Unlike probably nearly every other critic, I did not attend San Andreas predisposed to hate it, or scoff at it, or rag on it. The disaster movie is one of my favorite film genres, although producers and directors seldom seem up to the task of putting together the right magic ingredients. Aside from several examples in the 1930s and a couple in the 1970s, producers almost never get it right. But somehow I’ve managed not to become jaded and I keep hoping.
I am a sucker for the spectacle of course. (Does it surprise you that I am a fan of apocalyptic destruction? “Destroy them all”, that’s my motto). I’ve watched even the bad examples of the genre dozens of times on the strength of special effects alone. And, as I anticipated, San Andreas will be another I’ll have to file in that category.
Let me be clear: my praise for this element is not faint. The film has grossed $287 million at the box office to date for a reason and that reason is the ride. First Hoover Dam breaks and then both Los Angeles and San Francisco are destroyed, not once but several times. And then, after every single building has fallen down, a 300 ft tsumani puts the coup de grace to San Francisco. Director Brad Peyton (and his special effects people) are to be commended — highly commended — for the technical achievement. These astounding events look real. I can provide you with a very long list of films in which such spectacles look phony (or at least like a video game).
But there are even more positive things to say about Peyton’s direction (in fact I have nothing negative to say about Peyton’s direction at all.) He got really good performances out of the cast. This is not to be shrugged at. In fact, the acting in most disaster movies is generally blown off, mostly, I assume, because the scripts are so terrible, or because the director doesn’t think the acting is the most important element, or important at all. In Roland Emmerich’s films, for example, we are clearly never meant to take any of it seriously. But I assure you, actors, when the script is terrible that is when we need you the most.
Peyton seems to get this, and I know it’s he who’s responsible because I saw several really good performances by actors who were investing their cardboard parts with serious emotions, enough to involve me despite the many flaws we’ll soon get to. I am in particular awe of Paul Giamatti. I am ANYWAY, but nothing I have ever seen him do — Sideways, American Splendor, John Adams — impressed me as much as how much he gives to his role in this film as a Cal Tech seismology professor. Truly, he could have just shown up and mouthed his words, as so many do, but he goes all out, he affects you, he gives appropriate reactions to unprecedented events — he imagines what those might be and he goes there. Most actors in similar roles underplay it to an absurd degree. And, at the other end of the talent scale, I found myself really impressed with The Rock a.k.a Dwayne Johnson, and I’m not being arch or ironic. I had no idea he could do what he does in this movie, but right before your eyes, he does it. He’s giving a real performance, a moving, convincing performance. Are we grading on a scale? Maybe, but that doesn’t matter. It is a positive take-away from this movie. He’s a former professional wrestler, okay? And he does a really good job of acting in this movie.
So, it’s very well directed, very well acted…but?
There’s a little thing called a story and a little thing called a script. Back in the day when novelists and playwrights used to undertake such tasks (granted, under supervision of producers), the movies made by Hollywood weren’t so utterly idiotic. It’s really to the credit of Peyton and the cast that they carried me along despite the idiocies of the script. Actually, they’re not just idiocies. They were idiocies when they were first committed many decades ago. Now they are repeated idiocies, copies of idiocies, and to be so functionally bankrupt as to commit them you either have to be completely cynical (I believe that) or completely illiterate and retarded (I also believe that). Now when I say “novelists” and “playwrights” I’m not suggesting we do Chekhov here, okay? Hollywood people always jump immediately to this conclusion. The thing still is what it is. I am not suggesting that people run around spouting Shakespeare. But I am suggesting that they at least be people. Or that the producers don’t advertise it as a “movie”. Just call it what it is, a “3-D thrill ride”. That’s totally okay. That’s essentially what this is. Not only would I not dislike that, I would fully embrace it with enthusiasm — if it were 5 to 15 minutes long and in an amusement park.
