Geostorm – Gerard Butler vs. The Environmental Crisis

Geostorm is a very silly film about a very serious thing. This makes it an interesting text, encouraging one to talk about it in both a discerning and frivolous manner. On the one hand this is a film that wears the very real environmental crises of the contemporary moment on its sleeve, on the other hand it is a film with Gerard Butler punching scientists in space. What are we to do with a film like this?

geostorm environmental crisis

Watching Geostorm was a confusing experience for a fan of B-movies with a keen interest in cinema that can instil progressive ecological meaning and affect. Where Geostorm fails as an exercise in instilling caution/fear for the way we treat the climate, it triumphs as a piece of schlock that should be best enjoyed with a 6-pack and a pizza. Set in the perplexingly near future date of 2018-2021, Geostorm opens with a montage revealing documentary footage of climate change in action; icebergs collapse, deserts grow and cities flood. With Andy Garcia as the President of the United States, it’s no wonder that things have got this bad. It’s revealed that after a series of these extreme weather events, a coalition of nations commission measures to control our planet’s climate. The solution put in place is referred to as “Dutch Boy”, a vast system of satellites rigged around the planet which drop small thermo-charges into weather systems to dispel their cataclysmic potential. Three years after inventor and former chief scientist Jake Lawson, played by the inimitable Gerard Butler, is fired for subordination, Dutch Boy begins to malfunction. This causes an entire village in Afghanistan to flash freeze and a devastating temperature spike in Hong Kong to wipe out vast swathes of the city. From here the plot goes into Michael Bay-esque kaleidoscopic nonsense overdrive, as a series of convoluted twists and turns reveal a government plot to weaponise Dutch Boy to their own ends. The stakes get even higher when the accumulative local environmental disasters threaten to coagulate into a globalised all-powerful, you guess it, Geostorm.

While there’s not much, if any, merit to be teased out of Geostorm’s character development, acting, plot, visuals, direction or cinematography, there’s plenty of scope for reading this text productively from an ecocritical perspective. What immediately struck me was how intensely white-hetero-male-capitalist the whole thing is. Geostorm posits an intensely anthropocentric view that humanity can save itself from environmental devastation by way of the same logic and processes that caused it in the first place; scientific “progress” and capitalist consumption. There’s a fascinating shot at the beginning of the film revealing Dutch Boy deploying charges into a weather system forming around Shanghai, these charges appear to go off like bombs in the cloud which duly dissipate upon this assault. Humanity’s war with nature, as perpetrated historically by mass industrial practices (be they capitalist, communist or otherwise), gets writ large here. Rather than alter behaviours or systems of consumption to mitigate dangerous weathers, Geostorm’s future sees us quite literally dropping bombs on the planet to save the planet.

Ecological thought (as per Buell and Clark), and even quantum theory (as per Nils Bohr and Karen Barad), tell us that we are one and the same as the nature we have historically bifurcated ourselves from, or see ourselves as distinct from. Humanity is a part of nature and nature is a part of humanity; all entangled in what Jason W. Moore terms the ‘web of life’. Geostorm is having absolutely none of this, it is very much humanity vs. nature and nature vs. humanity here. If the natural world looks to be behaving dangerously, even if this danger is “our fault”, it needs to be whipped back into shape and taught a lesson. The film’s core plot posits an elaborate way of lassoing the climate to our own ends and needs; catching any moment of the world appearing ‘in-itself’, i.e. not for humans, and bombing it back into submission. As Geostorm would have it, if the world is not for-us, then what’s the point? Let the bombing commence. Rather than see humanity changing their relationship with the environment towards more attuned ecological ends, Geostorm escalates the industrial technological warfare perpetrated by modernity against nature to the next level by way of this Dutch Boy device.

One of the most striking aspects of Geostorm is its confusing temporality. The future feels strangely unlikely in Geostorm, simply because it is set so close to the present day. One of the most fun aspects of science fiction films, for me at least, is going back to old 70s/80s classics and seeing how their approximations of the future weigh up now that we’re living in their future time; producing that odd feeling of “this future was now” (I wonder how Blade Runner 2049 will shape up in this regard…). Geostorm’s meteoric propulsion in technological advancement (holo-pads, a vast network of climate dispelling satellites, fully populated atmospheric and gravitationally situated space stations etc.) goes far beyond what can be taken seriously as existing a year into our future. Originally the film was designed to be set around 2040, but after re-shoots and studio interference it was decided to situate the film in the much more proximate future, so as to frame stronger ties between the dangerous weather in the film and the dangerous weather of the contemporary moment. This messy production background renders time strange in Geostorm; aesthetically it appears a future decades in the making but its instead one posited as being, essentially, tomorrow. Time feels in an unsteady state of flux within the film. On the one hand this nicely shores up some of the more enjoyable B-movie aspects of the text (as per its messy production background), on the other this fluctual and confusing temporality is of importance for assessing our sense of time in the Anthropocene.

I am interested in how time feels in the Anthropocene, and Geostorm, all be it completely by accident, facilitates thinking time in the Anthropocene in a unique manner. The Anthropocene epoch announces the dissolving of human history and geological history, a result of human-induced carbon emissions and habitat destruction altering the geo-physical foundations of the planet. Humanity now occupies timescales entirely extracted from our own much smaller scales of existence; we are not a geo-physical force and we occupy geological time. Humans expire in a matter of decades, geological epochs exist for tens of millions of years; both are now hopelessly entwined. Time feels vast and untenable under such circumstances. The small acts of driving a car to work or not recycling a paper cup accumulate now, like snowballs rolling down a hill, to a much larger issue dispersed through vast space and time. Time feels strange in the Anthropocene by way of these seemingly contradictory scales. Geostorm’s confusing timescales operate similarly to shore up this weirdness of time; just as Geostorm’s future feels untenable, so to does our present.

Geostorm is clearly fond of this sense of estrangement. Great visual emphasis is made throughout the text to highlight moments of juxtapositional environments/weathers colliding. Temperature spikes in Russia melt the snowy caps of the Kremlin, a vast flood sweeps through the Saudi Arabian desert and Rio De Janeiro freezes over as its beach dwellers become petrified icy statues. Perhaps these are too ridiculous to be taken seriously, not that that’s necessarily a problem. Taking texts not seriously is equally important, and Geostorm is a superb text for taking not seriously.

While the film’s tagline reads “Some Things Were Never Meant To Be Controlled”, the message the film posits is precisely the opposite. Geostorm suggests that the best way out of mass industrial, post-modern, hetero-male-capitalist society’s relationship with nature is to accelerate the logic that landed us on the cusp of a 6th mass species extinction event. If nature poses a threat, it must be attacked with technological advancement. In spite of all these shortcomings I enjoyed the film, basking in its inept ecocritical commentary while gearing up for the next scene of Gerard Butler punching someone. Perhaps if the tagline had read “Some Things Were Never Meant To Be Taken Seriously” the reviews for Geostorm might have been more lenient and people might have taken it for what it is, Gerard Butler vs. The Environmental Crisis.