Big dumb summer popcorn fun. But first, previews:
Ant-Man – Nothing to say about this one that I didn’t already say here.
The Gallows – Looks like another found-footage cheapie full of jump scares. Lame.
The Last Witch Hunter – Looks like stupid good fun, with too much CGI. Rather like today’s feature then, except a fantasy film, set on the East Coast, and with Vin Diesel playing The Rock.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation – I spent the whole preview trying to figure out why we were getting an Agents of Shield rip-off with Tom Cruise, before realizing it was another MI flick. Haven’t seen any of the other four, so probably not starting now.
Jurassic World – Not sorry that I’ll be out of town when this one opens. An honest question, as the only other thing I’ve seen Chris Pratt in is Guardians of the Galaxy, does he only play the one character in everything, just with different names?
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – Wow, this one looks like the perfect period spy thriller. And directed by Guy Ritchie, who does clever violence really well. Definitely on my to-see list!
And now, our feature presentation:
Normally, I try to avoid spoilers about movies that are still in theaters, but there’s just no way to do San Andreas justice without talking about certain plot points in detail. Then again, it’s a disaster movie, if you are in any suspense whatsoever about how it ends, you’ve probably never seen one before. Nonetheless, SPOILERS AHEAD:
I love me some disaster movies, they have long been a favorite guilty pleasure of mine. So when I saw the previews for San Andreas, I knew I’d be heading out to see it. I thought it would be fun to put together some thoughts about how it stacks up against (what I think of as) the ‘real’ disaster movies I grew up on. The genre seems to come and go in cycles, and though they will likely never again reach the height of popularity (or the all-star casts) that they had with the big-budget “box movies” of the 1970s, I’d be thrilled to see San Andreas do well enough to spark another mini-revival of the type.
The first thing I have to say is that my suspension of disbelief should not run screaming from the theater during the first 30 seconds of a film. This is particularly true for a disaster movie, a genre that historically rooted itself in exploring the melodrama surrounding plausible, if unlikely, horrible events. It is here that we introduce The Rock as Ray (nope, most of the characters here don’t even rate last names) the helicopter pilot/leader of a Los Angeles Fire and Rescue team, who all served together in the Gulf War and couldn’t bear to split up when they returned from combat.
We’ll spend a few moments introducing the members of the team, which, in most disaster movies, would indicate we will be following them throughout the unfolding horrors to come as they try valiantly to save as many folks as they can. However, in this case, you can forget them all as soon as they are introduced as this is The Rock’s film and none of the rest of them will play any part in the story, or indeed ever be seen again.
And this is, in the end, a big problem for the movie. Because Ray is the protagonist, the movie never questions his actions or motivations, yet he is arguably the worst-behaved person in the film. Don’t believe me? Look at his actions throughout. From the beginning, we establish that he is the leader of a highly-trained elite search and rescue team, but the second the first quake starts in LA, he diverts (steals) the city helicopter he is transporting to rescue his estranged wife Emma (Carla Gugino), causing massive damage to the chopper in the process, which will eventually cause it to crash and make it useless for rescue efforts in the midst of an ongoing disaster. And even had he not caused irreparable damage to a vital piece of lifesaving equipment during an emergency, it wouldn’t have mattered as he had already diverted the helicopter for his own use and was in the midst of attempting to fly it to San Francisco to pick up his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) when it crashed.
So Ray abandoned his post and left the city of LA short of both equipment and manpower during a massive disaster in order to rescue his daughter who is, by this time, physically safe and would have been likely to remain so if she had simply followed the evacuation instructions of the rescue personnel in San Franscisco, rather than trying to arrange a rendezvous with her father within the city itself, thereby also unnecessarily jeopardizing the life of the English brothers who have joined her along the way. Ray also loots a store for clothing and steals both a truck and a boat along the way (there’s also a plane in there somewhere, but he just trades the stolen truck for it).
By comparison, the movie’s soi-disant villains are hardly villainous at all. Kylie Minogue‘s Susan Riddick (if 30 seconds of screentime qualifies you for villainy, and by this movie’s standards I’d say it qualifies) is merely rude, and even this is likely motivated as much by concern for her brother’s welfare than any inherent moral failure. And Daniel Riddick, (Ioan Gruffudd) the movie’s Big Bad™, never rises to the level of booing, hissing nastiness of his cinematic predecessors. No refusing to warn the populace for political gain here, or (given that the character is
an architect a real estate developer) building shoddy structures on the cheap, knowing they are likely to collapse and kill folks, to save a little money on construction, none of the standard disaster movie stuff that results in thousands of deaths.
In fact, all we see before the first quake strikes is a fairly nice (though rich, which has become hypocritical Hollywood shorthand for evil, I suppose) guy, who genuinely seems to want to get along with his new girlfriend’s daughter, while not alienating her from her dad. And he honestly tries to get help to rescue Blake, before being horribly traumatized when an aftershock brings down falling debris that smashes flat the man he has turned to for help and literally knocking him (Daniel) out of his shoes. His response after that seems more the natural and understandable result of a deeply horrifying experience and less an intentional abandonment of a character he has no reason to know is alive or dead after the aftershock. That just isn’t enough for me to feel really properly gratified when he is inevitably cacked during the climax.
As disaster movies go, this one is oddly bloodless (as one reviewer pointed out, millions are dead without a single corpse to be seen) and fairly lazy. It’s like the writer had seen a disaster movie or two, and understood which tropes are standards of the genre, but decided he couldn’t be bothered with all that unfolding character development stuff that makes the audience want to either root for characters to make it through the violence unfolding on the screen, or cheer for the deaths of the morally reprehensible ones.
