Category: Disaster film

Triangle of Sadness (2022)

Triangle of Sadness (2022)

Östlund’s super-rich satire lines up straight-forward targets to easily knock down

Director: Ruben Östlund

Cast: Harris Dickinson (Carl), Charlbi Dean (Yaya), Dolly de Leon (Abigail), Zlatko Burić (Dimitry), Iris Berben (Therese), Vicki Berlin (Paula), Henrik Dorsin (Jarmo), Woody Harrelson (Captain Thomas Smith), Alicia Eriksson (Alicia), Jean-Christophe Folly (Nelson), Amanda Walker (Clementine), Oliver Ford Davies (Winston), Sunnyi Melles (Vera)

In my review of The Square, Östlund’s previous Palme d’Or winner, I described its targets as “so obvious, the entire film might as well be footage of fish being shot in barrels”. If only I’d known: Triangle of Sadness, his satire on the super-rich, takes this to the Nth degree: it’s an entire film of Östlund spraying machine gun bullets into an aquarium of drugged fish. That’s not to say there ain’t good jokes in here and several of its sequences are cheeky, engaging and funny. It’s well-made and high quality: but it’s also obvious and is in a such a rush to make its oh-so-clever satirical points that it frequently blunts its own impact.

The film revolves around a luxury cruise liner. On board: the self-obsessed, selfish, greedy representatives of the world’s oligarchs. A Russian who repeatedly amuses himself by bragging that he sells “shit” (fertiliser), a Danish app builder who splashes his cash, a married couple of British arms-traders who jovially bemoan how UN restriction on landmines made for tough financial years… you get the idea. Also on board: Instagram influencer supermodel Yaya (Charlbi Dean) and her insecure male model boyfriend Carl (Harris Dickinson). All of them treat the staff like slaves. But when the ship sinks after a storm and an attack by Somali pirates, the surviving passengers find they entirely lack the skills needed to survive on an island, unlike toilet-cleaner Abigail (Dolly de Leon) who rockets from the bottom to the top of the social hierarchy.

Östlund’s film lays into the emptiness, greed and selfishness of the super-rich with glee, even if it hardly tells us anything we don’t already know. The rich are only interested in their own needs and can only see others as tools for their own pleasure: who knew? Wanting to expand his satirical targets even further, Östlund also takes a pop at the social media generation. Apparently, they are shallow and interested only in commodifying their own lives. Who knew? It’s the sort of stuff that makes for a punchy student revue, but you want something a little bit more challenging that moves above cheap shots from a Palme d’Or winner.

In many ways the film’s most interesting section (and most subtle ideas) take place before we even reach the boat. The film’s first chapter exclusively follows Carl and Yaya. Carl auditions for a modelling job where he’s treated like a piece of meat (hilariously they mutter about him needing botox). At a fashion show, staff pleasantly demand three people move out of their seats to make way for VIPS – who immediately ask for one more seat. Everyone shuffles along one (the camera following this with a neat tracking shot), leaving Carl seatless. This is a more subtle commentary on the self-obsessive focus of the super-rich than anything that follows.

Carl and Yaya are in an interesting position: they are both part of the beautiful super-rich and not (they don’t have any money). That early act opener balloons from a disagreement over who pays for a meal into Carl inarticulately arguing for sexual-equality and mutual partnerships that defy gender roles. It’s more interesting than almost anything that follows, because it’s multi-layered and raises genuine issues we all face (to varying degrees).

But the film abandons multi-layered the second it steps foot on the boat. There are fun set pieces. Carl unwittingly gets a pool attendant fired because he’s jealous of Yaya’s admiration for his topless body. The staff on the boat gee themselves up for days of enthusiastic deference with a tip-expectant-group-chant. A Russian lady demands the staff all swim in the sea so they can have as much fun as she is having (and to show how ‘normal’ she is). The film’s most infamous set-piece occurs as a storm coincides with the captain’s dinner (with the fish courses under-cooked due to the aforementioned obligatory staff swim) leading to nearly all the passengers projectile vomiting across the state room, then sliding around the floors of the swaying ship in their own filth.

Amusing as that can be in its guignol excess, it tells you how subtle the film is. The film is awash with obvious, lazy jokes – of course the polite arms trading couple are called Winston and Clementine! To hammer home the social issues the film whacks us over the head with, the Captain (an awkward performance from Woody Harrelson) an alcoholic Marxist spends the storm pissed in his cabin, reading Noam Chomsky and his own anti-capitalist ravings over the ship’s tannoy. This takes up a huge amount of screen-time and manages to be both obvious and not very funny.

The film enjoys taking these pot-shots so much, it ends up feeling rushed when we arrive at the island. If we had seen more of Dolly de Leon’s Abigail earlier in the film (in actuality, the film sidelines her as much as the characters do, barely allowing her more than a minute of screentime in its first hour), the shift in social hierarchy would have carried more impact. If Östlund’s film had more patience to show the passengers expectation that shipwrecked life would be identical to that on the boat, then Abigail taking charge after a few days that would have carried more impact. Instead, Abigail takes command from arrival, and then essentially behaves (in a way I’m not sure the film quite understands) with exactly the same self-entitled greed as the passengers did. She takes the best cabin, establishes a hierarchy, keeps most of the food and turns Carl into a sex toy.

Because we’ve not really seen Abigail earlier in the film, we don’t get a sense of her earlier mistreatment (really, most of the film would have been better told from her point-of-view) or join her satisfaction at the tables being turned. The film also exhausts its commentary on the super-rich leaving it with little to say about in its third act Lord of the Flies set-up. Instead, the film dawdles its way to a conclusion and cliffhanger ending that feels unearned.

It makes you regret the loss of its earlier more subtle commentary on Instagrammers Carl and Yaya (good performances from Harris Dickinson and the tragically late Charlbi Dean) who are drowning-not-waving in a world where they must commodify their bodies but have no power over them, struggling to work-out where they fit in a world. It throws this overboard to go for some (admittedly at times funny) gags about greed and very obvious social commentary. If it had committed to its social underclass uprising earlier – or carried on with its more subtle themes from the opening prologue – it would have been a better film. Instead it’s as subtle and probing as the faceful of vomit it serves up halfway through.

