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Posts Tagged ‘disaster movie’

I have an embarrassing and possibly hard-to-credit confession to make: I have a tendency to get some of these 60s and 70s apocalyptic SF movies jumbled up in my head. I think this is partly the fault of the writers, who could have been a big more imaginative in their titling sometimes: the names of these things are a bit formulaic. Following the success of The Day the Earth Stood Still, we end up with The Day the Earth Caught Fire, and a bit after that The Day the Sky Exploded (I suppose you could also add The Day of the Triffids to the list, though that’s not quite the same thing, of course). For a long time I thought there was another film entitled The Day the Earth Cracked Open, but this is not actually true; the film in question actually trades under the name Crack in the World. I suspect I was getting The Day the Earth Caught Fire mixed up with the Hammer project When the Earth Cracked Open, which is no small achievement considering the latter film was never even made.

I should know better, for Crack in the World enjoys outstanding sci-fi B-movie credentials. Director Andrew Marton may not have much form in the genre, but the cast list scores highly on the Rocky Horror opening number bing-o-meter, with Dana Andrews and Janette Scott playing the two leads. Scott’s Day of the Triffids co-star, Kieron Moore, also turns up; this probably isn’t a coincidence as the two films are from the same producers (one of whom, Philip Yordan, surely deserves more recognition within the fantasy considering he contributed to the scripts of The Time Machine, Horror Express, and Psychomania, amongst others). Art direction is handled by Eugene Lourie, who directed The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Behemoth the Sea Monster and Gorgo, which might possibly lead you to expect a different kind of film to what this is.

We get underway with a delegation of important folk trundling across the African savannah in jeeps. Apparently we are in Tanganyika (Tanzania these days); natives with spears look on gravely as the jeeps go by, but make no other contribution to the film (which was actually made in Spain anyway). Soon enough everyone arrives at a remote scientific outpost where a big derrick, of sorts, has been put up. There to greet the important folk is Maggie (Scott), who is married to the boss, Sorenson (Andrews). Sorenson can’t be there as he is busy getting secret treatment for secret Movie Cancer, but Maggie shows them around until he turns up.

This visit has been thoughtfully timed to deliver maximum exposition in the most discreet way. We, and the important folk, learn that Sorenson has been drilling through the Earth’s crust in search of a new source of geothermal power, but the last bit of crust has proved to be unexpectedly resilient and the plan, which he needs the important folk to assent to, is to detonate an atomic bomb at the bottom of the shaft to make the final breakthrough. Sorenson’s demonstration is very good in the visual aid department (in fact, all the pseudo-scientific bits in this film are very carefully and vividly explained; it’s just a shame much of the actual science is deeply iffy), even when it comes to the theories of his youthful rival Ted Rampion (what the hell kind of name is that for a sci-fi B-movie lead character?). Ted’s concern is that multiple nuclear tests have already fractured the crust and one more big blast will have dire consequences for the integrity of the planet. Ted’s ideas make a lot of sense, even when it’s Sorenson explaining them, but you know he’s going to be ignored as there’ll be no story otherwise.

Well, the important folk say yes, of course, and Ted (Moore) resigns in a huff, though not before we have a few scenes sketching out the simmering love triangle between the three leads. Ted goes off to London to try and persuade the important folk to change their decision, while Sorenson goes full speed ahead with the insertion of the bomb. There is a lovely hokey quality to the way that the bomb is sent down the shaft, attached to a missile with its engines blazing even though it’s going straight down; presumably gravity just wouldn’t do the job quickly enough.

Everything seems to go well, with magma spouting out of the borehole, but it soon becomes apparent that Ted was right and Sorenson was an insane, hubristic fool; the Earth’s crust has indeed been severely sundered by the blast, which hit a pocket of subterranean hydrogen that magnified its intensity several-fold. Now a ravening fault is opening up, heading eastward across the Indian ocean at over seventy miles a day, causing massive earthquakes wherever it goes. If the crack circumnavigates the Earth, the enormous pressure of the core will cause the planet to split in two – the scientists had better get their thinking caps on!

