By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 6, 2005
Although there's plenty of competition, the unintentionally funniest line of dialogue in the CBS miniseries "Category 7: The End of the World" is part of a speech delivered near the end by Gina Gershon, playing a bodacious bureaucrat who makes a TV appearance designed to calm the fears of a storm-wracked nation.
Her words of reassurance: "FEMA is fully operational."
What alternate universe is this taking place in?
Gershon is trying to reassure America after a mad wave of blowhards -- the meteorological kind -- has made mincemeat out of Chicago, New York, Washington and Shady Grove trailer park somewhere in the Southwest.
Considering the infamous record of the real FEMA in helping victims of Hurricane Katrina, among other calamities, the speech sounds like a sick joke, or a colossally oblivious government news release.
A two-part miniseries airing tonight and next Sunday (at 9 on Channel 9), "Category 7" is easily as big a mess as any metropolis visited by stormy weather. The script never quite decides what has caused the outbreak, at one point seeming to embrace the biblical prophecy about "the end of days" having arrived, especially when a herd of nervous frogs, some of them poisonous, go hippity-hopping all over a fashionable Washington reception.
But the frogs go away, leaving a few partygoers literally frothing at the mouth, and aren't heard from again. Instead, flies descend on a Washington office building, either as part of Armageddon or because somebody left a dumpster open out back.
Meanwhile, a hurricane is brewing in the South and tornadoes are whirling in from -- well, Tornado Junction, apparently -- and when the hurricane and the tornadoes meet, we are told, Western civilization might as well raise its hands over its head and surrender. But to whom? To Zeus, ancient god of thunderbolts? Maybe "Category 7" is an attempt at participatory storytelling; viewers can make up their own scenarios to explain the bombastic blitz since the filmmakers don't want to commit to one.
Personally, I suspect Ming the Merciless finally has finished repairing his Death Ray and has once more aimed it at Earth from the planet Mongo, just as he did in "Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe." Oh, but that was much more sophisticated storytelling.
The United States is by no means the only target of nature's wrath, thereby eliminating the possibility that the storms are punishment for voters having twice elected George W. Bush, or at least one-and-a-half times. As the movie opens, Paris is -- how you say? -- all topsy-turvy and helter-skelter.
The city appears to have been taken over by a carnival, which continues carnivaling despite advancing tornadoes. Drunken soccer players rush onto the troisime tage of the Eiffel Tower, apparently because they yearn to be trapped among twisted wreckage. Soon, one of these bozos is not just dangling over the edge but also flying from it like a flag. Lightning strikes everywhere, yet the soccer goofs -- and, worse, an irritating mime -- survive unstruck.
Although French meteorologists are meeting within sight of the tornadoes, they don't seem to be aware of the funnel clouds until they get a phone call from their colleagues in the United States. No sooner do they open the curtains to take a peek when a giant clown's head comes flying toward them, crashing through the glass and demolishing much of the furniture. Sac re blew!
If this whirlwind of a beginning sounds like fun, it isn't. The miniseries is deadeningly relentless with its constant crashings and bashings, and during those few moments when there's no storm on-screen, director Dick Lowry whirls and twirls his camera around anyway, just to keep up a sense of meaningless movement. Never mind ordering a pizza; if you're intent on watching, you might want to have airsick bags on hand for everybody in the room.
If we must go through yet another massive disaster movie, CBS at least could have made it a funsy, entertaining apocalypse. But the title is baldly misleading; the world does not end, or even come close, but instead takes a licking and keeps on ticking. As for entertainment value, the miniseries is about as enjoyable as toenail fungus or that sickening commercial for its cure. The only people who appear to have enjoyed themselves in this endeavor are the boys and girls of the special-effects department. They have their fill of field days depicting the crumpling of the Eiffel Tower, the defacement of Mount Rushmore (literally -- a face falls off and tumbles down the mountainside) and, of course, the utter obliteration of the Shady Grove trailer park.