Thirteen Lives (2022)

Thirteen Lives (2022)

A real life rescue attempt that defied belief is bought to the screen with gripping power and skill

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Viggo Mortensen (Richard Stanton), Colin Farrell (John Volanthen), Joel Edgerton (Dr Richard Harris), Tom Bateman (Chris Jewell), Pattarakorn Tangsupakul (Buahom), Sukollawat Kanarot (Saman Kunan), Teerapat Sajakul (Captain Anand), Sahajak Boonthanakit (Governor Narongsak Osatanakom), Vithaya Pansringarm (General Anupong Paochinda), Teeradon Supapunpinyo (Ekkaphon Chanthawong), Nophand Boonyai (Thanet Natisri), Paul Gleeson (Jason Mallinson)

In Summer 2008 one story gripped the world. In Thailand on June 23rd, 12 members of a boys’ junior football team and their coach Ekkapon Chanthawong (Teeradon Supapunpinyo) were stranded underground in the Thum Luang caves by flooding. Rescue attempts would call for an international effort: Thai Navy Seals, American military, the local community and a team from the British Cave Rescue Council pooled talents and knowledge to help save the boys before they drowned, suffocated or starved to death.

It’s bought to the screen in Ron Howard’s gripping true-life disaster film, Thirteen Lives, a scrupulously respectful yet compelling dramatisation reminiscent of his Apollo 13: it wrings maximum tension from a story nearly all of us know the outcome of. Just like that film, it superbly explains the huge obstacles the rescuers faced – the near impossibility of navigating the flooded caves, the onslaught of water, the claustrophobic underwater conditions, the panic-inducing nightmare of swimming through kilometres of tight space for inexperienced divers…

Each of these is swiftly but carefully explained, before Howard focuses on the international effort resolving them. Onscreen graphics – in particular a map of the route through the cave complex, including distances and time spent travelling underwater (over four hours) – help us understand every inch of the journey and its implications. Carefully written scenes avoid the trap of exposition overload while making the dangers of an hours-long swim through dark, flooded tunnels clear.

Howard skilfully goes for show-not-tell where he can. The gallons and gallons of water running down the mountain and into the caves in the monsoon conditions are made abundantly clear. The first expedition of experienced cavers Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) is staged in careful detail: the sharp currents, confined conditions (some parts of the cave are almost impassable – particularly when dragging two oxygen cylinders), the inability to see where you are going, the hours of oppressive time spent underwater.

In case we in are any doubt of how difficult any rescue will be, we see Stanton take a stranded rescue worker a short distance underwater: the man panics, nearly drowns them both and then nearly kills himself trying to surface. The eventual plan – to sedate each boy and have an experienced rescue diver carry him out – is as carefully explained as is its risk (if the dose is not exact, suffocation or panic induced drowning can and will occur). Howard’s careful, unflashy but captivating filming of the rescue attempt that follows is nail-biting and deeply moving.

Not least, because the film doesn’t shy away from the terrible risks. The accidental drowning of Navy Seal Saman Kunan – tragically volunteering from retirement – is sensitively, heartbreakingly handled. Every character is painfully aware of the dangers: Teeradon Supapunpinyo’s coach begs the families to forgive him for putting their children at risk (the children fall over themselves to praise him for saving their lives, in a heart-rending scene). Tom Bateman’s (fabulous) Chris Jewell breaks down in relief, guilt and a fear after he briefly panics during the rescue (no one blames him for a second – they all know each of them has been seconds away from the same countless times). This is a film that understands heroism is not square jawed machismo, but a grim awareness of the risks and a determination to not let that analysis stop you from helping those in need.

But Thirteen Lives is very pointedly not a white saviour story. It’s a story of teamwork and skills coming together: the British and Australian divers join a rescue effort being led by Thai Navy Seals, supported by local Thai officials. All of them are vitally assisted by a Thai water engineer who travels a huge distance to the site to help, and who brings vital knowledge, but can’t succeed without a local man who knows the terrain and a team of ordinary volunteers.

A triumphalist story would have opened and closed with one of our British heroes – the coolly professional ex-firefighter Stanton perhaps – and had them learning lessons and rising to the challenge. This film starts with the boys’ plans for a birthday party, and closes with the eventual much-delayed party. As soon as it’s revealed they are alive inside the cave complex, the film returns to them time and again and stresses their role was in many ways the hardest of all: trapped, lonely, terrified and slowly starving and suffocating, powerless to do anything. Howard’s film never forgets it is their story, or the courage they showed.

Equally, the film  doesn’t forget the role of ordinary people. Thirteen Lives is full of people unquestioningly making sacrifices, putting themselves in danger or working at the limits of endurance to help. It’s not just the divers who carried the boys out who saved them. It’s the Thai farmers, living in poverty, who willingly agree that their farmlands (and crops) be destroyed by redirected water flow from the mountain to buy the boys time. The Thai volunteers battling for days with sandbags, pipes and eventually bamboo funnels against a never ending waterflow.

In this the British team are another group of (admittedly more prominent and vital) experts, volunteering their skills. Their presence is at first resented by the Thai Navy Seals – do they fear a white saviour story as well? – who feel a personal duty to rescue the children. Such clashes are not glossed over – but Howard’s film demonstrates the growing respect between them. The Seals are superb divers: but less experienced in the caving conditions the British team practically live in. The British are experts, but strangers in this land.

As those divers – this is surely the first Hollywood blockbuster to feature a hero from Coventry – Mortensen and Farrell are superbly committed and human. (There is a British delight to be had from their discussion of the merits of custard creams.) Mortensen is the hardened realist: he is sceptical that the impossible can be achieved and is firm that he won’t allow himself or others to undertake suicidal efforts. Farrell is great as his counterpart, determined to leave no one behind. Both actors spark wonderfully off each other – and their commitment, and that of the rest of the cast,  to filming in these punishing conditions is stunning.

Thirteen Lives is a superb reconstruction of an incredible story, that wrings the maximum drama from an international sensation. It carefully celebrates internationalism and co-operation (its dialogue is largely not in English) and the struggles of the highly professional to find solutions to insurmountable problems. Channelling all Howard’s skills with biography, against-the-odds survival stories and ability to draw committed performances from actors, it’s his finest film in a decade and a worthy spiritual follow-up to Apollo 13.

Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997)

Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997)

It seemed like such a good idea at the time… Keanu Reeves wisely passed on Speed 2 – so should you

Director: Jan de Bont

Cast: Sandra Bullock (Annie Porter), Jason Patric (Alex Shaw), Willem Dafoe (John Geiger), Temuera Morrison (Officer Juliano), Glenn Plummer (Maurice), Brian McCardie (Merced), Christine Firkins (Drew), Mike Hagerty (Harvey), Colleen Camp (Debbie), Lois Chiles (Celeste), Royale Watkins (Dante)

In 1996 Keanu Reeves turned down a huge salary for Speed 2. Everyone in Hollywood thought he was mad. On June 13th 1997, Speed 2 was released. On June 14th everyone thought Keanu Reeves was a genius. It’s quite something when one of your best ever career moves was not doing a movie. But God almighty Keanu was right: time has not been kind to Speed 2 – and even when it was released it was hailed as one of the worst sequels ever made. It’s like de Bont and co sold their souls for Speed and in 1997 the Devil came to collect.

