By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 21, 2006
Less than two weeks after ABC's bird-flu epidemic wiped out millions around the globe, about 10 days since "Poseidon" sailed into financial disaster at the box office, and two years since the bombastic miniseries "10.5" sawed off a large portion of Southern California and sent it out to sea, well, guess what?
Starting at 9 tonight on NBC, Hawaii is swooshed by a tsunami, George Washington's face falls off Mount Rushmore, Mount St. Helens spews anew, Las Vegas sinks into the sand and a giant fault line stretching from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico threatens to divide the nation -- indeed, all of North America. Literally.
Goodness gracious, leapin' lizards, hoochie mama and Land of Goshen! It's getting to the point where a person fears opening the front door -- or rather, clicking on one's wonderful magical picture box. Having somehow concluded that its apocalyptic "10.5" -- which aired for the May Sweeps of 2004 -- wasn't apocalyptic enough, NBC has cooked up a still corkier corker for the May Sweeps of 2006 and called it "Apocalypse 10.5," just so no one can possibly miss the apoca-point. (As with the original, the film is divided into two parts, the second half airing Tuesday night -- same time, same station, pretty much same everything.)
How goes the apocalypse? It's no Tupperware party on the patio. NBC has ratcheted up, amped up and hokied up the dire circumstances to eye-bulging, jaw-dropping and, mostly, rib-tickling extremes. Earthquake here, flash flood there, cars vanishing into sinkholes down yonder and, it reasonably can be surmised, a veritable pandemic in tension headaches from sea to shining sea. They are still shining, aren't they?
Through it all, no matter how seemingly hopeless, or numerous, the catastrophes, Kim Delaney, returning in the superwoman seismologist role of Dr. Samantha Hill that she played in "10.5," rolls up her sleeves, undoes a button or two of her blouse and starts barking orders faster than an auctioneer hawking pork bellies. Not only does her team spring into action in record spring time, but the folks at FEMA also perform magnificently, supplemented in their epic endeavors by an array of newly formed volunteer rescue teams.
Those teams might be wet behind the ears, but they're still, uhhhh, tall in the saddle? Dry in the saddle? Sorry -- all the screaming, shouting and camera-jiggling tends to boggle the brain. Or maybe just numb it into a sort of satiated sleep-state. Actually, the calamities and catastrophes occur with such frequency and ferocity that, yes, indeed, "Apocalypse 10.5" suffers the curse of being unintentionally funny -- even hilarious -- no matter how guilty one might feel about laughing even as hordes of extras are being turned into Kentucky Fried People.
The script is credited to director John Lafia. It plays more like a team effort, and it's easy to imagine such a team sitting or pacing around a room and roaring with laughter as it tosses out wild ideas -- how about, Niagara Falls catching fire, or the St. Louis Gateway Arch breaking loose and rolling all the way to Milwaukee? Those things don't happen in the film, but they might as well. Roll that clip, Hal!
First rescue worker: "Bald Mountain? That's an extinct volcano."
Second rescue worker: "Not anymore!"
Bald Mountain itself: "Rumble-rumble-rumble, gurgle-gurgle-gurgle."
In addition to membership in the league of tacky disaster films, "Apocalypse 10.5" is also what might be called a Meanwhile Movie. Waikiki is girding for the wave to end all waves, citizens panicking and authorities cautioning calm, when, meanwhile, in Sun Valley, Idaho, skiers on a lift quiver and shiver as the earth below them suffers the geological equivalent of terminal burping. Meanwhile, in the Southwest's Monument Valley, a Native American unloading bales of hay finds it a trifle unnerving when his horsie goes cuckoo and heads for the hills and, meanwhile, the desert sand beneath the Indian's feet suddenly turns soppy.
There are more disasters in the first five minutes -- many reprised from the first film -- than in a half-dozen normal disaster movies. But quality trumps quantity even in goofy disaster movies. More genuine dread and suspense is generated in the first five minutes of "The Day After Tomorrow," a truly great nightmare movie that pops up on pay-cable channels, than in "10.5" and "Apocalypse 10.5" put together. And multiplied times 10.5.
