Dean Devlin owes Tomas Alfredson a fruit basket. Devlin, the writer-director of this past weekend’s blockbuster disaster movie Geostorm, can now honestly say his film was neither the worst-reviewed nor the most reviled movie of the weekend thanks to The Snowman. That hasn’t prevented audiences from taking their own shots at Devlin’s film, however. Despite finishing second at the box office this past weekend, Geostorm failed to recoup anywhere near its $120 million budget, making the film a swan song for both Gerard Butler’s star power and for the loud disaster genre in general. Most are just biding their time for when Geostorm limps out of the theater and earns its spot as one of the biggest failures of 2017.
Of 2017? Sure. Of 2018 and beyond? I’m not quite convinced. While the film has its undeniable problems, there’s enough topical relevance in the film to make up for its middling action sequences. It may seem odd to say now, but the path for Geostorm to cult status is as self-evident as any film to be released in the past few years.
While cult films have been taken apart any number of ways over the past few decades – from production to audience reception to accidental appropriation – it’s perhaps easiest to think of cult movies as ones that are simultaneously conventional and unconventional in their execution. Many of our favorite films of the ’70s and ’80s, for example, began as a studio’s attempt to jump on a popular trend; the so-called ‘cult classics’ were the ones that also delivered a surprisingly transgressive depiction of sex and/or violence as well. This duality is key to how many people understand cult cinema: movies that were made to adhere to convention but also had something to say that struck a chord with a smaller subsection of audiences. Thus, big, loud flops become the fodder for the next generation of filmmakers.
The film’s most obvious characteristic is its tackling of climate change. Geostorm makes the interesting choice to show the world after the damage has already been done. Many of the films that serve as touchpoints for Geostorm‘s biggest set pieces – movies like The Day After Tomorrow and Armageddon – begin with mankind facing an ecological crisis requiring cooperation to overcome. That’s not the case with Geostorm. In this film, the worst has already happened; mankind banded together, survived a hell of their own creation, and conquered the symptoms (if not the underlying cause) of climate change. Even as I write them, some film or climate studies professor is mentally adding Geostorm to next semester’s “Climate Change in Popular Culture” syllabus, with an entire lesson plan devoted to the significance of the film’s post-disaster setting. As an artifact of its time period, Geostorm is going to far outlive the more generic catastrophes of other blockbusters.
And then there’s the film’s surprisingly bleak take on American politics. From the moment Ed Harris pops up on the screen, offering a show of parental concern for Jim Sturgess’s younger Lawson, it’s painfully obvious that he has something to do with the impending disaster. What surprises us isn’t the fact that Harris’s Secretary of State is betraying his country – ’80s and ’90s thrillers were awash in high-ranking officials looking for the opportunity to make some quick money on the side – but that he is the alpha and the omega of the conspiracy. There are no dark-skinned terrorists, no evil corporations, not even a hacker with a sob story. There’s just Leonard Dekkom, a nationalist who announces his intention to bring America back to the glory of the 1940s. He’s violently opposed to the United States answering to a global community of overseers and is completely undeterred by the deaths of millions, as long as they’re not white and American. Here’s another noteworthy point of consideration: Geostorm as one of the first films to tap into the alarming blend of politics and neo-Nazism. Gerard Butler is suddenly the hottest name in political science courses everywhere.
Oh, and there’s another reason why Geostorm might someday become something akin to a cult classic: it features choice roles for no fewer than three actors in the process of blowing up. Daniel Wu, who is riding his Into the Badlands breakout into a potential star-making turn in Tomb Raider, is given ample opportunity to prove himself before his character is shoved in front of traffic; Zazie Beetz, herself making the leap from a well-regarded television series (Atlanta) to a blockbuster adaptation (Deadpool 2), steals nearly every scene she’s in; and Eugenio Derbez, currently the highest-paid actor in the world, is a minor delight in his few scenes. While the film’s lead actors – Butler, Sturgess, and Cornish – are undoubtedly on the wrong side of their respective peaks, Geostorm is absolutely stuffed with actors who might be household names in a few years. And, of course, actors of color.
So there you have it. On the surface, Geostorm is simply the latest attempt by Hollywood to sell tickets based on our collective fear of world-ending catastrophes, but dig a little deeper and you have a few surprising earmarks of contemporary cinema. Those who avoided the movie because they thought it would be a dumber version of The Day After Tomorrow also missed a movie that takes a first stab at treating climate change as a fact of the future, as well as one that put white nationalists solidly in the White House. It may have been derided by critics and ignored by general audiences upon its initial release, but the elements are all in place for Geostorm to linger on as a transgressive work of blockbuster entertainment. If you wanted to show someone a single movie released in 2017 to explain the political and cultural climate… well, let’s just say you could do a lot worse than showing them Geostorm.