Keanu’s Jack Traven is clumsily replaced by Jason Patric’s Alex Shaw – although the dialogue has clearly only had the mildest tweak as Shaw has inherited Traven’s job, friends, personality and girlfriend Annie (Sandra Bullock – elevated to top billing but even more of a damsel-in-distress than in the original). Alex and Annie are wrestling with making a long-term commitment – see what I mean about this script only be mildly tweaked? – when they decide to take an all-or-nothing cruise. Shame the cruise liner is hijacked by deranged computer programmer turned bomber Geiger (Willem Dafoe). With the boat powering through the water towards a collision on shore, can Alex save the day?

You’ve probably noticed the disparity between the title Speed and the setting: a slow-moving cruise liner. At one point, Alex asks how long it would take an oil tanker to move out of a collision course with the liner – “At least half hour – that’s not enough time!” he’s told. The very fact that a debate whether 30 minutes will be enough time in a flipping film about speed shows how far this sequel has fallen. How did anyone not notice this?

Pace is missing from the whole thing. The script is truly dreadful. Paper-thin characters populate the cruise liner, none of whom make even the slightest impression. At one point a character breaks an arm and then immediately shrugs off the injury to steer the ship. The script is crammed with deeply, desperately unfunny “comedy” beats. Bullock’s character seems to have transformed into a ditzy rom-com wisecracker – with a “hilarious” running joke that she’s a terrible driver (geddit!??!) – and, instead of the charming pluck she showed in the first film, is now an irritating egotist. She still fares better than poor Patric, who completely lacks the movie star charisma of Reeves and utterly fails to find anything that doesn’t feel like a low-rent McClane rip-off in his character.

It’s like de Bont forgot everything he knew about directing in the three years between the two films. If anything, this feels like a well below average effort from a novice director. The humour is dialled up with feeble sight gags and the film takes a turgid 45 minutes to really get going (most of which is given over to derivative romantic will-they-commit banter between Patric and Bullock).

de Bont basically flunks everything. He fails the basic directing test of confined-spaces thrillers like this by never making the geography clear to the viewer. I challenge anyone to really understand how characters get from A to C on this boat. The long introductions are supposed to establish these basics (see Die Hard for a masterclass in this), but here you haven’t got a clue about what’s where or why some locations are more risky than others. There is a spectacular lack of tension about the whole thing – it’s not really clear what Dafeo’s lip-smacking, giggling, leech-using (yes seriously) villain actually wants or how his scheme works, and the momentum of the boat towards unspecified destruction is (a) hard to see on the open water with no fixed point to compare the speed with and (b) even when we get that, not exactly adrenalin fuelled anyway.

de Bont’s comedic approach to much of the material might have worked if he had any sense of wit or comic timing in his direction. Or if Patric had been more comfortable with the wit the part requires. Bullock instead feels like she has to joke for all three of them, to disastrous effect. There are a couple of semi-comic sidekicks sprinkled among the supporting players, but none of them raises so much as a grin. The film can’t resist implausible in-jokes, like bringing back Glenn Plummer’s luckless character to have his boat swiped by Alex (they even leave in a mildly altered “what are you doing here?” line, as if they didn’t realise until shooting it that Keanu wasn’t going to be there).

It ends with a loud crash of a boat into the shore which cost tens of millions of dollars (at the time one of the most costly stunts ever) but just looks like a fake boat ripping through a load of backlot buildings. It’s a big, loud, dull, slow ending to a film that looks like it was made by people who had no idea what they were doing but enough power to ignore anyone who might have been able to point out what they were doing wrong. Speed 2 remains the worst sequel ever. Reeves went off to make The Matrix. Who’s the idiot?

Airport (1970)

Airport (1970)

Disaster awaits in the sky in this ridiculous soap that is less exciting than Airplane!

Director: George Seaton

Cast: Burt Lancaster (Mel Bakersfied), Dean Martin (Captain Vernon Demerest), Jean Seberg (Tanya Livingston), Jacqueline Bisset (Gwen Meighen), George Kennedy (Joe Patroni), Helen Hayes (Ada Quonsett), Van Heflin (DO Guerrero), Maureen Stapleton (Inez Guerrero), Barry Nelson (Captain Anson Harris), Dana Wynter (Cindy Bakersfeld), Lloyd Nolan (Harry Standish), Barbara Hale (Sarah Demarest), Gary Collins (Cy Jordan)

A busy Chicago airport in the middle of a snowstorm. Workaholic Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) doesn’t have time to prop up his failing marriage to his humourless wife: he’s got to keep the flights moving, clear the runways and solve the problems other people can’t. He’s not dissimilar to his brother-in-law Vernon Demerest (Dean Martin), who hasn’t got time for his plain-Jane wife at home when he’s got a flight to Rome to run and a saintly pregnant air hostess girlfriend Gwen (Jacqueline Bisset), to deal with. Tensions will come to a head when depressed former construction worker Guerrero (Van Heflin) joins Demerest’s flight, planning to blow himself up so his wife can profit from his life insurance. Disaster awaits!

“A piece of junk”. That was Burt Lancaster’s pithy review of this box-office smash that was garlanded with no fewer than ten Oscar nominations. He’s pretty much spot on. Airport is a dreadful picture, a puffed-up, wooden soap opera that never takes flight, stapled together with a brief disaster plotline that only really kicks in during the final act of the film and is solved with relative ease. Other than that, it’s all hands to the pumps to coat the film in soapy suds, which can be stirred up by the strips of wooden dialogue that fall from the actors’ mouths.

Seaton adapted the script from a popular low-brow novel, though it feels as if precious little effort went into it. It’s corny, predictable dialogue does very little to freshen up the bog-standard domestic drama we’re watching in a novel setting. Both lead actors juggle loveless marriages with far prettier (and much younger) girlfriends. Those girlfriends – Jean Seberg for Burt and Jacqueline Bisset for Dean – play thankless roles, happily accepting of their place as no more than a potential bit-on-the-side and very respectful of the fact that the job damn it is the most important thing.

The film bends over backwards so that we find Burt and Dean admirable, despite the fact that objectively their behaviour is awful. Burt treats his home like a stopover, barely sees his kids and seems affronted that his wife objects he doesn’t attend her important charity functions and doesn’t want the cushy job he’s being offered by her father. Just in case we sympathise with her, she’s a cold, frigid, mean and demanding shrew who – just to put the tin lid on it – is carrying on behind Burt’s back. We, meanwhile, applaud Burt for showing restraint around the besotted Jean Seberg, merely kissing, hugging and chatting with her about how he’d love to but he can’t because of the kids at home damn it!

