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Posts Tagged ‘disaster movie’

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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