But this a feature. This is a point I keep trying to make in the field of comedy. Feature length films were invented for a specific reason — you don’t actually have to make them. Many’s the time it would be preferable for a film to be vastly shorter (e.g., most comedies of the sillier sort). Why stretch out something that ought to be 20 minutes or a half hour to four times that length? Initially features were devised by guys like Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith to prove that movies could be a medium for grown-ups…naturally, so they could sell tickets to grown-ups, in addition to the children and uneducated adults who had previously made up most of the movie going audience at nickelodeons. Length and prestige were related. It was thought that greater length would be appreciated if it were justified — by having some of the weight and authority of a play or novel. Now, obviously, pretty quickly B movies and the like came along not long after that, though I hasten to observe that most of those don’t run much over an hour, and were marketed as what they were, essentially children’s entertainment. But I’m not entirely sure we even make grown-ups even more, so maybe there’s no point in articulating what I’m attempting to say.
If the destruction is enough for you, read no further. You’re a psychopath, we have nothing in common, go away. I won’t deny that I am attracted by the spectacle of the destruction, but I also want to feel something. Something quite normal. I want to be involved in some people’s stories. If something good happens to them, I’ll feel happy. If something bad happens to them, I’ll feel sad. If you’re the kind of person who loves the stabbings in slasher movies instead of hoping the hero can thwart them and avoid them, take your sickness far, far away from me. I agree with certain time-honored theorists of the drama that anything that conditions us to empathy is good; anything that conditions us to callousness is bad. So we need human characters who bear some relation (SOME relation) to the ones we encounter outside the theatre.
Important to assert right here and now that this is not to dismiss fantasy, in fact quite the opposite. All the best stories are a potent mix of both realism and fantasy. Realism without fantasy, outside of the hands of a rare few geniuses, is boring. But so, to a lesser degree, is fantasy without realism. Why is The Exorcist one of the scariest horror films? The special effects are mighty cool but they are especially effective because great care was taken first to establish the world that was to be disrupted. The Mad Marchioness and I watched the 2004 prequel recently Exorcist: The Beginning. Rubbish from beginning to end. Because there was not a single moment to sink your teeth into.
The realism of the disaster in San Andreas is terrific, and I will undoubtedly watch the film many times on this score. I know Peyton is drawing from reality for the visuals, because you can see it on screen. He’s incorporating stuff we have learned from awful real disasters – I saw images in the film that were clearly inspired by 9-11, the 2004 tsunami, Katrina and every earthquake since the invention of the motion picture camera.
As I wrote in my piece about the Poseidon remake, most Hollywood films in recent decades (let alone most disaster films) reflect what I’m beginning to call the Fascist Imperative. The heroes are not ordinary and “called”, like Luke Skywalker, or Roy Scheider in Jaws or Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. They are impervious, invulnerable aristocrats, demi-gods and superheroes. Instead of rooting for people like us to make it out alive, we are asked to root for the powerful to remain powerful, while we perversely look on in gratitude. If you’re sucker enough to do that, more power to you.
Make no mistake about it: in the world of San Andreas, we would be among the millions of dead. But I sure am glad this LAFD helicopter rescue pilot (Johnson) used his special skills (and public equipment) to rescue his own family! Indeed this may be the most unself-consciously selfish “heroism” movie to date. First Johnson uses his copter to rescue his wife (Carla Gugino) and ONLY his wife from the roof of a crumbling skyscraper. Then later, he uses a boat to rescue his daughter (Alexandria Daddario) and her two friends (Hugo Johnstone–Burt and Art Parkinson) from a flooded building. The moral at the end of the film is quite literally, “Too bad everyone else is dead, but I sure am glad our own family is alive and together!”
Blatant moral bankruptcy permeates the film. In one scene, Johnson and Gugino join some looters in taking what they need from a mall. I guess it’s supposed to be okay because they’re the heroes? In another scene, Daddario takes some supplies out of a fire truck, since she has some insider knowledge about what’s stored there. Uh…mightn’t the FIREFIGHTERS need that stuff while they’re doing their jobs? Do you people not get that it’s not okay just to TAKE stuff because you think you need it? Everyone else needs it, too. What do you plan to do? Fight them for it, like an animal? That happens to be the logical real-world outcome.
To its credit, the film makes one populist gesture in the direction of egalitarianism in the person of a predictably villainous real estate developer (Ioan Gruffudd), who like Richard Chamberlain in Towering Inferno or like Martin Ferrero (“the bloodsucking lawyer”) in Jurassic Park “gets his”. He is punished for looking after his own skin…right before the hero of the film saves his own family and no one else (except a couple of people who happen to be standing next to his family).
