I love big stupid disaster movies. I’ve been a fan of them ever since the ’70’s, when Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure and Earthquake marked the high points in what was something of a golden age of disaster. All these movies were about terrible events, with lots of death and destruction and very high death counts, which we weren’t supposed to worry about much because, after all, characters played by movie stars are the only human beings that matter. Really, though, the movies were about showcasing whatever passed for state-of-the-art special effects.
Earthquake, for example, featured sensurround. It made it feel like that theater was actually shaking, accomplished by using low level bass, low enough that you couldn’t hear it, but only feel it. It was awesome, but impractical; there weren’t enough movies that used it, and it was expensive to install in theaters. It was used, I remember, in the 1979 Battlestar Gallactica movie. I remember how cool it was, to feel like your seat was shaking.
No sensurround, alas, for San Andreas, though there was tons of CGI. They had to plausibly film the destruction of Hoover Dam, downtown Los Angeles, and all of San Francisco, after all. That’s a lot of destruction, and a lot of people killed. But all those dead people don’t matter, because Dwayne Johnson’s family is in danger, and has to be saved. And that becomes the only thing we’re supposed to care about.
I have many many friends in LA. I love San Francisco, and have enjoyed my fair share of ballgames out there in China Basin. I would care a lot if both cities got clobbered. So would you; so would everyone. There are millions of people in those cities–strangers to me, but fellow sojourners on this rock. Obviously a real life 9.6 clobbering both places would be an unimaginable catastrophe. Unimaginable, except, of course, we do get to imagine it; we have to imagine it, after we’ve laid down our eight bucks for tickets and taken our seats.
To deal with the story as quickly as possible, Dwayne Johnson plays Ray, a firefighter/helicopter rescue specialist. His wife, Emma (Carla Gugino) has filed for divorce, and has moved in with her new squeeze, Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd), while daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) heads off to college. An opening scene shows Ray helping a young woman who has managed to drive her car off a cliff and onto a mountain ledge–Ray, of course, manages a last-second rescue. But life on the home front is nothing but one long humiliation, though he manages to be civil to oily architect Daniel.
Meanwhile, a seismologist named Lawrence (Paul Giamatti) has figured out how to predict big earthquakes, and is being interviewed by a TV reporter, Serena (Archie Punjabi) about it. That’s the big subplot. I can only hope that Giamatti got paid a lot of money.
Anyway, the big one hits. And it destroys Hoover Dam (without killing Lawrence, because he’s a seismologist, and therefore able to know exactly how close to the dam he can safely stand as it collapses). And his magic predicting system tells him that first LA and then San Francisco are going to get clobbered. Which he has to figure out how to tell everyone, so the authorities can evacuate both towns.
I imagine the producers’ thinking here was; why wipe out one iconic American city when we can have double the fun by wiping out two? In any event, Ray, flying around on his helicopter, is able to find the LA building where Emma is having lunch with, I think, Daniel’s horrendously bitchy ex (Kylie Minogue, having way too much fun). So Ray snatches Emma off the top of a skyscraper just before it collapses. And they’re back together.
Awkwardly. See, Ray’s problem is that he can’t express his feelings. That’s why Emma’s divorcing him; he’s uncommunicative. Because their other daughter died, and he blames himself. So when he breaks through and cries a little, Emma feels so much better about him. That was the first time I laughed out loud in the movie. See, in a movie in which Los Angeles California has been reduced to rubble (with how many millions dead?), what we really care about is Dwayne Johnson weeping for us, over a previous dead daughter.
But, see, they still have a living daughter, and Ray and Emma, now united, have to rescue her too. But San Francisco is a ways off. So they ditch the helicopter, steal a truck, ditch it, steal an airplane, and finally ditch it too and parachute onto the field at AT%T Park. That enables them to steal a boat, and drive around the waterfront looking for their daughter, who really, genuinely, could be anywhere in the city.
It turns out, though, that Dastardly Daniel has ditched her. She was in his limo, it got smushed, and rather than get her out, he scarpers. But never mind, two cute British brothers, Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and Ollie (Art Parkinson) get her out of the car, and off the three of them go, looking for Mom and Dad, and also dodging various collapsing buildings.
But what brings them all together, Mom, Dad, Blake and Brits, is a tsunami. Never mind that tsunamis only happen at subduction faults, which San Andreas is not. San Francisco gets a big one. In fact, that’s what destroys the Golden Gate Bridge–not the earthquake, but a cargo ship which the tsunami smacks the bridge with (incidentally, also crushing Dungbeetle Daniel). Meanwhile, Ray and Emma are in their boat, driving around flooded streets, where they just happen to see the one big building in which their daughter has taken refuge.
We’re close to the end of the movie now, so BELATED SPOILER ALERT. But when Ray rescues Blake, it’s too late. She’s already died. Drowned. No big deal, as it turns out; death in these movies is more an annoyance than, you know, The End. He CPRs her back to life, and she’s fine. And all ready to hook up with Ben the Cute Brit.
But that’s not the ending. No, the ending was the final time I laughed out loud in this ridiculous movie. Dwayne Johnson stands on a hill overlooking the Bay. We see an American flag wave (hanging from the Golden Gate wreckage). And Carla Gugino says “What do we do now?” And he says, solemnly, “We rebuild.” And the camera flies upward, and we see destroyed San Francisco from, yes, God’s POV. ‘Cause, see, He approves of optimistic American pluckiness in the face of disaster. (Which, sorry, He sort of caused. Isn’t He in charge of earthquakes?)
It’s a ludicrously terrible movie, even before its final moment of blasphemy, and that’s why my wife and I went to see it; we were in the mood for craptacular. San Andreas did not disappoint, really at any level. It’s a movie about the wholesale deaths of millions of people, that manages to leave us completely unmoved, because Dwayne Johnson’s character’s daughter survived (and even acquires a new boyfriend. Yay!) But that’s what we expected. It’s a good thing that these movies are so cheesy. Better movies would leave us utterly devastated. These things have to be formulaic and stupid. The acting has to be mediocre, the stories preposterous, the dialogue, comically idiotic.
Otherwise, we couldn’t bear it.