler and Alexandra Maria Lara as the heroic scientists

By far the predominant aspect of humans’ relationship to nature has been one of control and mastery: as a species, we’ve consistently exerted dominion over nature rather than trying to adapt and live with nature. Geostorm just continues this trend to an exponential degree, and so it reinforces the cause of the problem rather than addressing and changing it. Maybe we should try less technology rather than more. That’s a thought Geostorm simply doesn’t have.

There’s a very salutary lesson at the end of James Patterson’s great novel Zoo (2012). Midway through the novel, the characters discover that it’s cell phones that are causing animals to form into packs and attack any humans nearby. For a while, governments across the globe ban cellphones and everyone abides by the ban. But, slowly, and knowing the consequences, humans start to use their cellphones again: they just can’t let them go, can’t turn back on what their god technology has given them. The ending of the novel doesn’t leave the reader with much hope for the future of civilization. We can’t, it seems, ever give up what we’ve won—and Geostorm, despite the intentions of its director, makes that glaringly clear.

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