Tom Young (Michael Trucco, Battlestar Galactica; Pensacola: Wings of Gold) is a retired air force colonel working as the director for the San Francisco branch of the Disaster Management Agency. His estranged wife Dr. Michelle Young (Kari Matchett, Covert Affairs; Power Play) is an astrophysicist working on unspecified research. The movie opens with the city set to watch a unique meteor shower event caused by the breakup of a comet named Leder-Bay. Naturally, things don’t go as planned, and San Francisco ends up being bombarded by a series of four meteor storms over the course of the day.
Left – Tom; right – Lena and Michelle
Before I go too far into this article, I want to bring up a cliché that wearies me – that of the characters in a movie of this nature having the exactly perfect professions for the given scenario. In this case, Tom is a former missile launch specialist (the military comes up with a plan to use missiles to prevent the destruction of Earth – more on that later); Michelle is an astrophysicist with the know-how and background to understand and interpret the properties of the meteorites; and Michelle’s sister, Laura (Emily Holmes, The Wicker Man; Snakes on a Plane), is a nurse. So here we have a family that is essentially perfectly suited to dealing with the approaching apocalypse. Now, I understand that at least one of the main characters must be in the center of the action in a movie like this; otherwise there would be no movie. And I even understand why they might be married to someone else who has a complementary skill set to help in the disaster. But my bounds of understanding start to be strained when the brothers or sisters of the hero also have perfect jobs to aid in a disaster. There’s always some sister who’s a nurse, or some uncle who knew that this day would come and was preparing for it for fifteen years, or some ex-military father who’s the only one in the world with the skills necessary to save the planet, along with their son/daughter/mother/brother/sister/father etc. It gets rather ridiculous rather quickly.
Along the same lines, there are two different scenes where Tom saves someone from a vehicle mere seconds before the vehicle explodes. I realize that a writer wants to build tension, but it just isn’t believable to have multiple last-second rescues by the same person; at least, not to me.
We get it. You’re a hero. Enough already.
So, on to the critique. This movie was an interesting juxtaposition of decent work with terrible work, and it stretched across all aspects of the film. There were some scenes with pretty well-done CGI, including a number of scenes with realistic-looking meteorites crashing down among a crowd of people. Then there were other scenes that were either hokey CGI, such as when they launch a rocket with some of the worst fire effects I’ve seen coming out the end, or were clearly done in front of a green screen with little if any attempt to blend it in with the rest. Overall, the dialogue was the worst, with several sequences containing attempts at “witty” banter that came across as forced and stilted and completely unnatural. But the other interesting contrast was in the acting. Trucco and Matchett are fairly decent actors; there’s plenty of their respective works I’ve seen where I enjoyed their performances. And while they did a solid job in this movie, I couldn’t help but feel that they were being dragged down by everyone else in the movie, who ran the gamut from acceptable-if-bland to how’d-you-get-this-role. And unfortunately, these differences were pretty stark throughout.
Left – decent CGI; right – sad CGI rubble pile
I touched above on one of the clichés in this movie, but there were plenty more. For instance, our lead actors are in the classic situation of being estranged at the beginning of the movie only to find they have to work together to save the world, resulting in them reuniting by the end of the film. This arc is all too common in movies of this nature. Another disaster movie trope continued in this work is the storyline of parents being separated from children, as, throughout most of the movie, Tom is out looking for his and Michelle’s children, regardless of how often he finds them and brings them back to the base of operations for the saviors. Then there are a couple of newscasters who drive around the city not only being stupid, but also being heartless (for another example of this, see Sharktopus). Finally, there’s my own personal pet peeve of every single machine with a gas tank exploding in a giant fireball; though, to be fair, in the instances in this movie, the machines were already on fire when they exploded, which does seem more realistic.
Obligatory idiot newscasters
There are others, of course, such as the children running off to rescue their friend only to become trapped and in need of rescuing themselves, or the age-old atheist scientist trope; but there’s a lot of science I want to discuss instead, so I’ll move on to that.
