Tag: Disaster Films

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.

The Towering Inferno (1974)

Newman and McQueen tackle a huge blaze in The Towering Inferno

Director: John Guillermin, Irwin Allen

Cast: Steve McQueen (Fire Chief Michael O’Halloran), Paul Newman (Doug Roberts), William Holden (James Duncan), Faye Dunaway (Susan Franklin), Fred Astaire (Harlee Claiborne), Susan Blakely (Patty Duncan Simmons), Richard Chamberlain (Roger Simmons), Jennifer Jones (Lisolette Mueller), OJ Simpson (Harry Jernigan), Robert Vaughn (Senator Gary Parker), Robert Wagner (Dan Bigelow), Susan Flannery (Lorrie), Shelia Matthews Allen (Paula Ramsay), Jack Collins (Mayor Ramsay)

Architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) flies into San Francisco for the grand opening of The Glass Tower, the newly constructed tallest building in the world which he has designed for developer James Duncan (William Holden). A celebration with the rich and famous is planned – too bad Duncan’s rogueish son-in-law Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain, smarming like his life depends on it) has saved a few dollars by stuffing the building with sub-standard wiring. Surely the world’s largest building can’t catch fire? You bet it could – and only heroic Fire Chief Michael O’Halloran (Steve McQueen) has the expertise to put it out.

The Towering Inferno was the peak of the “all-star disaster” genre. It was bought to the screen by Producer (and “Master of Disaster”) Irwin Allen, and pretty much ticks all the boxes you expect from the genre. A star at every turn! A huge running time! Constant denials that anything could go wrong (of the “This building can’t burn down!” variety)! Kids in peril! Death-defying stunts! A brave pet! An elder statesman of Hollywood risking life and limb! A scoundrel we can boo! A tear-jerking death! The Towering Inferno pretty much has it all, and it plays every single beat with the sort of po-faced seriousness that was already starting to look a bit silly by 1974.

Films like this work because audiences – as we’ve seen time and time again – never lose their taste for watching things get trashed. In the 1970s every studio wanted its own mega-budget disaster film. The Towering Inferno’s real uniqueness is the story behind its making – two studios had competing “Skyscraper on Fire!” projects but, instead of competing, pooled their resources to make one mega hit. So, Warner Brothers The Tower and 20th Century Fox’s The Glass Inferno became this.

Irwin Allen was handed the keys – because no-one did it better – and each studio contributed a star. McQueen and Newman spent almost as much time negotiating equal terms as acting in the movie. Both were paid 10% of the gross and agreed they would have exactly the same number of lines (many of Newman’s final scenes sees him perform stunts wordlessly, as he burned through his allotted lines during the 40 minutes he spends on screen before McQueen turns up). The billing was negotiated carefully: their names would appear on screen together with Newman slightly higher, but McQueen’s name to the left (both could therefore claim they were “first billed”).

Their interest in the film pretty much ended there. Newman was famously disparaging of what he called “a piece of shit” and the only time he did something purely for the money. He coasts through on those blue eyes and twinkly grin. Eager that his character be absolved of responsibility (he has designed a tower that will claim 200 lives!) Newman’s architect is continuously absolved of any responsibility by the rest of the cast and leads on saving lives. McQueen grabbed the better role as the all-action fire-chief, riding in after 45 minutes (thus wisely missing out the tedious build-up of the soapy plot lines), takes charge and does nothing but manly action, but he also looks like someone going through the motions.

But then they know the things that will be remembered are the set-pieces. As flames stretch up the building, our star names dodging explosions, climbing up shattered staircases, dodging collapsing ceilings and taking on vertigo-inducing heights, it’s hard not to be excited. As in all disaster films, the disaster takes a strong moral stance. Of all the characters who die only one ‘doesn’t deserve it’. Aside from that, the actors playing philanderers, swindlers and bastards inevitably bite the dust, while the upstanding and noble pretty much see their way to the end.

The disaster sequences are impressive – and the fire-effects are really well done. Allen directed the ‘action sequences’ – aka the only bits of the film you really remember – while Guillermin handled ‘the acting’ (the dull, soapy, badly written bits you forget). The cardboard characters (no wonder they catch fire so easily!) could have had their personalities scribbled on the back of a stamp, and are pretty much dependent on the charms of the actors playing them. Fred Astaire’s gentle conman (the sweetest grifter you’ll ever meet) is a ludicrous character, but works because of Astaire’s twinkle-toed charm (Astaire grabbed a wave of affectionate awards nominations). Jennifer Jones plays off him rather well in the film’s ‘heroic elder statesman of Hollywood’ role, as a woman who puts herself at huge risk to save two kids (and their deaf mum) from immolation.

But pretty much all the character-based stuff in Towering Inferno is ludicrously silly, with some strikingly bored actors (Faye Dunaway looks like she wants to be anywhere else) but it hardly matters as we are there to watch the world burn. Which it does to spectacular effect, and the reassuringly, camp predictability of the film’s events is endearing – and raises a few good-natured laughs (you have to laugh at something like this, even though it wants to take itself so seriously). The Towering Infernowas the largest of all the disaster flicks of the 1970s. Allen shoehorns in a few points about fire safety in tall buildings for the ‘serious bits’, but his heart is in consigning most of the second tier of his all-star cast to dramatic, firey deaths. Overlong, very silly but rather sweet.