You can kind of recognise Crack in the World as a sort of remote ancestor of the kind of films Roland Emmerich has made such a success of – outrageous sci-fi disaster movies, with enormous property damage in the background and trite human-interest melodrama going on closer to the camera. The main problem with this is the simple fact that Crack was made in 1965, for a budget of less than a million dollars. The special effects, such as they are, are not too bad in a slightly sub-Gerry Anderson way, but for the most part the film steers clear of showing the immense devastation we are assured the crack is causing: characters just get told about it over the phone or radio. As a result this feels like an oddly bloodless calamity until quite close to the end of the film.

The whole thing would indeed feel like an extended episode of Thunderbirds were it not for the melodrama subplot. It has to be said that while this is also quite hokey, the characterisation in this film is unexpectedly solid and intelligently handled – the multiple layers of rivalry between Sorenson and Ted do inform the plot, while Sorenson’s Movie Cancer isn’t just a plot device: his desperation to complete his life’s work while he still can is one of the things driving him to ignore Ted’s concerns. Janette Scott, on the other hand, just gets to be decorative and concerned about the two guys; she is also issued with one of those costumes which instantly becomes very fragile once the climax of the film arrives and she finds herself in actual jeopardy.

The film is a bit dry and earnest, and could probably use a few more funny lines, but it moves along well despite the limitations of the special effects and the slightly preposterous science – the further you get into the film, the dafter the science gets. Still, the climax is well-mounted, for all it is over-the-top, and the three leads do good work with the material they are issued. The overall theme of ‘don’t let scientists mess about with A-bombs’ is hardly original, and it doesn’t grip or convince in anything like the same manner as The Day the Earth Caught Fire, but this is a decent mid-range sci-fi movie by 1960s standards.

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Well, thank heavens for that: the football is over at last, meaning the ever-cautious film studios are willing to release some properly sizable films once more. (Although I note that the first two really big releases are movies aimed either at a family audience, or the more feminine echelon of the cinema-going public.) Amongst this number we should probably include Rawson Marshall Thurber’s Skyscraper, which naturally concerns a sturdy, towering edifice, or Dwayne Johnson, as he prefers to be known.

This time around genial Dwayne plays Will Sawyer, an ex-Marine, ex-FBI agent security consultant, who as the story proper gets going is in Hong Kong with his family – his wife (Neve Campbell) being an ex-military doctor who happened to steal Dwayne’s heart, round about the same time she was also amputating his leg (sometimes a hostage rescue goes a bit sideways – we shall return to the curious issue of genial Dwayne Johnson’s artificial leg later on). Why are the Sawyers there? Well, tycoon Zhao (Chin Han, who has been playing sleekly powerful Chinese dudes in Hollywood movies for a good ten years now) is just finishing up his latest project, the tallest building in the history of tallness, and needs someone to do a security and safety assessment so he can get it insured. And Dwayne’s the man for the job!

Of course, this may just be because genial Dwayne has been set up as a patsy by a gang of international mercenaries, led by the irredeemable Botha (Roland Moller, O with a line through it), who has a nefarious plan to break into the tower and set fire to it for reasons which are initially just a little bit obscure. Of course, what the bad guys have not reckoned on is the fact that, even if he only has one leg, Dwayne is still a very handy fellow. Faced with the news that his family are trapped at the top of a burning skyscraper with only a gang of gun-toting villains for company, he does not hesitate, but springs into action in the time-honoured fashion…

It’s not all that long since genial Dwayne’s last vehicle, the rather jolly (if somewhat weird) Rampage, was in theatres worldwide, so you could certainly argue that the big lad is risking overexposure by releasing another movie quite so soon – especially when there is nothing especially distinctive or remarkable about the movie. I mean, there’s very little that’s actually wrong with Skyscraper, it’s competently plotted, scripted, written, directed and played, and you can see where every penny of the budget went (the clue is in the title). It’s just that the whole enterprise feels very soulless and calculated.

As long-term readers know, I generally feel those lazy ‘this film is X meets Y’ descriptions are the work of Satan, but in this case it’s almost impossible to write about Skyscraper in any detail without saying that this is basically a remake of Die Hard with a hefty dollop of The Towering Inferno thrown into the mix, right down to the European villain (though it goes without saying that Moller (O with a line through it) is not even playing the same game as Alan Rickman, let alone appearing in the same ballpark). Many of the other decisions seem to have been influenced solely by the desire to make the film as profitable as possible – it’s very common now for sensible would-be blockbusters to attempt to crack the ultra-lucrative Asian market by including actors and locations from that neck of the woods, and this is doubtless the reason for the film to be set in Hong Kong and have a largely-Chinese supporting cast. The film’s credentials as a proper action thriller are meanwhile undermined by a distinctly discernible attempt to make this another family-oriented film: there’s a lot of attention paid to Dwayne’s plucky wife and adorable kids, and while there’s still a degree of our hero hitting people with axes, throwing them out of burning buildings, and generally putting the beat-down on the deserving wicked, the emphasis is always on how much he loves his wife and kids and just what he’ll put himself through in order to protect them. Which is, you know, a perfectly commendable sentiment, but it just feels like it’s here to tick a box.