Like I mentioned above, San Francisco becomes the target of four separate meteor storms. Normally, this would raise issues because too many disaster movies seem to have laser-guided phenomena (earthquakes following people perfectly, tornadoes seeming to go out of their way to destroy as much as possible, etc.); however, this movie actually proposes an explanation for the precision with which the meteorites strike the city (incidentally, the early predictions for the targets of the meteor storms are all major cities – Denver, Kansas City, and Washington, DC, though the meteorites get drawn out of those paths and instead converge on San Francisco). See, apparently, the meteorites contain quantities of element 120, dubbed unbinilium, which, according to the film, exerts an electrostatic-like force on itself. In other words, it is drawn to itself. Given that this element cannot currently be studied extensively enough to determine actual properties, an inherent self-attraction is plausible, which helps explain why only San Francisco is targeted, and why any major city is hit at all, given the extremely low probability of any one area being hit by meteorites (more info here).
Now you may ask how these unbinilium-rich meteors could be drawn to San Francisco in the first place; after all, for them to be drawn there, there would need to be a fairly large amount already present. Well, it turns out that the San Francisco Bay was struck by a meteorite (according to the movie) rich in element 120, and that the rubble from the comet happened to pass close enough to be drawn in. Of course, this raises a number of other interesting questions, starting with the origins of San Francisco Bay. According to Wikipedia, the Bay was not formed by meteorites or asteroids, effectively negating the premise of this movie. Additionally, I find it incredulous that this element, which gives off a unique radiation signature and interferes with electronic guidance systems (such as GPS) could remain undetected for the entire history of humanity. Basically, I can’t imagine that large quantities of this element could have remained hidden given how much the movie claims it messes with electronics. Furthermore, for the comet rubble to contain unbinilium, the comet itself would need to contain certain amounts of that element, and they never explain why the comet wasn’t drawn in by the Bay.
There’s a moment in the movie when one of the meteorites crashes through the road part of Golden Gate Bridge, causing the whole middle span to collapse into the Bay. But surely the bridge is sturdier than that, right? Well, it turns out not so much. In fact, it seems that a large enough earthquake, centered close enough to the bridge, would bring it down pretty effectively and quickly. So while the odds of a meteorite striking the bridge are very small, were it to happen and punch a large hole in the bridge, the resulting forces (both from impact and from loss of structural integrity) could pretty easily bring down the rest of it.
Not so tough after a meteorite impact, are ya?!
For those of you paying attention, I mentioned the end of the world several times in this article, but so far, nothing I’ve written about sounds terribly world-ending. But don’t worry, I’m getting to that.
It turns out that the comet had passed through our friendly neighborhood asteroid belt on its last orbit; and for some reason, it was broken into four different parts (which then, on the following orbit, were drawn in to San Francisco); however, the comet, during its destruction, also knocked an asteroid onto a collision course with Earth, and it is this asteroid that threatened to destroy all life. (Interestingly, the asteroid was named Apophis, the name of an asteroid in real life that was potentially going to crash into the Earth in 2029.) Naturally, the military advocates destroying the asteroid with nuclear missiles. While this seems like a wise choice, Michelle cautions against it, saying that there is no evidence missiles would do any significant damage to an asteroid. As it happens, she’s not wrong, though there is some amount of disagreement. See, it turns out that many objects we call asteroids are potentially floating piles of rock and debris, held together by their collective combined gravity. Shooting a missile into such a debris field could temporarily destroy the object, but then the object could reassemble, given enough time. Or, if it were destroyed, the resulting fragments could still break through the atmosphere and potentially cause more destruction than the original object would have. But there’s hope for mankind, thanks to a number of different asteroid deflection plans (including this one, some of these ideas, and stuff talked about here). Our hero in the movie suggests one of these plans, advocating a large nuclear detonation near to the asteroid in order to force it to change trajectory. Of course, this also raised to me the issue of potential nuclear fallout from a detonation in space, but apparently, as long as the blast occurred above the magnetosphere, little if any harmful radiation would be pulled back to Earth.
Things to be avoided…
So there you have it – a movie full of jarring clashes in quality, plausible hypothetical science, and arguably correct theoretical science. Overall, not a terrible film, though not one of the better ones, either. Until next time, keep an eye to the sky and an eye out for sharks!