Armageddon (1998)

Bruce Willis leads a group of Big Damn Heroes in Michael Bay’s abysmal Armageddon

Director: Michael Bay

Cast: Bruce Willis (Harry Stamper), Billy Bob Thornton (Dan Truman), Ben Affleck (AJ Frost), Liv Tyler (Grace Stamper), Will Patton (Chick Chapple), Steve Buscemi (Rockhound), William Fichtner (Colonel Sharp), Owen Wilson (Oscar Choice), Michael Clarke Duncan (Bear), Peter Stormare (Lev Andropov)

In Michael Bay’s space, no-one can hear you scream. But that’s only because it’s so damn loud up there. It’s 1998’s other “asteroid is going to wipe out humanity” film, the one that came out after Deep Impact but grossed more. NASA recruits ace driller Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) and his team (including Will Patton, Steve Buscemi, Michael Clarke Duncan and Owen Wilson) to fly up to an asteroid the size of Texas, drill a hole in it, drop a massive nuke in and blow it into two bits that will bypass the Earth. Will humanity be saved? And will the tensions ever be resolved between Harry, his protégé AJ (Ben Affleck), and Harry’s daughter Grace (Liv Tyler) who, much against her dad’s will, wants to marry AJ? Houston, we have a problem.

Armageddon is the ultimate expression of Michael Bay’s style. With the camera swooping and rotating wildly around characters on the move, the fast-editing, the assault on the ears, the green-yellow-blue hue, every shot and line of dialogue in Armageddon feels like it was made to be inserted into a trailer. It’s an overlong onslaught (nearly two and a half hours) which rarely goes ten minutes without a sequence that features explosions, furious shouting and frantic camera movements. Most of the action in Armageddon is incoherent and the film rather neatly replicates the experience of being actually hit by a meteor.

For many people this is a guilty pleasure. But there is very little pleasure to be had here. By trying so hard to top Deep Impact – a film he hadn’t even seen at this point – Bay dials everything beyond 11. So much so it becomes exhausting. Half the action sequences (of which there are many) are impossible to understand, such is the fast editing and the way all the dialogue is screamed by the actors at each other, all at once, drowned out by bangs and crashes. The only dialogue you can actually make out in the film is of the “The United States government asked us to save the world. Anybody wanna say no?” variety, built for slotting into a trailer before some more bangs.

In fact the whole film is basically a massive trailer for itself. It’s unrelenting and after a while not a lot of fun. I guess if you catch it in the right mood it might just work. Bay gives it everything he has in his arsenal. But even he can’t overcome performances from his actors that range from bored and unengaged (Willis and Buscemi both fall into this category) to over-played grasping at epic-status (Affleck and Tyler fall into this one). Billy Bob Thornton comes out best with a wry shrug, knowing the whole film is bonkers but going with the ride.

Anyway, it all charges about a great deal, even while it never knows when to stop. In every situation one crisis is never enough – it’s best to have three at once. Not only does someone need to stay behind, but the asteroid is breaking up and the shuttle won’t take off! What a to-do! The film is desperate to excite you, like a 7 year old who wants to share the BEST-THING-EVER with you and doesn’t draw breath while telling you every single detail.

Of course, scientifically the film is nonsense, but that hardly matters. How NASA can know the comet being blown in two will create two bits that will miss the Earth (rather than two impacts or a whole load of debris) is unclear. Timeline wise – particularly early on – the film makes no sense. But then who goes to Bay looking for a science lecture? It even opens with a ponderous Charlton Heston voiceover, all part of the straining for grandeur.

It’s not even the best Bay film (that would surely be the far more enjoyable but equally overblown The Rock closely followed by the first Transformers film, the only one that doesn’t make you feel soiled after watching it). Armageddon could be a guilty pleasure. But really it’s terrible. You should just feel guilty.

The Impossible (2013)

Naomi Watts and Tom Holland survive extreme circumstances in The Impossible

Director: JA Bayona

Cast: Naomi Watts (Maria), Ewan McGregor (Henry), Tom Holland (Lucas), Samuel Joslin (Thomas), Oaklee Pendergast (Simon), Marta Etura (Simone), Sönke Möhring (Karl), Geraldine Chaplin (Old Woman)

In 2004 the Boxing Day tsunami hit the Indian ocean. The resulting tidal waves devastated communities in several countries, with almost a quarter of a million casualties. The impact left rich and poor alike in a desperate struggle to survive. These terrible events form the basis of this emotionally powerful, if sometimes manipulative, film that recreates the remarkable story of a Spanish family, separated in the tsunami, who all miraculously survived.

Here the family is re-imagined as British (presumably to sell the film around the world a little easier, as they now all speak English). Maria (Naomi Watts) is a doctor who for the last few years has been a stay-at-home mum for her three sons Lucas (Tom Holland), on the cusp of becoming a teenager, Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendegast), both younger. Her husband is businessman Henry (Ewan McGregor). Staying in Thailand for a Christmas vacation, the family are separated when the tsunami hits their resort. Maria (badly injured) and Lucas make their way to a hospital, where Lucas struggles to get the life-saving treatment his mum needs. Henry is trapped in the resort with their other two sons, desperately trying to find his missing wife and child. Around them swirl an entire country of refugees and affected people, all of them trying to find family members.