This is that sort of script: it feels like it was written by software, or at least using some sort of spreadsheet, with all the key exposition inserted in precisely plotted locations, and key plot points appearing exactly where screenwriting dogma dictates – once again, there’s nothing particularly wrong with that, but it feels like everything remotely quirky or distinctive about Skyscraper has been ruthlessly winnowed out in case the Average Cinema-goer doesn’t like it. The only thing which is a little bit odd about the film is all the business with Dwayne Johnson’s prosthetic leg.

I’ve seen one review of Skyscraper suggesting that the film is in slightly bad taste for featuring a burning high-rise structure only a year or so after the Grenfell Tower fire – honestly, I’m not sure the two scenarios really have enough in common for that to be an issue. However, I do think there may be something a little bit off about casting Dwayne Johnson as an amputee – although I suppose that, if Dustin Hoffman can win awards for playing someone with autism, we shouldn’t be sniffy about letting Johnson play someone with one leg. You’re never far from a reminder of Johnson’s leg in this film, and the script is at least inventive in how it manages this. Dwayne’s first big fight sequence is made to seem less one-sided than usual (let’s face it, all of Johnson’s fights seem a bit one-sided, unless he’s taking on Vin Diesel or Jason Statham or Godzilla) when the bad guy steals his leg (Johnson is – wait for it – hopping mad). Later on the leg proves invaluable in jamming open doors and suchlike. How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Prosthetic Leg would be a good subtitle for this movie.

Johnson and the rest of the cast are clearly trying hard throughout Skyscraper, and – as I have suggested – the rest of it is at least competently put together. The problem is not just that it never really rises above the level of functional competency, but that it doesn’t really want to. It will not really surprise or engage you in any but the most superficial way. Not an actually bad movie, but simply very bland.

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Well, it’s time for another installment of our very irregular and even more pointless feature, New Cinema Review (that’s ‘new’ as in ‘new to me’, not as in ‘freshly constructed’). On this occasion, the venue in question is the Octagon Theatre, Market Harborough. As you may have surmised, this is not one of your actual cinema chain outlets but a legitimate theatre which occasionally puts on a film on a slow night. Well, it’s always nice to go somewhere where the bottom line of the refreshments stand doesn’t appear to be the sine qua non of the whole operation, and the fact this is a proper theatre guarantees a decent rake and line-of-sight to the screen. No adverts (yay), no trailers (boo), no BBFC certificate (hmmm), and some interesting films on their coming soon list (Mustang, Captain Fantastic, Elle, and Headhunters all due in the next few months) – I’ve been to worse places, that’s for sure.

On this occasion I had turned up to watch Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon, a film from last year which I didn’t bother going to see at the time, because, well, it looked like the whole thing had been in the trailer (not to mention on the rolling news back in 2010, though I missed it myself due to being incommunicado in Sri Lanka). This is a movie based on a fairly well-known event from the recent past, so I was a bit surprised to find myself being flapped and hissed at for predicting what we were in for, in the bar before the film: about forty-five minutes of all-American character-building and then an hour or so of stuff blowing up, quite possibly with a billowing US flag at some point. Does this really constitute a spoiler? It’s like being told off for revealing that the boat sinks at the end of Titanic.

Well, anyway. Chief point of audience identification is Mike (Mark Wahlberg), top electrical bloke on the Deepwater Horizon, an oil exploration rig in the Gulf of Mexico. (The name Deepwater Horizon is really a gift to film-makers, being exciting and ominous in just the right blend – I bet if they’d called the thing Riggy McRigface it would all have turned out very differently.) As things get going, Mike is about to head back to the rig for another tour of duty, leaving behind his lovely wife Felicia (played by Kate Hudson) and winsome young daughter (played by a winsome young child actor). As this is a mainstream movie not solely aimed at experts in oil extraction procedure, the winsome daughter gets a sequence where she explains what Mike does for a living in language a ten-year-old child could understand, which means most of the average cinema audience can probably cope with it too. This comes with visual aids, as well – never before has shaken-up cola frothing out of a can been such a portent of doom.

