Property Damage

I may be a wimp who doesn't watch horror movies, but that doesn't mean I'm not interested in their premises; I just can't handle the gore. There is, however, a genre that features a lot of same features of horror movies (plenty of carnage, paper thin plot development, cannon fodder characters nobody cares about) that I eat up with a spoon: Disaster movies. I genuinely enjoy disaster flicks, even as I recognize that 90% of them are massively moronic. I tend to grade them on a different scale, since most of the fun comes from mercilessly picking them apart. Someday, I'll have to do a full post on the best and worst of these cinematic stinkbombs, but let's just focus on two today.

I was invited to a small gathering at my friend's house for an evening of pizza, booze, and disasterific entertainment in the form of two very different scenarios. One completely changed the face of the Earth, and one managed to take out...three dumbasses. I speak, of course, of The Day After Tomorrow and Twister. I had to admit to a small confession before we started - I had never seen Twister, though I knew all the talking points filtered down through popular culture over the years (that is to say, the cow). We kicked things off with 2004's The Day After Tomorrow, though. Interesting that we'd watch a movie about how climate change will destroy us all on the literal eve of a historically heavy snowfall. In The Day After Tomorrow, Dennis Quaid is a climatologist who attempts to warn the U.S. government about the imminent threat brought on by our neglect of the environment. And this doesn't mean imminent in the geological sense of 100 years or so. No, more like about ten minutes. One wonders what policies we could shoehorn through Congress on that timetable, even if the Vice President weren't a snotty skeptic, as he is in this movie. No worries, though. If there's anything I've learned from disaster movies, it's that there isn't any natural foe that can't be defeated by running sideways. Giant fireball? Just run sideways out of its path. Tidal wave? Just run sideways, and the water won't flow in that direction. Sub-zero temperatures? No problem! Those only travel in a narrow, straight line, so you know what you've got to do.

For a movie about the eradication of the Northern Hemisphere, shockingly little happens. Jake Gyllenhaal (who plays Dennis Quaid's son) is trapped in the New York library with a small group of survivors (who had the presence of mind to run sideways), and keeps everyone warm by burning books. Yes, the outside temperature is so low that it will kill you in five seconds, but if you stand twenty feet away from a fireplace with a rapidly-burning copy of Sense and Sensibility in it, you'll be fine. At one point he needs to go find some penicillin to treat his prospective love interest (Emmy Rossum) for blood poisoning, leading to the realization that CGI has come a long way in nine years. Because of course the small group of people who go out to get medicine are attacked by wolves, and I'd be hard pressed to come up with an example of worse animation in the last decade than those "creatures". Meanwhile, Dennis Quaid tracks across the frozen wasteland of New England to find his son (and does, of course), his wife hangs out with a kid with cancer (of course) in a plot that goes nowhere, and people in the southern states attempt to flood into a reluctant Mexico in an IRONIC reversal of immigration issues. Oh, sorry, was that too subtle? Here, let's have a newscaster spell that out for the dumbest among you in the audience. And that's about it! Half the country freezes to death, and the rest of us live in Mexico now. The end.

Twister (1996) is equally stupid, but at least knows what a disaster movie audience wants to see. Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt are an estranged couple who are both expert storm chasers. Paxton has moved on to a new life, career, and fiancee (Jami Gertz), so he needs Helen Hunt to sign the divorce papers. Even though that would take all of two minutes, it doesn't get accomplished before they get pulled into a day of chasing and being chased by approximately fifteen thousand tornadoes. They want to launch a bunch of Christmas ornament-lookin' sensors into the storm so that they can collect data that would hopefully allow them to develop better warning systems.

They're racing against another team, led by Cary Elwes, who is trying to accomplish the same thing. Except he's got wealthy backers, giving our heroes an opportunity to sneer about him being greedy. They're in it for the SCIENCE, you see, while Elwes' team is just looking to make a buck. By the way, have I mentioned that Pepsi has heavy product-placement in this movie? Cans of it are used to help engineer a solution that saves the day, and even scientific data plotted out on a graph mysteriously looks like the Pepsi logo. I'm going to let you spend a few moments considering the fact that a movie spending a shitload of corporate moolah wants to spread a message about how seeking funding to further your career goals is evil.

That may seem like the most ridiculous thing the movie could throw at you, but it pales in comparison to how the "good guys" of the movie treat anyone who isn't part of the core team. It's posited that they're noble, because they keep trying to launch these ornaments that will presumably help people in the future. Know who they don't care about helping in the present? ANYBODY. Tornadoes are tearing up the entire vicinity, and these people don't bother to warn a single soul they run across. Barns and houses are torn to shreds, but they're too busy woo-hooing in the thrill of the storm chase to care much about who may be inside. A tanker truck crashes and explodes - nobody gives a thought to the driver. A drive-in theater is packed with patrons - nobody bothers to mention that a bazillion tornadoes are touching down today until one is right on top of them, at which point they abandon everyone to go seek shelter. By far the worst outsider treatment is hurled at poor Jami Gertz, who we're supposed to hate because she has the nerve to have a career of her own, and doesn't much get off on being forced into multiple instances of mortal danger, all while her fiancee eye-fucks his supposed ex-wife. What a bitch!

You'll notice I haven't said a word about the tornadoes themselves. They're fine. I don't have any complaints about the effects. There are naturally a lot of Movie Physics Problems going on, but that's to be expected. What's weird is the almost non-existent body count in a so-called disaster movie. All those things I mentioned before? The homes and the truck and the drive-in? There isn't a single fatality seen, implied, or even referred to. The wise old hippie woman? She gets a couple of minor injuries, even as her house collapses around her. The storm-chasing teams comprise at least sixteen characters. Precisely two of them die (the third dumbass I mention above is Helen Hunt's father, who dies in a flashback because he thinks he can hold off a tornado with his bare hands, even though he has no reason to). That's the extent of the casualties. Even the cow is probably fine. I knew going in that the script would not rival Citizen Kane, but a disaster movie without disaster? What a disaster.

The Day After Tomorrow: C-
Twister: C-


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