They also dismantle the Statue of Liberty, once a universally beloved symbol of freedom but in the past few years a mere toy for disaster movies to play kaboom with. Couldn't we declare the gigantic yet graceful statue off-limits to those who traffic in made-up tsunamis and hurricanes, at least for a few years? The statue sank in "Independence Day" and it sank in "The Day After Tomorrow," and in "Category 7" it not only sinks but comes apart, the arm bearing the torch being severed before the whole statue is unceremoniously submerged.
There's something morbidly ironic, or at least morbid and ironic, about a society that watched in horror as the twin towers of the World Trade Center were vaporized by vicious terrorists and now is entreated to spend two Sunday evenings being "entertained" by views of the Statue of Liberty drowning in a flood and various other icons being blown to the proverbial kingdom come. And none of the characters takes even a moment to comment upon the carnage, to take note of how sad or tragic it is.
"Category 7" doesn't engage any emotions. Its subject is its own special effects, and it's not so much a movie as a blurry, whirling swirl of detonations and decimations. It's a perverse kind of anti-musical in which production numbers have been replaced by destruction numbers.
CBS seems to be specializing in sequels to horrific movies that nobody quite remembers. The network recently aired "Bats," which it proudly trumpeted was from the production team that gave us "Locusts." Oh? When was that? "Category 7: The End of the World" is the sequel, more or less, to "Category 6: Day of Destruction," which aired in the November sweeps of one year ago. As it happens, the original was better and more respectable than the sequel partly because it concentrated on a few major catastrophes instead of just tossing trailers and cars and buildings all over the place. "Category 7" is a terrorist's travelogue.
But even that might not be the crux of the problem. It's just one of several cruxes. The others involve the stumbling subplots that stop the miniseries cold, send it sprawling and frequently turn it ludicrous. One of these achy-breaky arcs involves James Brolin and Swoosie Kurtz as a white-maned evangelist and his wife, both of whom see the global plague as something straight out of the Book of Revelation -- and as a chance to rake in more money than ever at the box office. And the Web site.
From out of nowhere comes another subplot, this one about terrorists kidnapping the offspring of prominent Washington figures as they are being bused to the relative safety of Greenbrier, that plush and cushy retreat in the West Virginia countryside. The hostages keep almost escaping and the kidnappers keep rounding them up. Meanwhile, back in the nation's capital, brave meteorologists, working with those geniuses from FEMA, struggle night after night in search of an explanation for the superstorms.
Fortunately, the chief genius, a mavericky upstart named Ross Duffy (Cameron Daddo), experiences a teakettle epiphany that comes close to saving the day.
Duffy is recruited from retirement by Judith Carr, the new chief of FEMA, played by the sinfully beautiful Gershon. Conveniently enough, Duffy's daughter just happens to be dating Carr's son. And Carr's father (pudgy Robert Wagner) happens to be a senator whose office, it appears, is in the National Archives building. The only elected official left in Washington, he spends hours on the phone warning foreign capitals of the fantastic blasts on the way. In an age of global telecommunications and satellites, you'd think they might have other ways of hearing that news.
Back from "Category 6" is Randy Quaid, again overplaying the role of Tornado Tommy, a yahoo weather redneck who likes chasing storms. This time, though, he is teamed with, and encumbered by, Shannen Doherty as another of the assembled experts. Quaid and Doherty have to be TV's new oddest couple, and when a cockeyed romance blossoms in the stratosphere, it's almost impossible to suppress giggles.
Apparently the only thing that can save the day is data. Data, data -- we must have more data! Reams and streams of data. "Come on, come on, we need that data," someone barks. "We have the data!" Carr exclaims. "The data is still being processed," says someone else. So never mind the data Tom Skerritt is collecting from a jet plane that keeps him aloft for almost the entire film.
What in heck does the all-important data say? It reminded me of a great Bob Hope and Bing Crosby romp, "Road to Rio," in which all the characters pursue "the papers," which supposedly incriminate just about everybody. At the end of the picture, Crosby gets the papers, scans them, then tears them up. Hope asks what was in them. Crosby says, "The world must never know."
"Road to Rio," however, was a comedy on purpose. "Category 7" is a farce by accident. It's a muddle, a fiasco and a travesty, but hey, it's not the end of the world.