Remember Irwin Allen? In the 1970s and early 80s, he was the undisputed King of the Disaster Movie. Among his big-budget celluloid cataclysms were THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (a cruise ship turned upside down by a tidal wave), THE TOWERING INFERNO (a raging fire in a high-rise building), THE SWARM (a swarm of killer bees invading America), and WHEN TIME RAN OUT (a volcanic eruption on a resort island). As the disaster cycle waned, Allen turned his attention to television, where he produced a handful of smaller scale but equally bloodthirsty catastrophe epics, all with self-explanatory titles like FLOOD!, FIRE!, and CAVE-IN! These small-screen efforts are considered the weakest of his forays into the genre (though THE SWARM and WHEN TIME RAN OUT are hardly acclaimed), both the filmmaker and the viewing public having lost their enthusiasm for carnage after nearly a decade of devastation. Irwin Allen died in 1991. In spite of the mediocre quality of his later films, however, the Master of Disaster would roll over in his grave if he could see today´s crop of abysmal, Made-for-TV disaster movies. The insipid and tedious ABSOLUTE ZERO could conceivably send him spinning so fast that he might actually affect the Earth´s gravitational pull and cause a calamity worthy of one of his own films.
ABSOLUTE ZERO is the improbable tale of a sudden, global polarity shift, a climatic flip-flop worthy of John Kerry which, according the film´s convoluted logic, would turn the equator into an Arctic wasteland and the North and South Poles into tropical paradises. Predictably, only a handful of cliched characters believe that such a cataclysmic event is forthcoming, and they manage to survive numerous blunders and near misses before they are rescued and the closing credits roll. This intrepid band of two-dimensional stereotypes is lead by the pudgy Jeff Fahey, a climatologist with a conscience and a penchant for melodrama. Also along for the ride are former BAYWATCH babe and Playboy Playmate Erika Eleniak, and a bunch of people you´ve never heard of.
The acting here is as mercurial as the weather, with Fahey all over the place as he greets old friends, confronts his greedy boss, frets over the coming disaster, and tries to rally the troops. We don´t believe any of it for a minute, of course, but one supposes he deserves credit for trying. Eleniak, who is still beautiful but showing her age a bit (and not helped by terrible lighting), is fine as long as she´s not trying to evoke real pathos. When her husband is predictably killed (See, she and Fahey used to be an item, until he ran off to chase icebergs or something and she married his best friend....which, in a disaster movie, means hubby has to go!), she shows no sign of grieving for him for nearly a half an hour. When she finally does pay brief lip service to his death, she sounds more like she´s lost a dog or a pet goldfish than a life partner. Bill Dow plays Fahey´s capitalist supervisor. We know he´s a money-grubbing worm before he ever utters a single hackneyed line of dialogue, since he has the requisite sleazy, scruffy, unshaven appearance of a strip club owner coming off a three-day cocaine binge in Las Vegas. We also know instantly that he´s doomed. The only decent performance comes from Canadian actress Brittney Irvin, who plays a sarcastic science nerd. Fortunately for the rest of the cast, she undermines most of the goodwill she´s engendered from the viewer in the moment when she must convey grief over the death of her geeky lab partner and would-be suitor. Her bereavement is only slightly less convincing than the film´s dime store CG effects.
One is tempted to make a joke about ABSOLUTE ZERO being a real disaster, but real disasters are never this boring. The movie plods along at an absolutely arduous pace for almost 50 minutes before Miami begins to get cold, provides ten minutes or so of mediocre destruction footage (if one can call snow and some wind "destruction"), and then settles in for another lengthy and leaden stretch in which our heroes run up and down corridors of a building trying to get things in order and get themselves killed before holing up in a secure laboratory. There is little tension and less sense to any of it. The same plot contrivance employed to kill off the superfluous husband is also used to ensure that these people, the only ones smart enough to know disaster is coming, are also the only ones who don´t evacuate the city before the big chill arrives. It seems more than a bit farfetched that Fahey´s lab is the one and only place anywhere within 30 miles of the equator in which life can survive the Biblical-scale calamity. By the third act, it appears that all of the superior intellect employed by these characters to predict the polar shift was lost somewhere around page 45 of the script, since they stumble around clumsily in the building and commit acts of almost criminal stupidity instead of just sealing the door to the safe room and settling in for some hot cocoa. The best part of the film´s monotonous pacing is that it gave me time to think of more synonyms for "dull" than I could possibly fit into a single review.
With all of the tsunamis, hurricanes, terrorist attacks, and wildfires that have befallen our world in the last decade or so, do we really need more disaster movies anyway? I mean, there is enough real-life death and carnage being covered in gruesome detail by 24 hour news channels to satisfy even the most sadistic viewer. In the old days, at least disaster films offered enough gripping tension, aging movie stars, and absurd spectacle to keep audiences entertained for a couple of hours. Today´s home video apocalypses rarely provide any of these things, and ABSOLUTE ZERO is a perfect example of their invariable ineptitude. It was easy in the 70s to get caught up in the plight of one-note characters trapped at the bottom of the ocean in a 747 or scrambling for their lives in an earthquake of Old Testament proportions because those characters were played by decent actors and the destruction was delivered on a grand scale. But when asked to swallow the notion of a new Ice Age in Miami Beach clumsily rendered with videogame digital effects and illogically explained by D-list television stars whose names one can´t remember or never knew in the first place, a child of the information age can´t help but be put off. Old-school disaster films may not have been any more intelligent than those produced for the Sci-Fi Channel today, but the filmmakers had a sense of showmanship, and that was enough. Just like the unlikely meteorological phenomenon in ABSOLUTE ZERO, the current crop of would-be Irwin Allens invariably leave one cold.