But whether the heroes are selfish are not, why are they WHO they are? I wrote about this in my Poseidon piece, but I reiterate: Why are the heroes in these fucking movies professional rescuers, television personalities and the world’s foremost seismology experts? This is the true expression of fascism. For me, the existence of this disaster itself is more than enough fantasy. This thing happens. Why can’t it happen to some PEOPLE, some ordinary, bewildered humans who must try against all odds to figure out how to survive? An accountant, a deli owner, a student, a boy and his dog? Instead of following what happens to the BEST EQUIPPED people to survive on planet earth? Ya know what? I’M NOT WORRIED ABOUT THOSE PEOPLE. In fact, those are the EXACT FOUR PEOPLE I am NOT worried about. Why are we following the exploits of the people we are NOT worried about?
And in this case, one of them isn’t even a man: he’s a SUPERHERO.
You know how I know we don’t need to worry about our very short list of main characters? Because NONE OF THEM DIE during this crazy disaster, where every building in California collapses. Okay, one of them dies. An international seismology expert (Will Yun Lee) dies as a consequence of his spectacular, almost superhuman rescue of a small child. And by implication, several million other people die. But we don’t see them, we don’t meet them. This too seems like an expression of narcissicism. It’s collateral damage. It’s peripheral to our objective. I’ll bet you anything the studio marketing department gets audience response cards that tells them the audience doesn’t like it when the main characters die. The lesson? It’s okay when strangers die; as long as nothing bad must ever happen to US. Oh, wait! One of the characters dies. The Rock’s daughter drowns, but then the Rock brings her back to life. What a shock that was! Whew!
Which brings us from the crimes against morality to the crimes against the brains God gave us. I knew what we were in for from the film’s very first frames when we got a title that read:
San Fernando Valley (18 miles north of Los Angeles)
This is one of those movies that assumes we don’t have a brain in our heads and that we know nothing. Or perhaps it merely hopes that we don’t. Otherwise we’d notice things. It’s the kind of a movie where a team of seismologists discover a new process for predicting earthquakes…at the very INSTANT an unprecedentedly large earthquake is about to strike. And then it strikes while the seismologists are standing on the very vulnerable Hoover Dam. And then TV reporter Archie Panjabi (Bend It Like Beckham) is with The Rock in his helicopter when he performs a spectacular rescue and is THEN with Paul Giamatti throughout the entire earthquake experience.
And THEN The Rock just happens to be flying over in a helicopter when his wife is standing at the top of a building. And then he and his wife travel to the destroyed San Francisco to save the daughter (“Let’s go bring back our daughter” they say about five times) and not only do they actually FIND HER, they actually find her at the exact moment her life needs to be saved, and then they actually SAVE her, because well, The Rock just happens to be a professional life saver. If you buy this bullshit you must have a brain the size of a pea.
And worse, they build in all this family redemption horseshit. I don’t know which film school teaches them all that you have to have this, but it has now led several generations of producers and screenwriters up a garden path that leads all the way up their assholes. So not only all that stuff above, but The Rock and his wife are about to be divorced because he is totally wrapped up in his work and too emotionally distant because of THE PREVIOUS DAUGHTER HE WAS UNABLE TO SAVE WHEN SHE DROWNED. But good thing everything west of Nevada was destroyed in an earthquake TO BRING THIS ONE FAMILY TOGETHER. That’s really what happens in this movie!
And then some self-congratulatory propaganda when American soldiers and rescue workers do terrific mop up afterwards. Heckuva job, Brownie!
Haha, and in the last scene, the family stands on this high hill surveying a completely devastated San Francisco, sort of mildly bummed, and one of them goes, “Look at that.” And THEN! I swear I mouthed the next dialogue even as it happened! :
So…I can’t say enough bad things about the script. But I’ll undoubtedly watch the film again and again to see California fall into the ocean…especially the part of California containing the screenwriters of this movie.
Don’t worry too much about earthquakes, people. What you need to worry about is earthquake movies.