For fans of cli-fi movies (fictional films about climate change), there’s both good news and bad news.

The good news is that after a hiatus of 18 months, in which no film produced for cinema or cable included climate change as a major plot point, three cli-fi movies will have appeared in movie theaters by the end of 2017.

The bad news is that one of these movies is Geostorm.

This is not to say that the other two films, Mother and Downsizing, are gems of climate change communication, just that they’re relatively harmless.

Reviews of Mother suggest it is so obtuse that most viewers will simply be confused – rather than confused about climate change in particular. And the trailers for Downsizing, scheduled for release in late December, indicate that this rare comic take on climate change will at least address its causes: the greenhouse gas emissions from our fossil-fueled lifestyles. Geostorm, by contrast, responds only to the effects of climate change and in a way that so badly misrepresents the relevant science that it will more likely impair than enhance viewers’ understanding of the problem.

The plot

The movie is set in the near future. The voice-over narration points to 2019 as the year when the world, responding to a series of catastrophic weather events, decided to act decisively on climate change. But the complex, global system of space stations and satellites then depicted would have taken at least a decade to complete, and the problems with that system, the focus of the movie, start some years afterwards. So maybe the late 2020s?

Action-movie star Gerard Butler plays Jake Lawson, the talented but difficult scientist who oversaw the design and construction of “Dutch Boy,” the network of weather-controlling satellites and the space stations that manage them. After a confrontational appearance before a Senate Committee overseeing the United States’ role in this international effort, he is replaced by his more compliant brother, Max, a senior aide to the president. Butler’s character is recalled – “Three Years Later” says the caption on the screen – when the system begins to malfunction.

The first sign of trouble occurs in a village in Afghanistan, flash-frozen by the malfunction of one of the “chiller” satellites. The second is a series of gas-main explosions in Hong Kong, prompted by a rogue satellite that beams energy into the geothermal vents beneath the city. When two of the scientists investigating these “accidents” are killed, Jake and his brother suspect foul play.

They discover that Dutch Boy’s computer system has been hacked. But by whom? The available evidence points to someone high in the U.S. government. And that evidence also points to a larger plan behind these separate incidents: each disturbance is contributing to the creation of a world-wide, interconnected storm system – a geostorm.

The gruffy scientist and his politico brother, aided by the brother’s Secret Service love interest, successfully foil this plot, but only after Dubai, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, Moscow, and Orlando have suffered massive destruction from a succession of extreme “weather” events.

The problems

Geostorm has not fared well with reviewers or viewers. The best notice it received described it as “so bad, it’s good,” the sort of film one laughs at rather than with. And in two full weeks, ticket sales for Geostorm total less than half what The Day After Tomorrow racked up on its opening weekend. Nevertheless, The Conversation and the Smithsonian, venues that regularly cover climate change, have examined the “science” behind the movie. The scare quotes around “science” effectively sum up their reports.

But the problems with Geostorm run deeper than the poetic license it takes with the science. And given the way filmmakers influence each other, these problems will likely persist even after Geostorm fades from view.

The good news/bad news framing works again here.

The good news about Geostorm is that it assumes the public gets the connection between climate change and extreme weather. The bad news is that Geostorm’s depictions of extreme weather include earthquakes and tsunamis, tsunamis so large that they could only be caused by the ocean impact of an asteriod. For a public already confused by the difference between the ozone hole and climate change, this will make it harder to understand both the problem and the possible solutions.

The good news about Geostorm: its technological optimism, the can-do spirit, it depicts. The bad news is that Geostorm pretends that technologies that thus far have appeared only in science-fiction movies and TV shows – like Star Trek, Star Wars, Battle Star Galactica, or Guardians of the Galaxy – are near-future options. At times, Geostorm seems to depict an alternate reality, a parallel universe, in which the U.S. has an ambitious space program that includes multiple space shuttles always lined up in neat rows of launching towers.

”As Click To Tweet

A bit more good news about Geostorm is that it depicts the divisions within the U.S. government regarding climate change and national security. The bad news is that this depiction of conspiring factions will likely further compound public distrust of government.

In sum, Geostorm points Americans’ attention in the wrong direction; strokes their confidence in technology’s capacity to solve the problem of climate change without materially affecting their lifestyles; and then arouses their suspicions of those who would do the work of implementing any solution. Just what you want a cli-fi film to do. Not.

The patron

Despite its limited success in theaters, Geostorm illustrates the continuing influence of Roland Emmerich, the director of The Day After Tomorrow, still the most successful cli-fi film with the box office.

Dean Devlin, who directed Geostorm, wrote the screenplays for two of Emmerich’s other films, Independence Day and Godzilla, and he is clearly familiar with the rest of Emmerich’s work, including The Noah’s Ark Principle.

As several bloggers have noted, Geostorm is a grandiose remake of Emmerich’s modest film-school project about an international, weather-modifying satellite commandeered by American military intelligence. (Missed by these bloggers was a previous remake, the 2009 made-for-TV-movie The Storm.)

Geostorm includes several nods to The Day After Tomorrow, the flash freezing weather systems, the Tokyo hailstorm (with stones the size of wrecking balls), and the central role played by a muscular scientist.

”Given Click To Tweet

In a surprising move, given the actor he chose to play the lead, Devlin also borrows a plot line from Emmerich’s 2013 film White House Down: figures high in his government conspire against the president in an effort to block his cooperation with international organizations, like the UN and its various agencies, and to overturn his diplomatic overtures. White House Down and Geostorm both feature angry white American men intent on restoring U.S. dominance by destroying its enemies.

Why is this a surprise? Because in 2013 Gerard Butler starred in another movie about a putative terrorist attack on the White House. But in Olympus Has Fallen, North Korean mercenaries are behind the plot that Butler foils. In Olympus, Butler’s action-hero talents are used to great effect. Without a gun and blade, as he is throughout Geostorm, Butler is not nearly so exciting.

Emmerich and Devlin are right about the corrosive role now played by angry, white men in American society and government, but Emmerich got climate change wrong in some fundamental ways. Even so, the success of The Day After Tomorrow insured that other filmmakers would imitate his unlikely story of an abrupt descent into an ice age, or work up their own versions of his signature flash-freezes. Sadly, even the limited success of Geostorm will increase the odds that these mistakes are repeated in another succession of spinoffs.

Perhaps Downsizing’s success next month will counter these odds and thereby prompt a string of imitations that tell a more accurate, and useful, story about climate change. Given the past record of cli-fi films, however – which thus far includes more than sixty theatrical releases and made-for-TV movies – climate change communicators should probably downsize their expectations.

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since 2005. Before completing his interdisciplinary...