Oh, The Humanity! 2015’s San Andreas, by Craig Schroeder
Oh, The Humanity! is a year-by-year analysis of cinema’s guiltiest of pleasures: disaster films. Exploring the blockbusters and spectacles about large scale destruction and humanity’s fight against forces beyond their control. And asking the question: was this the best or just the biggest?
Disaster films are an odd sort. Fun for obvious reasons: large scale destruction lends itself to exciting, explosive pageantry. Yet, disaster flicks are emotionally and psychologically cynical, manipulating the nearly universal fears of loss and devastation and using that as a substitute for character or thematic development (speaking in generalities of course, as there are some notable exceptions I hope to write about in future installments). Disaster films tend to be devoid of subtlety (again, exceptions forthcoming), but as a collective audience we keep returning to them for the promise of an action spectacle. 2015’s San Andreas is the perfect movie to begin this exploration of disaster films, flaunting many of the tropes that have come to define the genre: large scale destruction, impressive special effects, manipulative and thematically simple. It’s a bad movie, often impressive but never interesting.
There’s no use in dedicating too many words to the plot of San Andreas – Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays ultimate dad and tough guy Raymond Gaines (every character name in San Andreas sounds like a fifth- to eighth-place finisher on any season of American Idol) who reunites with his ex-wife (Carla Gugino) to save their daughter (Alexandra Daddario) when the San Andreas fault gives way, causing a chain reaction of cataclysmic events.
San Andreas promises spectacle and it delivers. There are a number of exciting special effect sequences. Buildings fall in Los Angeles, an earthquake rolls through AT&T park in San Francisco (the film’s most impressive moment), great bouts of water submerge major metropolitan areas like the lost city of Atlantis. It’s all great fun to watch from above. But San Andreas somehow makes this boring. Dwayne Johnson has elevated himself from an arched-brow, panty-clad pop culture novelty to A-List action star; yet no one seems to have told director Brad Peyton and the film’s small gang of screen-writers that action stars are supposed to, you know, find something to be actionable about. Never has an action lead sat down more than Johnson in San Andreas. Whether it’s in a helicopter, a boat, a truck, or a car, Johnson is gonna plop his ass down on every vessel of transportation imaginable. This makes room for a lot of impressive aerial shots of destruction, but little else. This summer: Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson sits down while shit happens nearby! This requires Peyton’s special effects team to do the heavy lifting, and boy, do they. Much of the film unfolds as Johnson and Gugino stare in disbelief outside of a helicopter window (or car or truck or plane) and the film cuts to large scale destruction. The tactic to make Johnson a passive action star makes much of the admittedly impressive sequences feel wholly inconsequential.
The emphasis on the effects without incorporating the actors within them often feels like our heroes were never in that much danger to begin with. But Daddario’s Blake Gaines (Text in IDOL-5 to vote for Blake Gaines!) is the exception, often finding herself in the midst of destruction and down in the nitty-gritty of all of that sweet, building-falling action. But her identity in the film only serves Raymond Gaines’ story. Blake (who, in a better film, would be the obvious lead) isn’t allowed to develop as a character and any personality afforded her is informed by a man (in addition to her father, Blake has to contend with her mother’s new boyfriend—a selfish pilgarlic played by Ioan Gruffud—and a boring love interest). What’s left is a damsel-in-distress archetype who commands a large chunk of screen time, but is little more than a plot device, meant to render emotion from our main character and nothing else. San Andreas is emblematic of many a disaster film’s tendency to create flimsy familial or amorous relationships so that the gravity of the oncoming disaster feels more consequential. But San Andreas shows its cards immediately, with a clumsy save-the-cat sequence that foreshadows the storytelling apathy to come. Contrast that with an unorthodox disaster film like Beasts of the Southern Wild, where so much time is given developing character relationships that the very idea that an impending catastrophe may jeopardize their relationship is just as devastating as the catastrophe itself. But San Andreas settles with doing the bare minimum: these two are father and daughter, that’s all you need to know. Now watch this earthquake swallow Fisherman’s Wharf.
But for all of its faults (or maybe because of them), San Andreas is a good place to begin this recurring column, as it acts as a checklist of all the cliches and archetypes audiences have come to expect in B-movie disaster flicks. It’s got the subject matter expert who is an exposition machine, meant only to upload information to the audience (in San Andreas its a seismologist – played by a particularly manic Paul Giamatti – who never interacts with any of our other characters. See also: the brothers Quaid in Independence Day and Day After Tomorrow). Like other disaster films, San Andreas has its “villain” in Ioan Gruffud, who is more an object of ire since the actual villain isn’t human (see also: Amity Island’s Mayor Vaughn). What about a ham-fisted love story so the audience knows our heroes have something worth fighting for (see: Will Smith and Vivica A. Fox in Independence Day)? San Andreas has two of those; just as The Rock And Carla Gugino (“The Gooj”?) overcome a surprisingly amicable divorce, their daughter finds a suitor in a young, dastardly Brit (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) who saves her from certain death. Combining all the ingredients of disaster films past, San Andreas strives to be a disaster movie and nothing more.
Mission accomplished, I guess.
2015’s BIGGEST or BEST disaster film:
There’s not a lot to hold onto in San Andreas. It ticks the boxes of a disaster film, but rarely, if ever, asks the audience to do anything other than ooh and ahh at its effects.