Part of this is lack of time to properly develop all the subplots necessary to make the melodrama work. Theaters need to get people in and out of seats to maximize profits and the days of the lazily unfolding 2½ to 3 hour (I’m looking at you, The Swarm) epics with three or four simultaneously unfolding plots is long gone. At about 100 minutes, not counting the credits, there is barely enough time for a single underdeveloped side plot regarding Paul Giamatti‘s team of clever young seismologists who have figured out a way to predict the quakes and have hacked into the TV news networks to share their warnings. This is a shame as Paul is easily the best thing in this movie (though The Rock’s guns are pretty nice).
Because there are so many fewer developed characters here than in the old-style disaster epics, there is absolutely no suspense about who will live and who will die. Indeed the script seems to settle for a shorthand version of all the old disaster tropes and expects the audience to fill in the blanks based on what has gone before. The best example I can think of is how the movie skips the usual method of developing a secondary couple, usually happy, usually elderly, whom we will come to love for their pluckiness and dignified courage in the face of oncoming doom, one or both of whom will die by the end of the picture. Instead we get a 10 second scene of an elderly couple (whom we’ve never seen before) walking down a pier, noticing that they are about to be crushed by a tsunami, who turn and face their oncoming deaths with hands held. The movie assumes that the audience has seen enough of these pictures to write the rest of the story themselves.
None of this is to say that the movie is without entertainment value. While I miss real model work, the CGI on display here is mostly very very good and the movie is visually stunning. The plot keeps moving, without the talkiness that often dragged down 70s era disaster films in the middle (the downside of all that ‘character development’). In fact it sometimes moves too quickly, without allowing a bit of breathing space between action set pieces. The movie is fun and shamelessly silly, piling crisis on top of crisis until there is nothing to do but throw your hands in the air and let your brain run off to join your suspension of disbelief at the lobby bar. And, oddly, it’s probably one of the more family-friendly films I’ve seen this year, with minimal realistic violence or gore, no sex, a plot that is almost entirely driven by familial love, and, with the exception of a single F-bomb, (dropped to ensure a PG 13 rating for a movie that otherwise doesn’t rate one) very little strong language (an occasional and believable “oh shit” whenever heavy objects start falling from above).
My final verdict: In the end, it’s a really stupid movie, but stupid in an enjoyably goofy/bad way that very few major studio releases manage these days, so in that aspect it doesn’t disappoint.
So how does San Andreas rate alongside its cinematic brethren in terms of its adherence to the general clichés of the disaster genre? I think it’s time to introduce…
Jane’s Custom Disaster Cliché Checklist
All Star Cast – Nope. At best maybe a two star cast, and neither The Rock nor Paul Giamatti really rise to the level of the stars that once made a hash of these things.
Estranged Couple/Love Triangle – Check. The Rock has only to sign the papers to finalize his divorce from Mrs. The Rock, who is now living with her rich new boyfriend. Resolved in the first 30 minutes or so as building any sort of suspense, even in such small things, is beyond this movie’s ambitions.
Death of the Hypotenuse – Check. Combined with Villain Dies Bad Death Onscreen. Mom’s boyfriend dies, clearing any barrier to the inevitable reconciliation of the main couple.
Estranged Child – Averted. Blake seems pretty well adjusted to the idea of her parent’s separation and isn’t slinging blame at anyone.
Everyman Hero – Not a chance. Even if it weren’t established at the beginning that his character is an elite search and rescue guy, who can apparently pilot helicopters, fixed-wing craft, and boats, he’s played by The Rock, for heaven’s sake. No-one will ever confuse him with Joe Schlub from down the way who just happened to get caught up in events bigger than himself.
Science Abuse – And how! While I am willing to accept a larger earthquake than seems likely to naturally occur, even I (with a background in biology and medicine, not geology) know that tsunamis are 1) spawned by offshore quakes and 2) just plain don’t work like that.
Professor Cassandra Warns the Populace – Check. Paul Giamatti figures out how to predict earthquakes just in time for the movie’s action to start. The only aversion here is that everyone actually believes him in time to evacuate most of San Francisco.
Disaster Map Control Room – Check. A smaller example than usual, as it’s only a single office with some laptops at CalTech rather than a gigantic government/military headquarters that provides the graphics of impending doom.
Trash the Landmarks – Check. Check. Check. And Check. The Hoover Dam, the Hollywood sign, Coit Tower, and (of course) the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s only a shame that the filmmakers couldn’t remember from moment to moment exactly what damage had been done to the bridge. Especially egregious given that it was a CGI bridge rather than a model.
Anyone Can Die – Averted hard. With a single exception early in the film to set up the seriousness of the situation, every non-villainous character with three or more lines will still be standing at the end. I suppose if by anyone you mean extras, sure, but even they die almost entirely off screen. This is truly bloodless carnage, particularly given the number who must be dead. Even that is averted to an extent by the movie’s ending, which states that millions were saved due to the advance warning of the San Francisco quake.
Heroic Sacrifice – Check. But near the beginning of the movie instead of the end, when a character dies carrying a child to safety as the Hoover Dam collapses. The more usual disaster movie method is to develop a (often half of the elderly beta couple) secondary character to be the heart of the team of plucky survivors, who will then die just short of the point of safety while saving the others.
Developing Doomed Characters – As mentioned above, there’s just no time for this. Heck, we hardly bother to develop the surviving characters.
Anything else you think belongs on my cliché list? Want to disagree with my take on the film? Tell me about it in the comments.
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