A disaster movie has to be about more than the cool special effects. It does not have to have compelling characters or memorable dialoge. It does not even have to make sense in logical terms, but it has to feel true the same way that a myth or an urban legend does. The best disaster films find a way to satisfy the audience’s innate need for justice and redemption. Then there are those, like this one, that put all of their energy and money into the gee-whiz-iness of the special effects and hope we’ll be so busy enjoying them that we’ll forget to notice what they leave out.
Co-writer and director Roland Emmerich gave us an exceptionally entertaining disaster movie with Independence Day. This has some of the same ingredients, but they don’t mix as well because it does not have the heart or the zing that Will Smith, Robert Loggia, and Jeff Goldblum (and co-writer/producer Dean Devlin) brought to that one.
It has (1) a hero: Dennis Quaid as Jack Hall, a paeloclimatologist who figures out that the global warming problem is much more serious than we thought. And it has (2) hubris, with the arrogant Vice President of the United States dismissing the Jack’s call for action. It has (3) portents — flocks of birds fleeing New York as the music on the soundtrack goes vwamp-vwamp. It has (4) bleary-eyed and highly caffinated but earnest bureaucrats spouting important techno-babble about forecast modules, cyclonic systems, critical desalinization points, and the upper troposphere while they peer into computer screens, type on keyboards and spout clunky 50’s sci-fi movie dialogue (“If we don’t act now, it will be too late!”). It has (5) a dewy young couple (Jake Gyllenhaal and Emmy Rossum as Hall’s son Sam and his academic decathalon teammate Laura) for us to root for and (6) clueless leaders (the President’s response to the bad news is to look at the Cheney-esque Vice President and ask “What should we do?”) for us to hiss. It has hope, courage, and honor amidst tragedy.
Most of all, it does have some striking visuals and cool special effects, from hailstones the size of basketballs in Tokyo and the crushing of the HOLLYWOOD sign to the flooding ad freezing of Manhattan. A huge Russian ship floats ghost-like down what once was 5th Avenue. The Statue of Liberty’s torch barely emerges above the ice. This is all very impressive. But the dialogue falls with a bigger thud than the hailstones. And to the extent there was ever any pleasure possible in seeing New York City destroyed, that has surely been diminished by the real-life sight of the demolition of the Twin Towers.
This movie gives us too much destruction to take in, with at least a third of the planet wiped out, but it also gives us too little, and the effect is numbing rather than moving. We see only a small group of dead bodies, where there would be millions, and the survivors have to deal with problems that are almost quaint and antiseptic compared to the aftermath of real-life lesser disasters in recent years.
The drama seems curiously muted as well; with the exception of the Vice President’s arrogance and some frantic shoppers stocking up on bottled water, just about everyone else is uniformly calm, dedicated, resigned, and heroic, even a homeless man who is so cute and friendly he might as well live on Sesame Street. Don’t disasters provoke some panic? Some selfishness? Some desperation? Some consequences? Someone suggesting that maybe after living on vending machine crackers, that cute homeless guy’s cute pet dog might taste pretty good?
On a large scale, the movie shows that disasters require the sacrifice of some lives, but on a smaller scale a character risks her own life to help someone whose chances of survival are very slim. Combined with preposterous, illogical, and over the top plot turns (walking from Philadelphia to New York in arctic conditions seems to take a couple of hours, survivors camped out in a library burn books when it would make more sense to burn the furniture, and medication on the Russian ship is helpfully labled in English), this further diminishes the emotional impact of the movie’s themes. The movie fails as story and it fails as warning. Its highest and best use is as a promo reel for the computer programmers who did the visuals.
Parents should know that the movie has intense peril and violence with the destruction of much of the world. Millions of people are killed, mostly off-screen, though there are some dead bodies and major characters are killed. There are brief images of grisly injuries. Characters drink, including drinking as a way to dull the sadness. Characters sacrifice themselves, including suicide, to save others. A strength of the movie is the portrayal of men and women of different races with courage and ability and devotion, including a loving inter-racial marriage.
Families who see this movie should do some research on global warming and on efforts by scientists and policitians to prevent further damage to the ozone layer. They should also talk about why the librarian wanted to save the Gutenberg Bible and about how all of the characters think about (and rearrange) their priorities in the face of disaster. Would your choice for your favorite vacation be like Sam’s? Whose decisions do you approve of and why? The politicians speak of “triage,” making the very tough decisions to let some people die so that more can live. How do people make those choices? What do you think about the way they decide to define “win?” What will happen in the weeks following the end of the movie, and what will the world look like a year later?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Touching the Void, Armageddon and classic disaster movies like The Towering Inferno.