He looks like a prince though compared to Dean. Only in the 1970s surely would we be expected to find it admirable that a pregnant girlfriend happily takes all the blame – the contraceptive pills made her fat and she knows the deal – begs her boyfriend not to leave his wife and then urges him to not worry about her. Dean’s wife doesn’t even seem that bad, other than the fact she’s a mumsy type who can’t hold a candle to Bisset’s sensuality. That sensuality is overpowering for Dean, who at one point pleads with her to stay in their hotel room because the taxi “can wait another 15 minutes”. Like a gentleman his reaction to finding out Bisset is pregnant, is to offer to fly her to Norway for a classy abortion (rather than the backstreet offerings at home?).

This soapy nonsense, with its stink of Mad Men-ish sexual politics (where men are hard-working, hard-playing types, and women accept that when they age out, he has the right to look elsewhere) is counterbalanced by some laboriously-pleased-with-itself looks at airport operations. Baggage handling. Customer check-in. Customs control checks. Airport maintenance. All get trotted through with a curious eye by Seaton. Just enough to make parts of the film feel briefly like a dull fly-on-the-wall drama rather than a turgid soap.

Soap is where its heart is though. Helen Hayes won an Oscar for a crowd-pleasing turn (from which she wrings the maximum amount of charm) as a seemingly sweet old woman who is in fact an expert stowaway. Van Heflin and Maureen Stapleton play with maximum commitment (Stapleton in particular goes for it as if this was an O’Neil play rather than trash) a married couple whose finances are in the doldrums, leading the husband to take drastic steps.

It’s all marshalled together with a personality-free lack of pizzaz by Seaton, who simply points the camera and lets the actors go through their paces, with a few shots of humour here and there. There are some interesting split-screen effects, but that’s about the last touch of invention in the piece. It’s mostly played with po-faced seriousness – something that feels almost impossible to take seriously today, seeing as the structure, tone and airport observational style of the film was spoofed so successfully in Airplane (a much better film than this on every single level, from humour, to drama even to tension – how damning is that, that a pisstake is a more exciting disaster thriller?)

It smashed the box office in 1970 and got nominated for Best Picture. But its dryness, dullness and lack of pace mean it has hardly been watched since. Although it can claim to be the first all-star disaster movie, it’s not even fit to lace the flippers of The Poseidon Adventure, which far more successfully kickstarted the cliches that would become standard for the genre (and is a tonne more fun as well as being a disaster movie – this has a disaster epilogue at best). An overlong, soapy, dull mess.

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

Our heroes climb up an overturned cruise liner in the film that launched a thousand enjoyable disaster movie clichés

Director: Ronald Neame (Irwin Allen)

Cast: Gene Hackman (Reverend Frank Scott), Ernest Borgnine (Mike Rogo), Red Buttons (James Martin), Shelley Winters (Belle Rosen), Jack Albertson (Manny Rosen), Carol Lynley (Nonnie Parry), Roddy McDowell (Acres), Stella Stevens (Linda Rogo), Pamela Sue Martin (Susan Shelby), Arthur O’Connell (Chaplain John), Eric Shea (Robin Shelby), Leslie Nielsen (Captain Harrison)

New Year’s Eve on the biggest cruise liner in the world and the money men have ordered “Full steam ahead!” into a storm – after all, it would be terrible publicity to arrive late at harbour. Needless to say, it’s a terrible idea, as the Poseidon is hit by a tsunami and flipped upside down. Everyone at the top of the ship is killed, leaving only the party goers in the promenade room alive. Who is going to make it out from the one of the most famous disaster films of all time?

Produced by the Master of Disaster himself Irwin Allen – he personally staked half the budget and made a fortune – the ship’s passenger log is a host of Oscar-winning stars, each balancing soapy plotlines. Gene Hackman is the maverick priest, body pumping with muscular Christianity, who believes God helps those who help themselves. Ernest Borgnine is a grumpy police chief, on a long-delayed holiday with his ex-call girl wife Stella Stevens. Shelley Winters and Jack Albertson are a retired couple heading to Israel to see their grandson for the first time. Red Buttons is an unlucky-in-love fitness freak, Roddy McDowell a plucky steward. Pamela Sue Martin and Eric Shea are two (unbearable) kids travelling to join their parents while Carol Lynley is the ship’s terrified singer.

The Poseidon Adventure cemented the tropes you’d come to know and love in disaster films. The maverick leader, the grouchy contrarian, a plucky pensioner with a vital skill, adorably brave kids, a self-sacrificing nice guy… They’re all in here, the actors playing these cardboard cut-out characters with gusto as they climb up the endurance obstacle course set of an upside-down cruise liner.

Allen’s film takes a while to get going: a quarter of the run time is dedicated to setting up the various character dilemmas. Is a member of the crew a former client of Stevens’ Linda? Will Gene Hackman find new purpose in his faith? Will Red Buttons find love? Neame shoots these opening exchanges with the uninspired professionalism the exposition-filled dialogue demands (there are several variations on “What am I doing on this ship? Let me tell you…” lines). But what makes the best of these films work is when the soapy shallowness manages to make the characters endearing. It’s what happens here: the cast could do these scenes standing on their head, but gosh darn it we end up hoping the Rosens will live to see their grandson at the foot of Mount Sinai.

The film of course “starts” proper with that wave hitting. At which point, Allen (and Neame) knows exactly what works. He makes the stakes clear, the target simple (climb up, get out) and taps into common fears of falling, drowning etc. He knows how to make us thrill at the stunts – that tipping ballroom, with various stuntmen plunging downwards – and throw in the odd moment to remind us how tragic it all is (like Red Buttons sadly laying his jacket across some poor soul).

It also understands that we need to feel smarter than the crowd of extras caught up in the drama. When Gene Hackman earnestly tells everyone their only chance of survival is up, we want to feel that we’d be smart enough to go with him, rather than join the sheeple listening to the literally-out-of-his-depth purser (“What you’re suggesting is suicide!”). Allen knows we need to feel smarter so much he later throws in another group led by a confident-but-wrong authority figure (the ship’s doctor) blithely walking downhill to the flooded aft, ignoring Hackman’s cries that they are striding to a watery grave.

No, we’d definitely be with the plucky stars. After all Hackman can’t be wrong! (Gene Hackman’s priest, for all his bluster, is remarkably unpersuasive – he even only just holds onto authority in the group). The stunt work and production design as the battered stars climb up the overturned ship to the hull are remarkable – not for nothing did this scoop nine Oscar nominations – and while the film is undeniably slightly cheesy, it’s played with an absolute earnest seriousness by the cast (Hackman, to his eternal credit, acts as if his life depended on it – which considering it’s clearly a pay cheque role other actors would have coasted through is admirable).