The Impossible gets an awful lot right. The recreation of the tsunami is faultless. You’ll feel every moment of terror as the water rips through the family’s high-end vacation spot. As Maria and Lucas are swept far away by a deep swell of fast-flowing water (stuffed with mud, filth and debris) you’ll feel every blow to bodies as debris hammers into them, and feel like you’ve lived through every moment of desperation as the two fight against the current to reach each other. The sense of powerlessness and fear – a mother trying to be brave for her son, a son frightened and desperate for reassurance, ashamed at being scared – are powerful, deeply affecting and hugely immersive. Bayona’s experience of directing horror comes wonderfully into play here, as he knows exactly how to push our buttons and make us feel the emotion, fear and anxiety of the situation.

This tone continues through most of the film’s first hour which largely follows Maria and Lucas as they attempt to reach the hospital. Running on adrenalin, Maria only slowly begins to succumb to exhaustion as her grievous wounds (smashed ribs, a horrifically graphic leg injury) sap her strength, even while she tries to maintain an air of calm for her son. What is intriguing in this sequence is that, like a set of scales, as the mother becomes weaker the son becomes stronger – Lucas suddenly propelled into become an adult. Lucas increasingly takes decisions on how best to survive, argues at times for hard calls and becomes, in many ways, the adult in the situation.

This sequence is helped hugely by the performances of the two actors. The physical commitment of every actor isn’t to be doubted (Holland and Watts spent hellish weeks in water tanks filming – although this is only relative compared to the horror of the actual tsunami). Watts (Oscar-nominated) brings power to a mother who believes she is the only thing her son has left in the world, and must survive at all costs for him. Her buttoning down of her terror for as long as she can is deeply moving, and she brings the part significant heart. Tom Holland is simply a revelation as Lucas. He develops an authority well beyond his years, the complexity of the emotions he deals with – from fear to anger and defiance, determination, anxiety, relief and despair – would have challenged an actor three times his age. Holland never loses trace of the central kindness in Lucas – no matter how desperate the situation – and he is the undoubted star of the film, his portrayal of a child forced to grow up scarily quickly is deeply affecting.

Ewan McGregor offers similarly excellent work. Left searching through the rubble of his holiday home, McGregor brilliantly captures a sense of a father trying to deny that his control over events has disappeared. He excels in an extremely moving breakdown scene – after finally contacting his wife’s parents in the UK, he collapses in desperate, uncontrollable sobs of guilt and fear, apologising for not knowing what to do. It’s some of the actor’s best work, brilliantly tapping into his natural warmth for excellent effect.

Where the film struggles more is in its focus. While it is a story of one – affluent – Western family, so naturally its focus will be there, it does turn the rest of the cast into little more than extras. Some focus is given to the Thai people: a group of poor local people is crucial in saving Maria and Lucas’ lives and getting them to a hospital, their immediate humanity and generosity reducing Maria (and the audience) to tears of gratitude, but that’s the only real look we get at them. The hospital where a large part of the story is set is full of Westerners, bar the staff. All the victims we spend significant time with are white and Western (all are presented sympathetically, bar a pair of Americans for whom the tsunami is a holiday inconvenience).

But you could watch the film and not realise that so many of the people who died were part of the indigenous population – and while thousands of Westerners also perished, the survivors did at least return to their homes, whereas those living in affected countries lost everything.

The film’s other flaw is the manipulative tone it moves into late on, in particular a series of prolonged “missed moments” as the separated family walk around the hospital, just missing each other. This may well have actually happened, but is so contrived that it feels like a narrative flourish. The plot slows down in the second half as the characters search for each other. The film’s final title cards were a perfect opportunity to bring more focus to other victims – and to mention the death toll and impact on the countries – but avoids all of this to simply confirm it’s based on a true story.

The Impossible has lots of powerful moments. Its moments of emotion are raw and affecting and, manipulative as it is, you do celebrate when the family is reunited. But it’s also a film that loses its way a bit – which captures a superb survivalist story but then becomes too sentimental towards its end. And by not doing more to acknowledge the impact on the Thai people, among others, you can’t help but feel it turns this tsunami into something that affected rich, white, Westerners – which is harder to forgive.

Deep Impact (1998)

It’s the end of the world in Deep Impact

Director: Mimi Leder

Cast: Robert Duvall (Captain Spurgeon “Fish” Tanner), Téa Leoni (Jenny Lerner), Morgan Freeman (President Tom Beck), Elijah Wood (Leo Biederman), Vanessa Redgrave (Robin Lerner), Maximilian Schell (Jason Lerner), James Cromwell (Alan Rittenhouse), Ron Eldard (Commander Oren Monash), Jon Favreau (Dr Gus Partenza), Laura Innes (Beth Stanley), Mary McCormack (Andy Baker), Bruce Weitz (Stuart Caley), Richard Schiff (Don Biederman), Betsy Brantley (Ellen Biederman), Leelee Sobieski (Sarah Hochtner), Blair Underwood (Mark Simon), Dougray Scott (Eric Vennekor)

Sometimes two Hollywood studies have the same ideas at the same time. When this happened in 1974 they clubbed together and turned two scripts about burning skyscrapers into one movie – The Towering Inferno. But it’s more likely they’ll do what happened with volcano movies in 1997, White House invasion movies in 2013 and asteroids movies in 1998: both make a film and rush to be the first one out. Usually that’s the winner (ask Dante’s Peak or Olympus Has Fallen). The exception was Deep Impact which made plenty of moolah – but was trumped by Michael Bay’s thundering Armageddon, with its far more straight-forward feel-good action.