Mike flies off to the rig with his boss Mr Jimmy (Kurt Russell in a fine moustache) and co-worker Andrea (Gina Rodriguez). Needless to say, all is not well as they arrive, as visits by the camera to the sea bed beneath the rig make clear: ominous bubbles leak from around the drill head. It transpires that the preparation of the oil shaft for an actual extraction rig is far behind schedule, rather to the chagrin of the project’s paymasters at BP. They are pressuring the rig workers to accelerate their operations, even if this means cutting corners on things like safety.

You know what happens next: ambiguous results on safety tests are interpreted by the money-grubbing BP suits in the most optimistic manner, things go creak, things go bubble, things go whoosh, and then things – a lot of things – go boom (honestly, the really impressive takeaway from this movie is not the spectacle of this rig exploding, but the fact that these things don’t go bang more often). Mike, Jimmy, and Andrea find themselves initially trying to get the situation aboard the stricken rig under control, before eventually realising it’s all basically terminal and their main concern should be getting off in one piece…

I don’t mean to be especially glib or flippant about what happened to the Deepwater Black, not least because eleven men died in horrible circumstances. That’s a tragedy, a dreadful loss – no question about it, no argument from me. But given it’s such a tragedy, the question must always be, what are we doing making drama-entertainment films about it? Are we not just complicit in satisfying our own suspect urges, in the same way that we do when we rubberneck at a road accident? With, of course, the complicity of the film-makers, who are fully aware of this, but happy because it allows them to use all their pyrotechnical virtuosity in a film the critics are virtually obliged to treat respectfully, as it is about Real Life Heroism – in other words, they get to blow things up but still be taken seriously!

I rather suspect we have a case to answer, because Deepwater Horizon is structured just a bit too much like a crowd-pleasing thriller for comfort. The technical details of what specifically went wrong on the rig are never really gone into, and the first half of the film does feel more like the opening of a disaster movie than anything else – characters are established, warning signs overlooked, the experience and instincts of decent working men is ignored by contemptible guys in suits, and so on. We are told that virtually every scene in this movie is based on eyewitness testimony, which at least allows for some moments you wouldn’t accept in an actual piece of fiction – Mr Jimmy receives an award for his outstanding safety record about an hour before his oil rig literally explodes – but, even so, the film has clearly delineated good guys and bad guys in a way real life generally doesn’t. Chief bad guy is a BP exec played by John Malkovich, who is in form which I can only describe as very John Malkovich. It’s an idiosyncratic turn quite at odds with the studied naturalism of everyone else, but I did enjoy it, as much as you can honestly enjoy any part of this film in a guilt-free way.

Technically, this is a very proficient film, and the performances are fine, too – Wahlberg can play this kind of Everyman in his sleep – and the big bangs and flashes, when they come, are as accomplished as you might expect. You could argue that a lot of the dialogue is unintelligible, not least because it’s technical drilling jargon, but you don’t need to understand every note to grasp the tune on this occasion. It’s all very capably done and exciting, and yet come the end you are still reading a list of the names of real people who died, and seeing their photos, and how are you supposed to handle the cognitive dissonance there?

I suppose you could make the same argument about many other ‘based on true events’ type movies, some of which I have said quite positive things about in the past – Everest leaps to mind as one, and I’m sure there are others. Perhaps it’s simply the approach that Deepwater Horizon takes – it’s a lot less interested in why it happened (and what happened next) than it is in how big the explosions were, and who a convenient scapegoat might be. On a technical level it is impressive, but I think the memory of those lost in the disaster might have been better served by a less simplistic film.

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When you go to the cinema as often as I do, one of the resulting perks is that your accumulated loyalty points earn you a free ticket that little bit more often. This brings with it an important philosophical question – namely, is it more satisfying when your free ticket takes you in to see a truly great movie, meaning you’ve had a fantastic time gratis? Or is it better when the freebie turns out to be for a complete yapper, meaning you at least haven’t had to pay to watch a really bad film?

