September 15, 2004

Science fiction double feature

Well, not quite.

According to the FilmCan Web site, the Mayfair Theatre was playing The Day After Tomorrow followed by The Core. "Great," I said to myself. "What better way to spend an otherwise useless Tuesday night than taking in two disaster movies notorious for implausible science?"

But it didn't turn out that way. There must have been a communications breakdown somewhere between the Mayfair people and the FilmCan people, because the second feature turned out not to be The Core, but The Corporation, a Canadian documentary by Mark Achbar (Manufacturing Consent). Oh well. I'd already paid for the double feature, and I'd never seen a documentary on the big screen before, so I decided to stick around anyway.

Dennis Quaid plays Jack Hall, a government paleoclimatologist researching the cause of the previous Ice Age in Antarctica when the entire Larsen B ice shelf decides to take a walk. He warns the United Nations that global warming is causing the icecaps to melt, which will ultimately result in a massive disruption of the Northern Hemisphere's moderate climate and a new Ice Age. Asked when this will occur, he opines, "Maybe a hundred years, maybe a thousand." Turns out he was about a hundred years off: the next day, the British Isles are at the centre of a massive storm system drawing supercooled air from the upper atmosphere, and all the Brits are Individually Quick Frozen. On the other side of the world, massive tornadoes unexpectedly destroy Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, Hall's son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) and two friends are in New York City for an academic competition where, unbeknownst to them since the geniuses don't turn on the news, the next superstorm is forming right above their heads. A massive tidal wave strands them in the public library. After the newly formed Lake Manhattan freezes over, the majority of the library refugees decide to take their chances outside. Sam, his classmates, and about half a dozen others take shelter in a reading room and burn the books to keep warm, resulting in a pointless argument about censorship. (They couldn't have just burned Danielle Steel instead of Nietzsche? Better yet, how about the wooden furniture?) In the meantime, back in Washington, Hall learns that Sam is still alive in the Big Apsicle and, drawing on his experience in arctic climates, mounts an expedition with his two co-workers to rescue him.

To call the science in The Day After Tomorrow "implausible" would be an understatement. Willful suspension of disbelief is simply impossible. Apparently Emmerich, wanting to sound a warning about the dangers of global warning, was aware that superstorms simply could not form in such a short time, yet decided to accelerate the action anyway for entertainment value. Put another way, he tried to make a serious point with a deliberately stupid plot. (Good plan.) Meanwhile, the human story is equally wretched, with the characters one-dimensional and the situations manipulative. Hall's wife, a doctor, elects to stay behind after everyone else at her hospital evacuates, so she can take care of the cute little bald boy with leukemia whose parents are missing. (Feel that tugging in your chest? It's Emmerich pulling on your heartstrings.) While walking to New York in a blizzard, tied together for safety, one of Hall's buddies falls through the skylight of a buried shopping mall. He cuts the rope, plummeting to his death, to save the others. ("Nooooooo!!!!") On the other hand, the CGI (supplied by major effects houses such as ILM, Dream Quest, and Digital Domain, amongst others) is breathtaking for the most part, except for some rather obvious CG wolves.

When you see "Written by Roland Emmerich" and "Suggested by the book The Coming Global Superstorm by Art Bell and Whitley Streiber" in the credits, you know you're not going to see a Nova documentary. Art Bell never saw a bit of crank science he didn't like. Once upon a time Emmerich wrote a wonderful movie called Stargate but since then his screenwriting talent has devolved into movies that are long on eye-candy and short on intelligence, such as Independence Day and Godzilla. Emmerich appears to be in competition with Michael Bay (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor) to see who can produce the loudest, stupidest blockbuster before he dies. Thanks to The Day After Tomorrow, Emmerich takes a solid lead.

After an intermission of about 20 minutes came The Corporation. The premise of this documentary can be summed up thus: According to the judicial interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the American Constitution, a corporation is a person. But what kind of person is it? Given its disregard for the law, endangerment of life and environment, and refusal to accept responsibility for its actions, the producers conclude that the corporation is psychopathic.

The Corporation scores a few good points: corporate arrogance, multinational corporations operating outside the law, exploitation of Third World and child labour, the pervasiveness of advertising, patents on life forms and even human genome information, the selling of "terminator seeds" that prevent farmers from saving seed from season to season, and privatization of the water supply. Specially singled out for special attention is Monsanto, which has brought us such fine products as Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH), genetically modified wheat, and Agent Orange.

On the other hand, the whole tenor of the documentary is anti-corporation and anti-capitalist. A lengthy segment discusses the suppression by Fox News of an investigative report on Monsanto and rBGH produced by Steve Wilson and Jane Akre. While focusing on Fox's cover-up of a story that was in the public interest to report because it would affect their bottom line, the producers overlook the fact that Wilson and Akre were able to sue the same corporate entity for dismissing them in retaliation. Similarly, "Big Tobacco" could not be sued, nor could polluting oil companies be prosecuted, if it were not for the same legal standing that is the subject of this documentary's criticism. Focusing on the cons while ignoring the pros is unbalanced. A short sequence about Arcata, California's drive to ban chain restaurants from the city also appears to paint even small business owners unsympathetically.

Something like 40 different talking heads appear in this film to give their opinion: CEOs, lawyers, activists, economists, and others. Two people get significantly more "face time" than others. The first of these is linguist-turned-activist Noam Chomsky - not surprising, since he was the subject of Manufacturing Consent, the documentary that launched Mark Achbar's career. The second person was not so wise a choice: Michael Moore, who is not an expert on corporations or economics, but a like-minded filmmaker. His inclusion seems less like informed commentary than incest. Ironically, toward the end of the documentary he cackles in a most capitalistic fashion about using major corporations to distribute his films, which preach against what they stand for.

Overall, for a leftist screed, The Corporation is intelligent and, for the most part, balanced. However, at nearly two and a half hours, it is longer than it needs to be and tends toward the pedantic.