A meteor is heading towards the Earth – and it’s an Extinction Level Event (ELE) that will wipe out all life on Earth. World governments keep it hushed up, wanting to avoid mass panic, and start planning to preserve mankind. Underground “arks” will be built in major countries to protect a small number of population. And a manned space mission, crewed by a team of young bucks and veteran astronaut Spurgeon “Fish” Tanner (Robert Duvall), will head out to the asteroid to try and use a nuclear bomb to blow it up. However news leaks when intrepid young MSNBC reporter Jenny Lerner (Téa Leoni) stumbles on news of a cabinet resignation, over a mysterious “Ellie”, leading to her accidentally uncovering the meteor. President Tom Beck (Morgan Freeman) announces all to the world – and mankind prepares, in hope, for the disaster.

Deep Impact is a well-mounted and surprisingly thoughtful adventure story, that tries to deal with its Earth-ending themes with a seriousness and humanity that’s a world away from the flag-waving crash-bangs of Armageddon. Well directed by Mimi Leder, who juggles effectively huge special effects and low-key personal stories (even if these have the air of movie-of-the-week to them), it’s an ensemble piece with a surprisingly downer ending (no surprise from the poster) that still leaves more than a touch of hope that mankind will persevere.

It’s poe-faced seriousness about reflecting on the end of the world may be dwarfed now by superior TV shows – it’s hardly The Leftovers – but felt quite daring for a 90s blockbuster, at least trying to be some sort of meditation on the end of the world. While the film does do this by focusing on the most mundane of soapy dramas – will Jenny Lind (Téa Leoni in a truly thankless role) manage to reconcile with her estranged father (Maximilian Schell, a bizarre choice but who manages to rein in most of the ham) who walked out on her and her mother (Vanessa Redgrave, if possible an even more surreal choice) before the world ends – at least it’s sort of trying.

Soap also soaks through the storyline about young Leo Biedermann (Elijah Wood), the geeky wünderkid who discovers the asteroid. The drama around a national lottery to select the chosen (very) few who will join the 200,000 essential scientists, artists and politicians in the bunker is boiled down to whether Leo will be able to sneak his girlfriend (Leelee Sobieski) and her family on the list. Needless to say, this plotline boils down into a desperate chase, some heroic sacrifices and a great deal of tears. This sort of stuff doesn’t re-invent the wheel, but it makes for familiar cinema tropes among the general “end-of-the-world” seriousness.

There isn’t much in the way of humour in Deep Impact, perhaps because those making it were worried cracking a joke might undermine the drama. There’s nothing wrong with this, but you start to notice more the film’s “not just another blockbuster” mindset being warn very firmly on its sleeve. The film’s third major plotline, around the mission to blow up the asteroid, is as much about whether grizzled, wise vet Robert Duvall will win the respect of the dismissive young bucks he’s crewed with (spoilers he does) as it is whether they will destroy the meteor. Anyone who can’t see sacrifices coming here btw, hasn’t seen enough films – but these moments when they come carry a fair emotional wallop, partly because the film never puts its tongue in its cheek.

It’s a film proud of its scientific realism, which makes it slightly easy to snigger at the sillier moments – especially when it takes itself so seriously. An astronomer (played by The Untouchables luckless Charles Martin Smith) drives to his death racing to warn the authorities (why not just call them from his office eh?). The astronauts, for all their vaulted training, hit the meteor surface with all the blasé casualness of high-school jocks. Jenny’s journalistic investigation is so clumsy and inept, it’s hilarious watching the President and others assume she’s way more clued up than she is (this also comes from a time when Jenny could key in “E.L.E.” into the Internet and get one result – I just tried it and got 619 million. Simpler times).

I’ve been hard on this film, but honestly it’s still a very easy film to like. Sure it’s really silly and soapy but it takes itself seriously and it wants to tell a story about people and human relationship problems, rather than effects, which is praiseworthy in itself. The best moments go to the experienced old pros, with Duvall rather good as Tanner and Morgan Freeman wonderfully authoritative as the President (it was considered daring at the time to have a Black President). The special effects when the meteor arrives (spoiled on the poster and the trailer) are impressive and while it’s easy to tease, you’ll still welcome it every time it arrives on your TV screen.

The Core (2003)

The Only Way is Down for our heroes in super silly Sci-fi disaster The Core

Director: Jon Amiel

Cast: Aaron Eckhart (Dr Josh Keyes), Hilary Swank (Major Rebecca Childs), Delroy Lindo (Dr Edward Brazzleton), Stanley Tucci (Dr Conrad Zimsky), Tchéky Karyo (Dr Serge Leveque), Bruce Greenwood (Commander Robert Iverson), DJ Qualls (“Rat”), Alfre Woodward (Dr Talma Stickley), Richard Jenkins (Lt General Thomas Purcell)

Dr Josh Keyes: “Even if we came up with a brilliant plan to fix the core of the Earth, we just can’t get there”

Dr Conrad Zimsky: “Yes, but – what if we could”

If you have any doubts about the type of film you are going to watch, then that tongue-in-cheek dialogue exchange (and the words can’t capture the playful, I-know-this-is-crap wink that Stanley Tucci tips practically to the camera) should tell you. The core of the Earth has stopped rotating. Which basically means all life on Earth is going to end in the next few months. Unless, of course, we can restart the rotation of the Earth’s core. So time to load up a team of crack scientists into a ship-cum-drill, made of metal that doesn’t buckle under pressure (this metal is, by the way, literally called unobtainium by the characters) so that they can sprinkle nuclear bombs through the centre of the Earth to kickstart the rotation of the planet and blah, blah, blah.

