Take a plot that amounts to Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom minus the dinosaurs. Throw in a couple of known Western names - director Simon West and actor Jason Isaacs - to help it get some profile in Western media, then shoot a film with lots of dodgy CGI and a plot that eschews any hint of irony or complexity in favour of a thrill ride showing people caught in a disaster working together for the most part, and the Chinese production company give us just over 90 minutes of undemanding silliness that is just what I was in the mood for yesterday evening.
Isaacs plays a debt-burdened Australian tycoon who has put together a project that built a resort on an island right next to an active volcano and hopes that the deal he's about to close as the film starts will clear his debts. It may not come as a complete surprise to you to learn that by the time the plot plays out, his company is destined to be tied up in court for a decade or two, if it's even got enough money worth pursuing in court.
Nobody is winning any awards for their acting here. Basically, we get a bunch of pretty but bland actors who are utterly unknown to Western audiences. After fifteen to twenty minutes of setting up relationships - the primary thread is that we have a heroine whose geologist mother was killed on this same island twenty-odd years ago during an earlier eruption, and who is now herself a geologist running a project to monitor the volcano using an array of sensors, but who can't persuade Jason Isaacs' tycoon to delay the next phase to let her continue studying what's going on to make sure it's safe - the volcano erupts and everyone gets to run/drive around dodging CGI fireballs and toxic clouds of hot gas and contending with some very dodgy physics. It's laughable stuff, but no more laughable than it was when they added CGI dinosaurs and had various directors give us Jurassic Park sequels at umpteen times the budget, or when a different Chinese production company gave us Jason Statham (plus a few other names better-known in the West) versus a really big, ancient shark-ancestor in The Meg.
Basically, this branch of the Chinese film industry seems to have mastered delivering undemanding blockbuster-lite fare.1 The nicest surprise was that in the podcast they referred to this being something we could get from Amazon for US$10 and said there are plenty of other things we all drop that sum on in these desperate-for-entertainment times, yet when I went to Amazon Prime Video it cost me just £1.99 to add it to my Video Library. The exchange rate hasn't plunged that far in a couple of days, so I have no idea whether this is different pricing strategies in different markets or just a mistake.
So, Chinese producers are starting to push out basic, palatable-yet-unhealthy junk at the Western market. It's a strategy that served McDonalds well in a very different field, so we'll see how it does in the world of film.
- I suspect that until the Asian stars and starlets turn out to have a following in Western media, Hollywood and British studios won't get too worried about this. I didn't spot this until afterwards when I visited the IMBD, but our Taiwanese-Australian female lead here was also in Skyscraper alongside The Rock the year before this was released. I didn't notice her in that, and unless she ends up playing English-language roles I very much doubt I'll ever notice her when next I see her. The language barrier doesn't render CGI-heavy work like this unintelligible in other languages, but it's still liable to be a barrier to further progress outside of the cheap-but-cheerful fast food market this film operates in. To some extent, stretching a film's reach by adding CGI is mostly a sign of how cheap basic CGI has got, if you're not too picky about breaking new ground. That's not what anyone is trying to do here, so everyone's moderately happy. ↩