The set pieces are superb. As the cast is whittled down, the deaths carry a certain weight – again conveyed by the honesty of the grief from those left behind. Shelley Winters bagged the best role – and the most iconic scene – as an overweight old lady with a Chekhov’s skill, performing (at great cost) an act of heroism no one else could manage. (She landed an Oscar nomination, largely for this stand-up-and-cheer moment with a sting). Most get a moment to shine – although Carol Lynley’s pathetic, panicking singer (she can’t swim or climb or hold her breath or run…) who spends her time shrieking tries your patience no end.

The film is so much about the experience of seeing this group of people overcome death-defying climbs, swims and flames that when the survivors stagger into the sunlight, the film abruptly ends. It’s all about the ride, with most of the plot points established earlier settled by someone dying on the way up. But it’s entertaining and lands just the right side of involving. The characters may be artificial, but we still care about them.

The Poseidon Adventure was a massive hit and still the best maritime disaster film made (certainly much better than its belated, lame, remake). Allen cements a formula where swiftly sketched characters, played by recognisable actors, go through endurance tests in front of us via terrifying set-ups and death-defying stunts. It’s grand, old-fashioned entertainment, perhaps taking itself a little too seriously, but giving us lots to gasp and cheer at.

WaterWorld (1995)

WaterWorld (1995)

As the waters rise, the world sinks down – and WaterWorld went down with it in the very average mega-budget sci-fi

Director: Kevin Reynolds

Cast: Kevin Costner (The Mariner), Dennis Hopper (The Deacon), Jeanne Tripplehorn (Helen), Tina Marjorino (Enola), Michael Jeter (Old Gregor), Gerard Murphy (The Nord), RD Call (Atoll Enforcer), Kim Coates (Drifter #2), John Fleck (Smoker Doctor), Robert Joy (Smoker Ledger), Jack Black (Smoker Pilot), Zakes Mokae (Priam)

In 1995 they called it “Kevin’s Gate”. Costner cashed all – and I pretty much mean all – his superstar chips to make Waterworld, a sort of water-logged Mad Max crossed with a Leone Western, starring himself as a nameless mutant with gills behind his ears. You needed to be the Biggest Box Office Star in the World to get that one up and running. But then Costner’s last “all-in” bet had been Dances with Wolves – and that won seven Oscars. What could do wrong?

Waterworld has been pretty much defined – then and now – as the (at the time) most expensive film ever made, which went on to be a damp squip, a box-office stinker. It’s not that: it’s a solid, entertaining-enough B-movie with some neat Dystopian ideas. In 2500, the world has been completely flooded after the polar ice caps melted. Mankind exists in rusted boats and small floating camps on the ocean. Dry land is a myth and actual soil is worth a fortune. Costner’s Mariner ends up protecting Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and her adopted daughter Enola (Tina Marjorino), as Enola has (handily tattooed on her back) a map to the last piece of dryland left in the world. But Enola’s map is hunted by the Smokers, and their maniacal leader The Deacon (Dennis Hopper), who want to claim Dry Land for themselves.

Waterworld largely lives on as a hugely successful stunt show at Universal Studios (I’ve seen it and it is amazing – all the exciting bits of the film, done in about fifteen minutes) that has been running non-stop since 1995 (other shows, based on more successful movies, have long since disappeared). It focuses on all the stuff that’s good about the film. Kevin Reynolds’ can shoot the heck out of action scenes and professional stuntmen really know their business. The best sequences in Waterworld involve pounding action – jet ski chases, the Mariner’s transforming trimaran, jet skis flying over walls and diving under water, stunning boat chases – and they are great.

They also exploit, in their rusted crap-sack props, one of the film’s other triumphs, it’s detailed world-building design. Sure, it owes a heavy-debt to the cobbled-together semi-steam-punk of Mad Max, with rust that covers everything, adapted wet-suits and rags (augmented with various pieces of fishing equipment and light fabrics) that characters wear, the bashed out colours contrasted with the glorious blue of the water. But the film never looks anything less than an outre mad-house. Throw in James Newton Howard’s very effective score – romantic and mournful when required, but then pounding with heroic action beat – and you’ve got elements of a decent movie.

But decent is all it ever is. Because, aside from the novelty of being set on water (a hugely time- and money-consuming expense, that partly explained why the film went zillions of dollars over budget), there isn’t anything that new about the story. A gruff outsider is roped into grudgingly protecting a mother and a daughter, but then his heart-is-melted – just as the villains turn up to snatch the daughter away. The villains are cartoonish monsters (Dennis Hopper seems to be on a mission to counter the water-logged misery of most of the rest of the performers by acting as much as possible), who are either ingenious or incompetent depending on the requirements of the script. The quest for the land-of-plenty is so familiar, you could scribble it down on a postcard in advance.

The question is, why did Costner want to make this? It’s not even a part that showcases him very well. I’ve always found Costner’s mega-stardom a bit of a mystery: once he graduated from more young, naïve parts (such as in The Untouchables), action films more and more exposed his slightly blank sulkiness as an actor. Perhaps due to the pressure of Waterworld (he worked non-stop, six day weeks, mostly on or in the water, for six months), perhaps due to his inability to find any warmth in a role he clearly sees as an Eastwoodish man-with-no-name, he largely comes across as sullen and hard-to-engage with. This is double hard for a film set in a dystopian future, where we really need to understand and relate to the hero in order to get into the world.

The rest of the cast follow his lead – no one, apart from maybe Hopper, really looks like they want to be there and most of them give of a sense of suffering under the constant threat of accidentally drowning. Tripplehorn isn’t helped by playing a dull, functionary, by-the-numbers character although Marjorino does get to have a bit of spark as plucky Enola. None of the characters step out of the formulaic surroundings of the film they have been trapped in.

You can have a bit of fun with the film’s wonky science. The Mariner is introduced pissing into a bucket and converting the piss into drinking water: cool character establishing moment, but since the salt quota of piss is higher than sea water, why not just convert the sea water? (I’m staggered at the idea that, in 500 years, no one has discovered a way to make sea water drinkable). If the polar ice caps melted, they would not flood the world as much as this. Would an oil tanker and fleet of jet skis really have managed to eek out the 235k cubic metres of oil it carried for 500 years? (How do they even convert it into petrol?) Where are all the fish? Why is the Mariner the only one with deep sea diving equipment – especially when he has flipping gills and doesn’t need it?

But hey, it’s only a movie. Waterworld eventually became profitable: but not till after it had cemented itself in the public perception as an uber-stinker. Really, it’s not that different from Avatar in its functional story, it just made a worse job of selling its big-budget effects as must-see moments. Costner’s alleged megalomania on set didn’t help (re-writing scenes, ordering special effects cover his receding hairline, falling out with Reynolds during editing – so much so Reynolds walked out), but really Waterworld isn’t terrible, just a huge lump of soggy okay. But that Universal Stunt Show? It’s the bee’s knees.