It’s perhaps no surprise that The Core was voted the least scientifically accurate film ever made by a poll of scientists about 10 years ago. Nothing in it makes any real sense whatsoever, and it’s all totally reliant on the sort of handwave mumbo-jumbo where you can tell getting an actual logical explanation was going to be far too much hard work, so better to roll with a bit of technobabble and prayer. Questions of mass, physics, pressure are all shoved aside. The film sort of gets away with it, with a leaning on the fourth-wall cheekiness – no fewer than three times in the film the impossible happens with a “what if we could” breeziness, as a character pulls out a theory or discovery with all the real-world authority of the fag-packet calculation.

But then scientific accuracy is hardly why we watch the movies is it? And this is just a big, dumb B-movie piece of disaster nonsense, which throws in enough death-defying thrills, predictable sacrifices and major landmarks being wiped out topside to keep the viewer entertained. In this film Rome and the Golden Gate Bridge both get taken out by spectacular disasters. Beneath the surface, the characters go through the expected personality clashes and learn the expected lessons.

The script (most of which is bumpkous rubbish) really signposts most of this personal development. Will Zimsky and Brazz rekindle their respect and overcome decades of rivalry? Will Serge, on the mission to save his wife and kids “because it’s too much to think about saving the whole world”, have to pay the ultimate sacrifice? Will Major Childs finally get the courage and determination to take command and make the hard calls? I won’t tease the fate of Mission Commander Bruce Greenwood, but he is called upon so often to reassure Childs that one day she will be ready to take command, alongside other mentoring advice, that the only surprise is that he lasts as long as he does.

So why is hard to not lay into The Core? Because, not that deep down at its core, it knows it’s a silly film. The script has enough awareness of its cliché and scientific silliness that it almost doubles down on it. And the actors play it just about right: for large chunks of it they perfectly hit the beats of sly archness that suggest just enough respect to not take the piss, but enough self-awareness of what they are making. But these are all very, very good actors and when the serious moments come, it’s remarkable how much they can shift gear – with the grisly death of one character (while the others powerlessly try and save him) played with an almost Shakespearean level of tragedy by a distraught Eckhart and Lindo. Later, as three characters juggle over who will go on a suicide mission to keep the mission on track, the bubbling emotions of shame, relief, pride, respect and buried affections are genuinely rather affecting. Its moments like this that makes me kind of love this big, dumb, stupid film.

But it remains stupid. Topside, Alfre Woodard and Richard Jenkins bumble through roles they could play standing on their heads. A hacker – Rat – is as clichéd and full of techno-nonsense as any of the science, which is even more painfully obvious to us now that we’re all so much more tech-savvy than we were in 2003. Events happen because, you know, they can. Discoveries and scientific conclusions are made because the script needs them. But the film knows this, it doubles down on it and it accepts that every problem is just a “But what if we could!” away from being solved. Stupid, but strangely loveable.

Volcano (1997)

Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche are chemistry free in a film that is a disaster in more ways than one: Volcano

Director: Mick Jackson

Cast: Tommy Lee Jones (Mike Roark), Anne Heche (Dr Amy Barnes), Gaby Hoffmann (Kelly Roark), Don Cheadle (Emmit Reese), Jacqueline Kim (Dr Jaye Calder), Keith David (Lt Ed Fox), John Corbett (Norman Calder), John Carroll Lynch (Stan Olber)

In 1985 Mick Jackson directed a film for the BBC called Threads. A masterpiece of nuclear terror, it showed the horrifying impact of a full-scale nuclear attack on Britain. Off the back of its success, Jackson got a ticket to Hollywood and the big time. Oh dear lord. Be careful what you wish for. Could Jackson really direct something so brilliant as Threads on a shoestring, and then something as unspeakably bad as this on a massive budget?

Volcano already felt dated when it was released in 1997. Imagine how it feels now. It’s a feeble disaster film, of the type where the heroes are all square-jawed types who just need to stop focusing on their super important jobs and look after their kids, and the villains are all greedy businessmen. Anyway a volcano goes off under Los Angeles (don’t ask) so disaster zone manager Mike Roark (Tommy Lee Jones looking so bored he can barely be bothered to deliver the lines) has to save the city and his daughter. Mostly his daughter. Literally everything you could expect to happen, inevitably happens.

Volcano is almost unspeakably bad. I mean I watched it expecting it to be rubbish, but at least sort of fun rubbish. But this is just, y’know, a rubbishy rubbish. For ages. It’s almost half the runtime before the volcano really goes boom – and then you are reminded how dull watching lava pour very slowly forward can be. And it moves very slowly. Despite this it keeps creeping up on the cast as it from nowhere. None of whom, by the way, you would miss if they failed to turn up to a dinner party, let alone if they were incinerated by molten rock.

The heat of that molten rock, by the way, changes according to the requirements of the scene and the plot armour of the characters. At least two red shirts (and the red shirts are easy to spot) are vaporised solely from being in close proximity to it early on. Later, the key heroes are suspended a few feet above it, or even splashed by it, and feel no real effect other than some hot shoes and a few burns. 

