Polar Storm (2009)
Directed by: Paul Ziller
Starring: Jack Coleman, Holly Dignard, Tyler Johnston, Terry David Mulligan, Roger Cross
When it comes to the scientific foundations of disaster film plots, you usually don’t expect much in terms of accuracy. And fair enough — it’s all about entertainment, after all, and as long as whatever fanciful crisis/solution the screenwriter has dreamed up is presented somewhat credibly within the context of the film, that’s fine. When the science is so obviously bogus that it actually pops out of the movie to poke you in the eye, then you have a problem. But then again, that kind of nonsense will sometimes add a measure of unintended hilarity to the story that actually increases the fun. Polar Storm is such a film. In most respects it’s a run-of-the-mill SyFy disaster cheapie, but the absurdities of the script makes it surprisingly entertaining.
Dr. James Mayfield (Jack Coleman, maybe best known as Claire’s dad/HRG in Heroes) is a brilliant astrophysicist tracking a large comet passing Earth. However, the comet breaks apart and a large chunk of rock hits Alaska. While his assistant dies in the blast, Dr. James miraculously escapes unhurt and goes back to his new wife and his morose teenage son.
Soon enough, James realizes that something weird is going on. The sun sets in the wrong place, auroras appear where they shouldn’t and earthquakes begin to rock the western United States. The conclusion is obvious (to James, if no-one else): the impact has tilted the Earth’s axis and we are headed towards a “catastrophic pole reversal”, which will feature terrible seismic upheavals. The appearance of “mini-poles” across the planet’s surface along with massive electromagnetic pulses herald the complete disintegration of the Earth’s magnetic field, which will leave us unprotected from solar radiation. It seemed to me that Dr. James was talking about one thing while the actual plot went down another road, but I probably just missed one of the incredibly scientific explanations. And hey — I’ve heard that ambiguity is a good thing in art, anyway.
While Jack goes off to save the Earth (and patch up his relationship with his estranged dad, who happens to be an army general and counsel to the president), his wife and annoying son head for safety, encountering various dangers along the way. The randomly occurring EMP strikes knock out communications and fry all electronic equipment, killing anyone using it (and providing a couple of fun scenes where random extras get hilariously electrocuted). It also sets off sudden earthquakes, one of which opens a crack in the ground that swallows Jack’s wife.
So, how to stop the magnetic mayhem? Well, disaster movies teach us that there’s nothing that can’t be solved by exploding a few nukes, and Polar Storm is no exception. Jack gets this “crazy idea” that you can reverse the polar shift with a 100 megaton nuclear blast in “the opposing hemisphere”. The first attempt is airborne, but unlike the protagonists, we in the audience still remember that the freak EMPs kill all electronics, and we are thus not very surprised when the bomber is knocked out of the sky.
Instead, Jack singelhandedly decides that the best place to deploy the bombs is in the Marianas trench. Since the U.S. is fresh out of submarines, an old Russian diesel sub is rounded up, along with a crew commanded by a Vladimir Putin lookalike (well, kind of). This piece of junk then rapidly descends to the deepest point on Earth, with nary a creak from the hull (as opposed to the state-of-the-art subs in war/spy films that spring leaks at only a couple of thousand metres). The climax, as the sub tries to outrun the nuclear blast, is suitably ridiculous. If you’ve seen Deep Core you can guess the general idea…
To be honest, I was a bit surprised to find Polar Storm as entertaining as I did. While the script is generic, predictable and ridiculous in equal measures, the execution is decent. The pacing is fine: the film opens with back-to-back action sequences and offers a nice amount of disaster incidents along the way (though the recurring EMP-flashes get a bit old after a while), and at least a few secondary characters are killed on-screen. My favorite demise is when the teenaged son prepares to settle a dispute with a classmate in a dragrace: as the two boys rev their engines, an earthquake strikes and the ground cracks open to swallow the villain and his car.
Still, it does show that this is a low-budget effort, particularly in some action scenes. The visual effects are of average TV movie quality, but creative camera angles can’t hide the fact that in reality there isn’t much going on. Much of the plot, particularly concerning the wife and son, take place out on deserted roads, reducing the need to spend unnecessary money on sets or extras or such stuff. A scene where a church (commandeered as an emergency shelter) full of people is hit by an EMP is disappointingly shot as an exterior of a window, with screams on the soundtrack.
The cast is largely an appealing group of people. Some come across as a bit wooden, but I liked Roger Cross’ gravitas in the role as Another Black Disaster Film President, and Jack Coleman and Holly Dignard both do allright.
In short: I enjoyed Polar Storm more than I expected to (and perhaps more than I should). Proceed with caution, but by all means check it out.