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Which brings us to Brad Peyton’s San Andreas, the most recent film I managed to snag a free ticket for. Now, while Spanish-speaking readers may be wondering if this is a film about a golf course outside Edinburgh, most other people will rightly assume this is going to be a story concerning earthquakes and how best to prosper during and immediately after them. San Andreas‘ top tip seems to be ‘find something sturdy and hang onto it’, which is probably why it stars Dwayne Johnson, surely the – er – sturdiest leading man in Hollywood. Sometimes he’s so sturdy he’s practically immobile.

Anyway, this time round Dwayne plays Ray Gaines, an enormous rescue helicopter pilot working for the LA fire department, following an illustrious career in Afghanistan (etc, etc). However, Dwayne is struggling with some personal angst, which has led to his wife (Carla Gugino) filing divorce papers and planning to shack up with a rich but worthless property tycoon who you just know is going to let everybody down quite badly when the crunch arrives (Ioan Gruffudd). Now, you and I both know that when someone gets sent divorce papers at the start of a film, this is a flag to the effect that the film is going to be about their reconciliation and a second chance for their family, and so it proves here: there are a lot of special effects and things going bang (crash, crunch, tinkle, etc) in San Andreas, but the main thrust of the film is ultimately about Dwayne and his wife getting back together, not to mention his comely daughter (Alexandra Daddario) finding a nicely non-threatening boyfriend. It just so happens that the piquant backdrop to all this is one of colossal devastation with nameless other characters being mown down horribly by the truckload – but as they have no connection to the Rock family, we are encouraged not to care about them, rather to just enjoy the spectacle of their lovingly-rendered deaths.

Off in another section of the film entirely, Paul Giamatti plays a seismic boffin who is responsible for this film’s Gravitas Provision Department. Giamatti spends a lot of time looking grave and professorial before one of his young assistants bursts in and shouts ‘Sir, you’ve got to see this!’ about something. This is invariably followed by Giamatti looking pop-eyed with concern and crying ‘People have to be warned!’ before hiding under a table. This stuff has no connection with the Rock family’s various travails, it’s just here to provide context and some sort of bafflegab explanation for why most of California now seems to be sliding into the sea. (Giamatti gives a decent performance in the circumstances, by the way.)

Or, to put it another way, this is another Roland Emmerich disaster movie pastiche. Emmerich has never been a particularly lauded or cool director, but in films like Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012, he did at least manage to reinvent the disaster movie formula in a way that had a certain lightness of touch and tongue-in-cheek quality, and while those films may have been cheesy and absurd, they were also very entertaining. San Andreas is just grindingly earnest and more than a bit annoying as a result.

You find yourself noticing things like the way the Rock family cheerfully loot everything in sight – boats, cars, shops, planes, fire appliances – and questioning the film’s assumption that it’s perfectly acceptable for a hugely experienced First Responder to basically walk out on his duties and put his family’s interests ahead of those of the public he’s actually supposed to be serving. If the film acknowledged even slightly how improbable and laboured (and yet also, somehow, obvious) its plotting was, that might make it more acceptable: but it doesn’t, which somehow makes it worse.

San Andreas is a classically modern movie in that the whole enterprise is built around lavish special effects the like of which didn’t exist even twenty-five years ago. Back in ye olden days, films couldn’t just rely on empty CGI spectacle, and so they had to worry about things like engaging characters, innovative plots and interesting dialogue. What San Andreas repeatedly proves is that you can have all the wibbly-wobbly skyscrapers, burning buildings, collapsing bridges, and Kylie Minogue cameos you want, but if you use them as a subsitute for those old-fashioned narrative virtues rather than a supplement to them, you’re going to end up with something which is pretty to look at but ultimately rather uninvolving (this happens in the first few minutes, when a character we barely know has a spectacular, visually striking car crash and you find yourself thinking ‘Why should I care, particularly?’).

Give the Rock some credit, he takes a fair swing at some of the more emotional moments in the script, and the results are not exactly painful to watch. I expect most of the people involved in this film will work again, because it will probably make money: this film most likely scrapes into the ‘too big to fail’ category. But the story just isn’t good enough – it’s predictable and silly from the first scene to the last. Watching horrific natural disasters shouldn’t be fun, but somehow it is when watching a well-done disaster movie. This isn’t a well-done disaster movie, nor is it very much fun.

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