Tommy Lee Jones is completely and utterly miscast in a role that he looks like he hated every minute of filming. Roark is your typical shouty man. He has family problems (needless to say these get fixed in the film) but his main quality seems to be his near creepy love for his daughter, a love that blinds him to all other events. Early in the disaster he abandons a fireman in a truck in order to carry his daughter away from lava (the fireman and the man who tries to save him instead die horribly). Later Roark tries to stop a vital explosion that could save the city because his daughter may be at risk having stupidly walked into the middle of the blast radius.

It doesn’t help that his daughter is the worst example of a dumb damsel-in-distress ever, frequently freezing up in the face of any danger and proving hopelessly incapable of showing any initiative. Never mind a volcano eruption, she’d be hopeless with toast burning. It’s as impossible to care for her as it is any other flipping character. To be honest I’d quite happily drop a pile of lava on all of them. That would at least be fitting with the film’s vomit inducing infantile liberalism – “Why look” (to paraphrase a wiser-than-his-years kid who has nearly got himself killed) “Everyone looks the same under volcanic ash”. Yup, whatever colour or creed everyone looks equally sad about being in this film.

Jackson directs this with a mixture of total lack of inspiration (not helped by some effects that looked painfully wonky even then), ludicrously overblown zoom shots (whenever something dangerous happens), and laughable camera work. It makes the whole film look and feel even more stupid than it does already. Will you care about anything that happens in the film? No you won’t. Will you laugh at it? Not quite enough to justify watching it.

The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

Fury and despair are never far away in brilliant survivalist film The Flight of the Phoenix

Director: Robert Aldrich

Cast: James Stewart (Captain Frank Towns), Richard Attenborough (Lew Moran), Hardy Krüger (Henrich Dorfmann), Peter Finch (Captain Harris), Ernest Borgnine (Trucker Cobb), Ian Bannen (“Ratbags” Crow), Ronald Fraser (Sergeant Watson), Christian Marquand (Dr Renaud), Dan Duryea (Standish), George Kennedy (Mike Bellamy)

Every so often you watch a film and say “where have you been my whole life!”. That’s the case with The Flight of the Phoenix– I can’t even imagine how much I would have loved this film if I had seen it when I was younger. This one has got it all for fans of anything from disaster movies to personality clashes. Aldrich’s film is a Sunday afternoon classic with bite, a brilliantly constructed actors’ piece set in the claustrophobic confines of the only shelter for miles around in the Gobi Desert.

Frank Towns (James Stewart) and Lew Moran (Richard Attenborough) are the pilot and navigator on a cargo plane flying to Benghazi, with several passengers. Caught in a sandstorm, the plane crashes in the desert over 100 miles off course. The chances of being located are small and the survivors have only enough water for a little under a fortnight, so long as they avoid exertion. While Towns quietly struggles with the guilt, and different (hopeless) solutions are suggested, German aeronautical engineer Heinrich Dorfman (Hardy Krüger) believes that they can build a new airplane from the wreckage to fly themselves to safety. Towns and Dorfman are incompatible people, leaving Moran to play peacemaker and to support the building of the new aeroplane which may be (as Towns believes) a forlorn hope in any case.

Amazingly the film was a box-office flop on release – but time rewards skill, because you watch the film and marvel at the economy of its storytelling, its expert direction, wonderful acting and fantastically drawn characters. It’s a film of immense tension, with nearly all of this coming from the bubbling potential for deadly clashes between the trapped men. The rest is supplied by the ever-present threat of diminishing resources – none more so than the limited supply of cartridges needed to start the new plane’s engine (they’ve got seven and, best case, need at least five). 

It’s this grim awareness of the knife-edge everyone is living on that powers the film. Every single resource is precious, and the pressure and fatigue show in every scene. As the film progresses, each of the men slowly disintegrates, growing increasingly scruffy, unshaven, dry skinned and weak and more and more susceptible to anger. Aldrich charts all this with professional excellence, the editing skilfully cutting away at several points to reaction shots from the actors as feuds come to a head, helped by some gloriously subtle and intelligent acting. 

And it’s not surprising really – few films capture the grim pressure of the desert better than this. Sand dries out skin and throats, reflecting the beating heat of the sun everywhere. The clear sky and burning sun turn every surface into smouldering heat – even the shade offers little respite. The viewer is left with no doubt about the insanity of spending time out of the shade in these conditions. You know immediately Captain Harris’ plan to walk 500 miles over the desert with a single canteen of water is absurd (it doesn’t end well of course). It’s a beautifully shot film that makes the mystical glamour of the desert beautiful and terrifying.

One of the things I like best about the film is that it is almost impossible to predict who will come out alive and who won’t. Unlike most Hollywood films, characters are not punished for deviating from goodness and purity – some of the most noble characters don’t come out alive, while some of the most self-serving, selfish and cowardly ones do. Even the central heroes are flawed: Towns is struggling with depression and a near crippling guilt that almost leave him fatalistically accepting death; Moran is a drunk possibly to blame for the whole disaster; Dorfman is arrogant, difficult, prickly and in many ways flat out unlikeable. 