12 Monkeys (1995)

12 Monkeys (1995)

A world-ending-virus can only be cured through the power of time-travel in Gilliam’s twisty, paradox time loop

Director: Terry Gilliam

Cast: Bruce Willis (James Cole), Madeleine Stowe (Dr Kathryn Railly), Brad Pitt (Jeffrey Goines), Christopher Plummer (Dr Leland Goines), David Morse (Dr Peters), Jon Seda (Jose), Christopher Meloni (Lt Halperin), Frank Gorshin (Dr Fletcher), Bob Adrian (Geologist), Simon Jones (Zoologist), Carol Florence (Astrophysicist), Bill Raymon (Microbiologist)

2035 and the world is a plastic-coated hell, where what remains of mankind huddle below the Earth in rudimentary, environmentally controlled, airtight refuges. The surface is a dream, now home to a deadly virus that wiped out 99% of the population. That virus was unleashed in Philadelphia in 1996: nothing can stop that. But time travel can help the scientists of 2035 gain a sample of the original pre-mutation virus. They believe it was unleashed by an organisation called “The 12 Monkeys”. Track the organisation in the past and find an original sample of the virus. Easy right?

Wrong. Time travel messes with your mind, making it hard to tell what’s real and what’s not. The travellers are penal “volunteers”. James Cole (Bruce Willis) is selected as he has a photographic memory and a strong memory from 1996 of witnessing a Philadelphia airport shooting, that will help send him back. However, he’s flung back to 1990 and thrown into an asylum, treated by Dr Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) and sharing a room with environmentalist Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). Rescued and correctly sent to 1996, can Cole convince Railly he’s telling the truth and track Goines who has become the leader of the 12 Monkeys?

12 Monkeys is one of the most intriguing time-travel films ever made – and its future, ripped apart with plague, seems chillingly closer today. It puts a vulnerable, scared person at its centre – and makes him a dangerous, inarticulate Cassandra who reacts with violence when no-one listens him (which they never do). It repeatedly tells us things cannot end well, but still gets us hoping they might anyway. It presents puzzles that provoke debate and stretch the imagination.

Gilliam’s most main-stream film is an eccentric, unsettling, tricksy film that juggles time travel and paradoxes, as well as mental health and the nature of reality. Shot with a Dutch-angle infused oddness – reflecting its hero’s mental unbalance – and scored with a French-inflected whirly-gig musical theme that is reminiscent of the demented street people that pepper the film (and may, or may not, be other unbalanced time travellers), it constantly puts you on edge and unsettles.

This extends to its casting, which takes two Hollywood superstars – Willis and Pitt – and deglamorises them to a shocking degree. As Cole, Willis is shambling, vulnerable, scared and struggling to distinguish between reality and fantasy. An 8-year-old boy when the virus destroyed the world, in a way he’s never grown up. He looks around the world of the past with a wide-eyed wonder (he adores the sun and the feel of the soil beneath his feet) but has the stroppy impulsiveness of a maladjusted teenager. He’s so twitchy and insecure, you start wondering if he is the mentally disturbed man who imagines he’s from the future, that his doctors think he is. It’s Willis’ least-Willis performance ever and one of his finest.

Similarly, Pitt pushes himself as the disturbed, aggressive Goines. Prone to obsessive rambling, that stretches Pitt’s languorous vocal register (he trained for months to improve his vocal range), Pitt’s performance is wide-eyed, unpredictable and unsettlingly dangerous. With a single eye swollen and askew, it’s a performance that plays with being OTT but manages to work because he mostly avoids actorly showing off. Madeline Stowe, by contrast, has the most difficult role as the ‘normal person’, a sceptical psychiatrist becoming more and more convinced Cole is telling the truth.

Of course, despite the film’s efforts to play with reality, the audience are always pretty certain he isn’t wrong about the future. But, with the sight of fellow deranged time travellers, not to mention Willis’ vulnerable performance, that Cole could still be crazy. Even if you are right, doesn’t mean you are sane.

Gilliam’s surrealist future helps with this. Every time Cole is pulled back to 2035, the world becomes ever more deranged. Is his grip on reality eroding, as he is feared it is. Design wise the future is a triumph – but it also seems eerily similar to the 1990 asylum Cole is in. Has the building, and the things in it, been repurposed in 2035? Or, as the scientists of 2035 become ever more surreal (including serenading Cole at one point in a Dennis-Potteresque fantasy), questioning Cole via a circular floating series of TV screens while he sits in a suspended chair, is Cole’s grip on reality gone?

It keeps the tension up in the ‘past’ plotline, even as the things Cole has seen in the future – strange messages on walls, photos, voicemail messages – accumulate. 12 Monkeys is a fascinating time-travel movie, that establishes from the very first moment it is impossible to change the past (something the audience, like the characters, get sucked into forgetting). After all, if the plague was stopped, then time travel would never be invented in the first place. All Cole, and the other travellers, can do is collect information.

But that doesn’t stop the future influencing the past. Goines decides to form the 12 Monkeys based on a conversation with Cole in 1990. Dr Railly becomes fascinated with apocalyptic predictions – writing a book that will influence the man planning viral annihilation in 1996 – only because she meets Cole. And, above all, 2035 Cole’s presence in 1996 leads to that strong childhood memory happening in the first placce. The final reveal of the meaning behind Cole’s recurring memory-dream is the perfect example of a time-loop closing (so much so the scientists in the future bend over backwards, giving Cole a doomed mission, to ensure it happens).

It also explains why he is drawn towards Stowe’s Railly, who resembles (with the exception of her lack of Hitchcock Blonde hair) the woman in his dream. The relationship between Cole and Railly develops into a slightly forced romance (it feels like a script requirement, for all Gilliam’s taking the characters to watch Vertigo to hammer home the obvious contrasts). But when it focuses on two people drawn together for reasons they can’t quite understand (and there are hints of predestination) it just about works. That and the commitment of both actors to the roles.

12 Monkeys is about 15 minutes too long (it’s 1990 section outstays its welcome), especially as the audience is never in doubt that the plague is real (after all this is a movie). But Gilliam keeps us on our toes with how confident we feel in Cole: we’re repeatedly shown he’s violent, inarticulate and impulsive. The final half of the film, where the origins behind events we have been shown or heard in the first half, is fascinating. The tragic turns of the film’s paradoxical temporal loop is brilliantly executed and haunting. Gilliam’s film is quirky, unsettling and a design triumph: but it also tells a fascinating story. It’s his most accessible and crowd-pleasing film.