It might be safe to assume that the film's creators had no intention of anyone but the most wildly gullible viewers taking it seriously. Beau Bridges, for instance, returning in the role of the president of the United States, is so achingly earnest -- such a pained and pudgy pillar of cornball concern -- that he gets more ludicrous with each aggravated appearance. The role is a lazy actor's dream; he gets to spend nearly the whole miniseries in one room, the movie's version of Camp David, fielding reports from hither and yon. One of the yons happens to be Barstow, Calif., once the brunt of gibes from Johnny Carson. At regular intervals, Bridges emotes soulfully into the telephone: "I need to know we're doing everything in our power to help those survivors!"
When Las Vegas sinks into the sand -- for reasons not thoroughly explained -- one of the casinos takes Dr. Hill's cantankerous father, Dr. (of course) Earl Hill, with it. Papa, whose relationship with his daughter is rocky -- do you suppose they will reconcile tearfully by the end of the film? -- is played by Frank Langella in a performance that he can only hope is the absolute nadir of his career -- unless he gets so desperate that he accepts a part as, say, talking toilet paper in a Charmin commercial.
Papa Hill, incidentally, is supposed to be the world's greatest expert on the "accelerated state of geologic activity" that's going on. Papa Doc even wrote the book on it: "Chaos Theory and Seismic Anomalies." Thus, it seems somewhat odd that after learning of the recent collapse of Hoover Dam and the subsequent inevitable flooding, he repairs to a casino bar to dawdle over a leisurely cocktail and is surprised to feel a certain rumbling underfoot.
Dr. Hill: "Did you feel that?"
Bartender: "Feel what?"
Dr. Hill: "Oh, probably nothing."
Probably nothing? Hoover Dam is only about 35 miles from Las Vegas. But the genius goes back to his booze.
Expecting credulity from a movie this absurd is itself absurd. Lafia, who also directed the film, must have decided as he sat to write the script that it would contain not one sentence of dialogue that viewers -- at least of this kind of movie -- hadn't heard before. Little of it is spoken, of course; most of it is shouted, a la "Gotta get it on; let's go!" and "Where the hell's the backup?!" and "Something's definitely not right here!" and "I don't like the sound of that!" and "John, get out of there!" and "Come on, let's get out of here!" and "Let's get the hell out of here!" and, from one fireman to another: "Come on, man, gimme a kiss. Gimme a big, big kiss."
Oh, about that last one -- Brokeback Mountain is not the site of any catastrophes. The request for a kiss is made jokingly by Oliver Hudson as fireman Will Malloy to Dean Cain as his brother, fireman Brad Malloy. Hence, later, as a sunken casino is searched for survivors: "My brother's still down there! Brad! Brad! Brad!!!"
Voice from tumbling rubble below, presumably Brad's: "Eeeeyahhhhhhh!!!"
One has to wonder, considering the number of actual and devastating natural disasters that have battered Mother Earth during the past few years, why such films as "10.5" hold appeal for any viewers, much less the 10 million or 20 million -- depending on various circumstances -- likely to tune in (the film's first half, airing tonight, has considerably more special-effects footage than Part 2, which is essentially "Poseidon" with a sunken casino replacing an overturned ocean liner). Perhaps the phoniness of faux disasters provides relief from the terrible grimness of the real ones.
And in the "10.5" movies, FEMA, other federal agencies and, generally, all those holding political office or otherwise in charge, perform not just competently but valiantly. Their dedication to duty is exceeded only by their tireless inventive skill. Any resemblance between that and the real world, one assumes, is entirely unintentional. Even though millions die and the configuration of the continental United States is drastically altered, "Apocalypse 10.5" still manages to ring a chime of hope.
So while one could feel thoroughly confident in calling the film preposterous, ridiculous, even laughably nonsensical, you'd be on shaky ground calling it boring. It isn't, and it isn't depressing. That's two big points in its favor right there.
As for the ringing of the chime, it needs no defense. Since one hears the sound so seldom from television, it scarcely matters that it's as false as the virtual Vegas or the bogus Barstow.
Apocalypse 10.5 (four hours): Part 1 airs tonight at 9 on Channel 4; Part 2 airs Tuesday night at 9.