Ah yes, Dorfmann. What a superb performance from Krüger (the first actor cast). In a masterstroke of invention, the character was changed from British (in the novel) to German. This opens up a whole world of additional prejudice between Dorfmann and the other passengers. “What did you do during the war?” antagonistic joker Ratbags asks Dorfman pointedly. It’s a tension that underlies most of the clashes. Dorfmann doesn’t help with his almost complete lack of awareness of social etiquette and his Germanic insistence on probabilities of survival: he sees no problem with treating the rest of the survivors like staff, openly debates the wisdom of helping the critically wounded, refuses to explain his thinking until absolutely pressed and has no empathy for their flagging strength and morale. But he also has a strange naivety which plays into a late plot reveal hinging on Dorfmann’s inability to read the reactions of the people sitting next to him. The film and Krüger flirt brilliantly with Germanic stereotypes – is there a more “German” character in film than Dorfmann? He’s about as far from a white knight as you can get.

But then so is James Stewart’s Towns. One of the things I like most about the film is the difficult psychology of survival. Towns is clearly struck with a barely understood guilt about the people killed in the crash, and seems ready to fatalistically accept death. His clash with Dorfmann is powered by numerous factors, not least a sense Towns has of his generation being replaced by a younger, technically minded one and a sense of losing control of his destiny. Nevertheless, Towns almost fanatically opposes the project at one point – and basically only accepts it when Moran and Dr Renard (an immensely noble Christian Marquand) tell him it’s better to have a chance of something to live for than to sit around dying. Stewart brilliantly taps into the ambiguity in his screen persona – a decency beneath the surface, but also a psychological weakness, a need for control under the nice-guy persona, a man struggling to accept he is out of his depth. It’s a brilliantly low-key psychological performance of a man struggling to button up guilt, pressure and unease.

The whole cast is superb. Attenborough plays the closest to type as a loyal number 2, but even he is clearly struggling to hold acres of despair while constantly playing peace-maker. Ronald Fraser is exceptional as a career army sergeant tottering on the edge of open-rebellion throughout the film, who betrays his commander’s trust no less than three times and is the most unknown wildcard in the pack. Ian Bannen was Oscar-nominated for his electric performance as a bitter, sarcastic Scots oil-worker who surprises everyone with his hard work while never letting up for a moment his bitter commentary on events. Peter Finch gives an excellent, ram-rod straight, almost naively decent stiff-upper lip performance as Captain Harris, a man a few degrees away from a noble idiot. Ernest Borgnine is touching as an oil foreman suffering from exhaustion and stress.

All this comes together in a superior package of film making, expertly made and superbly directed, with the actors embracing their well-developed characters with glee, making this in many ways part disaster movie, part chamber piece play. I love the little surprises it throws at you – just as you think you know a character there is a moment that surprises you or makes you reassess them. The tensions and dangers of survival in extreme conditions are brilliantly captured. There isn’t a weak moment in the film, and plot twists and surprises throw curveballs at the audience, some of which bring terrifying consequences. For any lovers of survival stories, acting or tense movies this is an absolute must.

Poseidon (2006)

Our characters (such as they are) struggle from cliche to cliche in Poseidon

Director: Wolfgang Peterson

Cast: Josh Lucas (Dylan Johns), Kurt Russell (Robert Ramsey), Jacinda Barrett (Maggie James), Richard Dreyfuss (Richard Nelson), Emmy Rossum (Jennifer Ramsey), Mike Vogel (Chris Saunders), Mia Maestro (Elena Morales), Kevin Dillon (Lucky Larry), Freddy Rodriguez (Marco Valentin), Andre Braugher (Captain Michael Bradford)

In the 1970s the big tent-pole movies were all disaster films. They were the superhero films of their day. They also followed a very clear formula: big stars, big man-made structures, big crashing natural forces sweeping away man’s pride. Lots of death and tear jerking, with sub-plots for each character that could have been pulled out of an episode of EastEnders.

Poseidon is a remake of sorts of The Poseidon Adventure – but with plot and characters changed (not for the better). There is a ship called the Poseidon. It’s hit by a tsunami. It gets overturned, trapping the survivors at the top (now the bottom) of the ship. While most wait to be rescued, our heroes decide to climb down (now up) the ship to the hull to escape. Of course, not all of them will make it!

You notice I didn’t mention any characters there. That’s because what this film laughably calls its characters are so crudely drawn, they barely qualify as human beings, let alone characters. They exist purely to get into trouble. We spend only the most rudimentary time getting to know them before they (and their loosely defined characteristics) start dropping like flies. This is an anti-actor film – literally anyone off the street could play these parts, so disinterested is the film in them.

So we’ve got Kurt Russell as an over-protective father and Emmy Rossum as his semi-rebellious daughter. Will they grow closer together over the film? You betcha. Will Russell learn to accept the place his daughter’s boyfriend has in her life? Of course. Will “I work better alone” professional gambler Josh Lucas learn that he needs other people? Nope. Just kidding of course he does. Will suicidal architect Richard Dreyfuss discover a new love of life? See where I’m going?

In fact it’s so completely predictable you can take a pretty good guess who will make it and who won’t based solely on the opening few minutes. Some of its decisions lack any form of sensitivity. Any character from a remotely racial minority? Let’s just say that their chances are not good (Dreyfuss needs to actually kick Rodriguez’s waiter down a shaft so he doesn’t drag the others down – I thought at first “there’ll be consequences to that” – but nope it’s never mentioned again). Anyway, all the surviving characters are loaded white guys. One of them does need to make “the ultimate sacrifice” to save the others but, again, their identity can be pretty much worked out in the opening minutes. The most unpleasant character in the film? Yup he dies.