Twister (1996)

Twister (1996)

Cardboard characters try not to get blown away in this extremely silly disaster movie

Director: Jan de Bont

Cast: Helen Hunt (Dr Jo Harding), Bill Paxton (Dr Bill Harding), Jami Gertz (Dr Melissa Reeves), Cary Elwes (Dr Jonas Miller), Lois Smith (Aung Meg Greene), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Dusty Davis), Alan Ruck (“Rabbit” Nurick), Sean Whalen (Allan Sanders), Todd Field (“Beltzer” Lewis), Wendle Josepher (Haynes), Jeremy Davies (Brian Laurence), Joey Slotnick (Joey), Zach Grenier (Eddie)

In 1996 Twister blew through cinema screens with a vengeance, becoming the second most biggest hit of the year. Yes, you read that right. Stop me if I am wrong, but has anyone thought about, even for a second, this bog-standard disaster film since? Staffed almost exclusively by characters so lightweight a puff of wind would blow them away, never mind a tornado, the whole thing is full of sound and fury and signifies absolutely nothing at all.

Drs Jo (Helen Hunt) and Bill Harding (Bill Paxton) are trying to get divorced. He’s finally had enough of risking his neck on their joint passion for storm-chasing, deciding to jack it in for a lucrative life on the media circuit and marriage to relationship therapist Dr Melissa Reeves (Jami Gertz). He arrives in Oklahoma to get Jo to sign the divorce papers – but doncha know it, he gets sucked in to “one more job”, to road-test the storm measurement doo-hickey device he and Jo dreamed of making but she’s actually built. And, handily, one of those pesky twisters is on the way.

The doo-hickey – I’m really not sure what it’s meant to do – is the sort of ludicrous scientific device that only exists in the movies. It’s basically a huge metal cauldron full of marbles that needs to be placed in the path of a twister. It’s also – in a terrible design flaw – hugely fragile and unstable, constantly falling over at the worst possible time. There are apparently three prototypes, of decreasing quality, each a back-up of the one before – you have one guess as to how many of these they burn through in the film.

In fact, you can pretty much one guess almost everything that might happen. Will Jo finally come-to-terms with the death of her father in a storm? (That’s right – she has a “I’m passionate and obsessed because a twister killed my dad” backstory!) Will Bill realise Jo is the one for him, not fish-out-of-water big-city-girl Mel? Will Cary Elwes’ lip-smacking, moustachio-curling copyright-stealing storm expert get his (fatal) comeuppance? Will sweet Aunt Meg (and her dog) survive her tussle with the storm? That “it’s almost never happened” super-storm they talk about at the start of the film – do you think it’s possible our heroes will find themselves in the middle of it before the end?

All of this is shuffled in a film with a hideously over-loaded deck. Jo’s team consists of around eight assistants, none of whom have so much as a character between them. They are a feeble collection of archetypes: the geek, the shy one, the techie, the religious one and the loud-mouthed one (a role of flamboyant indignity for Philip Seymour Hoffman, yet to be recognised as a great actor and instead relegated to feeble comic relief roles). But then it’s not like the leads are that interesting either: she’s committed, passionate but gosh-darn-it puts the storm before her personal life. He’s trying to move on but doncha-know-it he’s just lying to himself that he doesn’t love the storm.

In fact, as this rather smug ex-couple riffed on in-jokes, storm facts and their shared love for their doo-hickey made of marbles I felt rather sorry for Mel. Obviously, we are meant to scorn Mel, with her hand-wringing profession of counsellor (as opposed to the macho jobs of Bill and Jo) and her reluctance to run into a massive twister. Actually, I think she’s rather sensible. Bill and Jo are both clearly insane and take suicidal risks. She puts up with her fiancé flirting with his ex far longer than most of us would and she is hugely patient with the polite scorn she’s treated with by Jo’s rag-tag band of tedious risk-taking geeks playing at being alphas. She hangs around far longer than anyone else would do, before departing after maturely and sensibly telling Bill he should stick with his first two loves (Jo and storms – maybe not in that order).

People aren’t watching these films for the character or plot though – just as well as the film doesn’t really have either – but the special effects. These are impressive, I suppose, as the storm rips through sets, throws CGI buildings around and generally makes for loud and impressive noise. The film has a sort of goofy wit at times – at one point a CGI cow is blown through the sky in front of the Hardings, mooing rather sadly.

There are some decent set-pieces, even though they are basically all the same set-piece repeated over and over again at a different scale (first the storm blows over a car, then a building, then a village, then most of a town while our heroes duck and cover their heads). Lots of it was done with practical effects, shot with an alarming lack of regard for safety – Hunt got an infection from being flung into a drain and she and Paxton were temporarily blinded by a burst of artificial lightning.

De Bont directs all this with a personality-free competence. The film is at absolute best less than half as good as his first film, Speed – and de Bont’s subsequent film, The Haunting, would be half as good again in a career of ever-diminishing returns. Twister offers nothing new or even particularly interesting, other than some wind special effects that are of passing curiosity value but nothing else. It’s almost quaint that, in 1996, this was seen as something earth-shatteringly impressive. Now it’s as fearsome a burst of raw natural power as a fart.

In the Heart of the Sea (2015)

In the Heart of the Sea (2015)

Hunger, desperation, the sea and a very big whale in this Moby Dick origins story

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Chris Hemsworth (Owen Chase), Benjamin Walker (Captain George Pollard), Cillian Murphy (Matthew Joy), Tom Holland (Thomas Nickerson), Brendan Gleeson (Old Thomas Nickerson), Ben Whishaw (Herman Melville), Michele Fairley (Mrs Nickerson), Gary Beadle (William Bond), Frank Dillane (Owen Coffin), Charlotte Riley (Peggy Chase), Donald Sumpter (Paul Mason), Paul Anderson (Caleb Chappel), Joseph Mawle (Benjamin Lawrence), Edward Ashley (Barzillai Roy)

1820 and the world is run by oil. Not the sort you get out of the ground, but the sort you fish out of a whale’s corpse with a bucket. America is the leading exporter of whale oil and Nantucket is the centre of the industry. But it’s a dangerous business: as the crew of the Essex are about discover. Attacked by a whale, their ship sinks in the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles from land. Passed-over first officer Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and privileged captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) must set aside their differences to lead the survivors to safety. But starvation and desperation will lead those survivors to ever more desperate acts. All of this is told to Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) by final living survivor Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland and Brendan Gleeson), and it all sounds like a perfect inspiration for that Big Whaling Book Melville wants to write.

That Melville framing device is a good place to start when reviewing the many problems of In the Heart of the Sea, Ron Howard’s misfiring attempt at a survivalist epic. When we should be consumed by concern at whether these men survive, the film keeps trying to get us care as much about whether Melville will write a novel worthy of Hawthorne. The clunky prologue eats up a good sixth of the film, and we keep cutting back for Gleeson to tell us things the script isn’t deft enough to show us. Worse, it keeps ripping us way from the survivalist story that should be film’s heart.

