Film * Brad Peyton * Disaster * 2015
Big, dumb disaster movies are a version of mindless romantic comedies or schlocky horror flicks. There is a set formula, nothing of particular importance is said or done, and at the end the audience can rest assured that they never have to think about what they just watched again. I will hastily point out that this is not a bad thing. Now, I have little to no interest in the latter two genres mentioned, but when it comes to big, dumb disaster movies. . . I just love them so much. If I had to guess, I would venture that I love them in much the same way. I know they’re bad. I know the acting will be wooden and the writing insipid-bordering-on-pointless. I know that some of the effects will be bad C.G. and will prematurely age the movie. I also know that I don’t give a shit about any of that mess, because The Rock just drove a boat up a tidal wave and dodged a giant ship which then went on to crash into the Golden Gate Bridge. I know disaster movies are objectively bad and largely without merit, but sometimes I just need to see a cesspool like San Francisco razed to the ground for no good reason. Suck it, tech bros!
Maybe that’s a little harsh. I haven’t been to the Bay Area in many, many years (other than “driving through” it once or twice, and by that I mean spending fourteen hours crawling through traffic to get the hell out of the Bay Area). Maybe it’s good now? Ha ha, of course it isn’t. But this line of thinking is what makes disaster movies fun. They appeal to our base instincts of watching places get smashed up real good. Usually New York is the place that gets destroyed in these things, which is fun, but I’m a West Coast guy, so I prefer my wide-scale destruction to happen in the Pacific Time Zone. Therefore, this dumb movie appeals to me right away.
The plot, like everything else here, is largely arbitrary. The set-up is essentially “hey, remember when you heard that California is going to fall into the ocean because earthquakes?” Now, that’s not entirely fair to the movie, which at least did enough scientific research to understand that the aforementioned statement isn’t a concern (the Pacific plate is moving alongside the North American plate, not away from it) Instead, the premise is that the most famous fault-line in the world lets go all at once in a series of devastating quakes. Like, 9.0+ earthquakes that go off from Los Angeles to San Francisco. That’s it. Buildings fall over, there’s a tsunami for some reason, shit blows up, The Rock is an awesome super-dad who does stunts. What else could you possibly want? For the desolate strip malls of Bakersfield to collapse into a mire of fires and looting? Good news: this movie totally has that!
San Andreas, like any large scale disaster movie, is essentially an apocalypse fantasy. The kind of disaster doesn’t really matter very much, what is important is that the formula is properly executed. First we need the hero: a blue-collar everyman who is preternaturally prepared for chaos. Here we get Dwayne Johnson in the role of the supremely capable man. He’s a veteran. He works as a rescue worker and flies a helicopter. He’s a devoted father who is going through a divorce only because he cares too much (he lost a daughter, who drowned and he just couldn’t save her). So he’s perfect. Then we need a scientist to explain to everyone what is happening, and then gets upset when nobody listens to them. San Andreas has Paul Giamatti in this role, and he’s great. Apparently he discovers how to predict earthquakes, but loses his bro/grad student when the prelude disaster kills him (and destroys Hoover Dam, which is a monument that is no real danger of earthquake-related destruction, but looks cool being destroyed so fuck it, we’ll work it in). The scientist is then able to warn everyone about the second major earthquake because he and his team scienced super hard, thus saving many lives. Finally, we need the catalyst for our hero to travel around the disaster zone. In this case, the catalyst is Alexandra Daddario (and her crazy, hypno-toad eyes) in the role of Johnson’s daughter, who is in San Francisco for reasons. As it happens, she’s super capable herself because she’s learned so much from her father about self-reliance. However, despite her strength, she is still in need of rescue by her dad. After that happens we come to the final major aspect of the formula, which is a positive ending. Yes, San Francisco is rubble that is both inundated with sea water and on fire, but we’ll rebuild, because someone put an American flag up. Hell yeah.
The idea behind the formula is to reassure the audience that we’re still Americans, despite any weird, postmodern misgivings we might be having in this current age of discontent. The characters are meant to be flat archetypes, so that we may insert ourselves more easily. The Rock is a charismatic dude, but really we want to look at him and go “yeah, if shit goes really goes down, there’s probably enough guys like that out there to fix everything.” The one wrinkle to the formula that San Andreas presents only further reinforces our feelings here. His (almost) ex-wife is seeing another man, you see. This guy is a jerk, which the movie shows us pretty much right away. The first big quake hits and he just bounces. Later he murders a guy so he can be safe. Then a ship lands on him. Mom’s Boyfriend is the yuppie foil, the character who is there to make Johnson look even more capable and imposing and reassuring. In this sense, the disaster is almost like a purge, as if the movie were telling us “hey, are you sad that San Francisco is filled with wealthy, jerk-off tech bros too? Don’t worry, when shit goes down they’ll all die because they have no real skills and we’ll rebuild the city for dudes with pickup trucks and sensible ideas about premarital sex.” I mean, okay, when presented that way these movies are kind of gross. Like the worst kind of revisionist nostalgia about how great America used to be before the Democrats took our manhood away. But, whatever. Remember when The Rock was dodging falling skyscrapers in his helicopter? Yeah, that was pretty great.