In fact you watch the film and feel sorry for the actors. Not only are the characters wafer-thin, but they spend so much time silently underwater or getting soaked, they look like they are suffering a lot for nothing. The focus is entirely on the mechanical progression from set-piece to set-piece, all of which stink of familiarity. So we get the long swim under water (of course someone gets trapped!), the impassable ravine that needs crossing (of course someone is stuck on the other side), the claustrophobic tunnel (of course one of the characters has claustrophobia). There is even a bit where the terminally stupid fucking kid wanders off and needs to be rescued. Is there anything new in this? It’s a re-tread of every disaster film ever.

Wolfgang Peterson directs all this with a professional detachment and disinterest that makes you want to cry that he once made Das Boot. If there is one thing he knows, it’s shooting confined spaces (see not only Das Boot but also Air Force One) and he makes the onslaught of water look pretty good. But this is such a piece of hack work, you despair that he clearly needed the money. The special effects are pretty good I guess (although the CGI ship looks totally dated), but it’s a staid, dead, predictable film.

It only really works in an “it passed the time watching it in two chunks over a couple of breakfasts” way. Because there is literally nothing new, interesting, unique, intelligent, imaginative, dynamic or individual about it, it passes in front of your eyes like a bland wall-paper. Compared to the classic disaster films of the 1970s it’s not fit to lace their explosions. Totally empty, unchallenging rubbish.

Sully: Miracle on the Hudson (2016)

Tom Hanks braces for impact as heroically normal hero pilot Chesley Sullenberger

Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast: Tom Hanks (Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger), Aaron Eckhart (Jeff Skiles), Laura Linney (Lorraine Sullenberger), Anna Gunn (Dr Elizabeth Davis), Autumn Reeser (Tess Soza), Ann Cusack (Donna Dent), Holt McCallany (Mike Cleary), Mike O’Malley (Charles Porter), Jamey Sheridan (Ben Edwards)

On January 15th 2009, a miracle happened in New York. A plane struck birds, causing double engine failure. Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, left with no options, decided to land the plane on the Hudson River. Amazingly, all 155 passengers and crew survived unharmed.

Eastwood’s emotional, skilfully made film brilliantly recreates this true-life event, with Hanks taking on the lead as Sully. The framing device Eastwood uses is the National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the crash, here re-imagined as an almost persecution, convinced that pilot error and failure to react quickly enough were the causes.

What’s most striking for me is this film’s tribute to the professionalism and heroism of everyone involved. Just as Sully states during his hearing, this was a team effort, not the work of a lone hero. This comes across strongly here. Air hostess is a profession which, god knows, it’s easy to mock: but this film shows their unflappable bravery, calmness and leadership. Similarly, the first responders are dedicated and compassionate. I’m not ashamed to say I felt myself choke up at one point, when a first responder tell one waterlogged passenger “no one dies today”. The film ends with a tribute to New York coming together to save lives – and it’s a message ringing through the film.

Eastwood knows the drama of the film is directly linked to the crash, so weaves this event throughout the film, returning to it at least four times from different angles. He opens the film with Sully’s nightmare of what could have happened if he had flown towards an airport (the plane ploughing into New York) – a grim reminder of what could have been, which hangs over the rest of the runtime. The evacuation of the downed plane is gripping, and is filmed with a restraint that lets the events speak for themselves. The emotional force throughout these sequences is compelling.

Tom Hanks is perfectly cast as the low-key everyday hero achieving the impossible with only quiet courage and years of experience behind him. To be honest, it’s a role Hanks could probably play standing on his head, but his quiet everyman quality is essential to the film’s success. He’s well supported by Eckhart and other members of the cast.

It’s good Hanks is so assured, as he is required to anchor much of the film’s plot. The plot is where the film struggles as, to put it simply, the story away from the crash isn’t actually that dramatic or interesting. An attempt has been made to make the investigation into the crash into a sort of inquisition into Sully’s actions, but it never really rings true (it largely wasn’t) and it’s never really interesting enough, certainly not when compared to the crash itself.

In fact, it’s hard not to think that there is some sort of message being built into the film here, contrasting the low-key individual Sully with the faceless, procedural suits who can’t imagine the importance of the human element. Maybe that’s reading a bit much into it, but either way it’s average drama: there is never any doubt in the viewer’s mind that Sully will be completely exonerated. It’s an attempt to add dramatic tension to a story everyone already knows.

Furthermore, Sully is too “normal” a man to sustain a drama around his life: in another film inspired by these events, Flight, Denzel Washington played a drunken pilot who saved an aeroplane in a moment of inspired flying. The drama of that film was based on the film’s exploration of Washington’s character’s lack of responsibility vs. his act of heroism. Sully doesn’t have this, so we don’t get that sense of conflict within the character or with others. Put simply, Sully is such a regular decent, guy that, outside these unique circumstances, he is not really a dramatically interesting character – and the film can’t create a plot that brings drama out of his situation.

So Sully is a mixed bag of a film. Hanks gives his best as ever, but the film can’t really get over the fact that it’s recreating a moment in history, and fails to give that moment an effective dramatic framework. There is some good supporting work, although many of the other roles are thankless (Laura Linney’s role in particular is literally phoned in), but the film only flies when the plane doesn’t. The reconstruction of the event, and the people who were involved in it, is inspiring and stirring – but the rest of the film is little more than a humdrum courtroom drama.