Howard should know this: he directed one of the best survival-against-the-odds films ever in Apollo 13. Maybe the difference is that Apollo 13 is, at heart, a hopeful story. In the Heart of the Sea is about grimy sailors in a trade the film can’t find any sympathy for, eventually drawing lots in a long boat to see who is going to get killed and eaten by the others. It’s the sort of thing Werner Herzog would (pardon the metaphor) eat up for breakfast. For Howard, a fundamentally optimistic film-maker, its an ill fit. No wonder he wants to end the film with the triumph of Moby Dick.

In the Heart of the Sea is the rare instance of a film that is too short. The narration keeps skipping over time jumps in the first hour, that means we don’t get invested in the characters (most of whom are barely distinguished from each other, especially as beards and wasted bodies become the uniform). The sinking doesn’t take place until almost an hour in the film, meaning the time we spend with them lost in boats is a mere 40 minutes or so.

That is nowhere long enough for us to get a sense of either the monotonous time or the ravages hunger and desperation have made. Difficult as that stuff is to film – and I can appreciate its hard to make five men sitting, dying slowly, in a boat visually interesting – it means the film is asking us to make a big leap when it goes in five minutes from the men leaving a stop on an abandoned island to regretfully slicing one of their party up for dinner. We need to really understand how desperation has led to this point, but the film keeps jumping forward, as if its impatient to get to it.

Understanding is a general problem in the film. It can’t get past the fact that, today, we don’t see whaling (rightly so) as a sympathetic trade. But to these men, plunging a harpoon into a whale wasn’t an act of barbarous evil. It was more than even just making a living: it was a noble calling. Several times the film makes feeble attempts to push its characters towards moral epiphanies which seem jarringly out of chase (would Owen Chase, a hardy whaler with multiple kills, really hold his hand when confronted with a whale he thinks is trying to kill him?). Clumsy parallels are drawn between the heartless corporate oil industry of today, and the ‘suits’ back at Nantucket who only care about the bottom line.

Without accepting that, to these men, striving out into the ocean to bring back whale oil was as glorious a cause as landing on the moon, the film struggles to make most of the earlier part of the film interesting. Hard to sympathise with the characters, when the film is holding their profession at a sniffy distance. The film even radically changes the future career of its hero, Owen Chase, claiming he joined the merchant navy and never whaled again (not remotely true).

On top of this, Howard doesn’t manage to make the act of sailing feel as real or as compelling as, say, Peter Weir did in Master and Commander. Everything has a slightly unconvincing CGI sheen. Strange fish-eyed lenses keep popping up zooming in on specific features of pulleys and sails (is it meant to be like a whale’s eye view?). The film never manages to really communicate the tasks taking place or the risks they carry. There is a feeble personality clash between Pollard and Chase that fills much of the second act of the film, but is written and acted with a perfunctory predictability that never makes it interesting.

You can’t argue with the commitment of everyone involved. The cast noticeably wasted themselves down to portray these starving dying men. But it all adds up to not a lot. Chris Hemsworth gives a constrained performance as Chase – his chiselled Hollywood bulk looks hideously out of place – while Cillian Murphy makes the most impact among the rest as his luckless best friend. But the film’s main failure is Howard’s inability to make us really feel every moment of these men’s agonising suffering and to really understand the desperation that drove them to lengths no man should go to. Eventually that only makes it a surprisingly disengaging experience.

The Midnight Sky (2020)

The Midnight Sky (2020)

Dystopian end-of-the-world drama gets dull and dreary in this misfire

Director: George Clooney

Cast: George Clooney (Augustine Lofthouse), Felicity Jones (Dr “Sully” Sullivan), David Oyelowo (Commander Adewole), Kyle Chandler (Mitchell), Demián Bichir (Sanchez), Tiffany Boone (Maya), Caoilinn Springall (Iris), Ethan Peck (Augustine), Sophie Rundle (Jean)

The world has been evacuated after an unspecified radiological disaster, with the survivors bound for K-23, a newly discovered moon of Jupiter capable of supporting life. The only person left on Earth is Augustine Lofthouse (George Clooney), suffering from a terminal illness. He remains behind at an arctic base to warn returning space missions. The returning mission Aether – crewed by Jones, Oyelowo, Chandler, Bichir and Boone – are en route, but to make contact with them Lofthouse must travel across the arctic to a back-up transmitter, accompanied by a mysterious wordless child called Iris (Caoilinn Springall) who seems to have been left behind during the evacuation.

The Midnight Sky is the largest, most technically ambitious film Clooney has directed. Did the focus on the technical aspects mean he took his eye off other elements? Even the ones his previous films have been strong on: dialogue and character. The Midnight Sky looks great and has some impressive effects. But it is a dull film, lacking pace or energy, populated by paper-thin characters and often feeling like a Frankenstein-like stitching together of elements of other, much better, films.

It splits its focus between two story lines: one a survivalist two-hander between Clooney and child actress Caroilinn Springall; the other a “journey home against the odds” space mission. The first carries a little more interest, if only because Clooney manages to brilliantly convey loneliness, isolation, sadness and how terminal illness increases the effects of all of these. There is also emotional depth from his growing bond with Iris: the two of them playfully flicking peas at each other over dinner and his protecting her from the dangers outside. This is shot in some stunning Iceland vistas and shows a competent selection of various traditional survivalist set-ups during the struggle to complete the journey. It’s not exactly original, but at least it holds the interest.

That interest isn’t found in the space scenes – although the lack of originality is. How did Clooney fail to notice that he assembled a terrific cast of actors, but then failed to give them so much as a whisper of a character to play between them. This crew are terminally unengaging 2-D characters, whose dialogue echoes tropes of other films. Despite the dangers they encounter while navigating a course to Earth (that inevitably takes them through uncharted meteor storms), we are never really given a reason to really care about these characters (all the sad mooning over holograms of the families they left behind doesn’t actually make us feel like we know them).

The sense of nothing we are seeing here actually feeling new is key, and the main problem with the whole film. Countless other films have covered world-ending events. Clooney’s battle to cross the arctic and survive carries more than an echo of The Revenant by way of The Road. The struggles in space have lashings of Gravity with an Interstellarvibe. And those are just for starters. Even the final narrative twist (which you can probably see coming) echoes other film twists. For all the handsomeness of the film, it never feels fresh, always more of a tribute remix of other superior films that you should probably just consider rewatching instead.

That’s Clooney’s main failing here. As if he was so focused on getting the technical elements spot on, he never checked if the patient had a pulse. The Midnight Sky, knitted together from the offcuts of other films, has only the vaguest of heartbeats. Nothing is original and virtually no character in it ever feels either fully-formed or someone we care about. Others, all too obviously, serve as nothing but narrative devices. There are some wonderful shots and a lovely score from Alexandre Desplat. But narratively, the film often feels too cold, distant and emotionally dead. It ends up feeling far, far longer than its two-hour run time.