It works much better when you give a shit

A few weeks back I posted about the brilliant ONE CUT OF THE DEAD and how I thought that micro-budgeted madcap zombie meta-movie had a million times the depth and character of the boring, bloated, load of bollocks that was ARMY OF THE DEAD. It’s not a completely fair comparison, I’ll admit, but there’s a point to be made – for me to enjoy a movie, good characterisation and a cohesive plot are essential.

I saw another couple of films recently which prove the point, and that leads me to this weekend’s double movie recommendation.

I’m sure you’ve heard of GREENLAND. It’s a big budget Amazon blockbuster with a star-filled cast who find themselves staring into the abyss as the end of the world approaches. You might not, on the other hand, have heard of THE QUAKE – a Norwegian movie from a few years back which was, in fact, a sequel to THE WAVE, which I wrote about here.

Two relatively straightforward disaster movies, with two very different approaches. Can you guess which one I liked best?

On the face of it, both of the trailers sell these films in a similar way. Here, have a watch:

We get the build-up of emotion, the ominous music and titles, the sense of impending doom, and then we get a glimpse of the money shots – those crucial, climactic, effects-laden scenes that disaster movie fans love to see. I was disappointed that GREENLAND didn’t turn out to have many more money shots than those that are glimpsed in the trailer. Films like this tend to sell you the promise of an hour and a half of jaw-dropping mayhem in the trailer, then only deliver around fifteen minutes max.

I’ll be honest, I really enjoyed watching both GREENLAND and THE QUAKE. Personally, I found THE QUAKE to be a superior movie on pretty much every level. The main reason without doubt was because I cared about the characters in THE QUAKE. I could not have given one tiny shite about the fates of any of the poor folks in GREENLAND, but it was fun watching them go through hell.

The reasons for my differing reactions really interest me as a writer. Like many folks, I’m a sucker for a good disaster movie. The success of such a film is often measured in terms of its spectacle, but I think you need more than just grand set-pieces and widespread devastation.

For me, THE QUAKE is at an immediate advantage here, because it’s a sequel to another disaster movie, and we’re already well acquainted with the characters. In fact, having seen the previous movie, it makes it all the more emotional when we meet geologist Kristian and his family again, and realise that their lives have unravelled since escaping the tidal wave that devastated their home of Geiranger in Norway. That the family has fallen apart after such a nightmare is entirely plausible. Kristian, in particular, is a wreck; a shadow of the man who saved so many lives previously.

GREENLAND also features a dysfunctional family unit at its core, but the handling of the problems that have driven these folks apart is clumsy and formulaic, and you couldn’t care less if they stayed together or not. So that immediately set me off on the wrong foot – if I didn’t care about the family in the first place, was I ever going to care whether they’d survive?

But it’s not all about the characters. In films like this, does it even matter what happens to them? It could be argued that the more grief they’re put through, the more hellish situations they’re forced to endure, the better. I agree with that to an extent, but my problem with GREENLAND is that I pretty much nailed how things were going to turn out from the first few scenes. There were twists and turns and diversions along the way, but I wasn’t far off. THE QUAKE on the other hand, was far less formulaic. Our chap in GREENLAND is literally given a ticket to save him from annihilation and is simply running to find his safe place. Kristian in THE QUAKE, on the other hand, is shouting into the wind… desperately trying to warn people that something terrible is coming, but being resolutely ignored.

And that leads me onto another comparison – the scale. There’s a natural tendency for moviemakers to want to constantly up the ante, but is it really necessary? I’m not so sure. In GREENLAND, we learn pretty early on that an unstoppable event is going to wipe out all life on Earth. The stakes are therefore so high that they barely seem to matter. The inevitability and implausibility of the outcome are such that, again, I disengaged and found it hard to care. I found myself just watching for the action scenes and special effects. In comparison, THE QUAKE sees only (only!) Oslo and the surrounding area destroyed, yet there’s still plenty of spectacle, and there’s also the promise that if the cast survive the immediate chaos, they’ll still have a future. Knowing that safety is not too far away (but still temporarily out of reach), allows the viewer to invest in the family’s collective story. Who’s going to make it? What shape will they be in when this is over? What will the future hold for what’s left of them? (The irony here, of course, is that a sequel to GREENLAND has been announced, despite the whole world having been wiped out… I’ll be genuinely interested to see where the filmmakers take the story).

In my books, I’ve always tried to focus on ordinary folks trying to survive extraordinary situations. They’re easier to identify with and, as I said in the title of this post, it works much better when you give a shit. I know it’s only my opinion, but the contrast between GREENLAND and THE QUAKE has further validated this approach for me. On the face of it, these are two extremely well-made films that rely on similar tropes and tell broadly similar stories. For me, though, THE QUAKE is a far superior film that had me on the edge of my seat throughout because it felt like what happened on the screen actually mattered.

Both films are currently streaming on Amazon Prime in the UK, and I think they’re both worth your time (but please watch THE WAVE first if you’re going to watch THE QUAKE). If you’ve seen them, what are your thoughts?

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