What do you want out of your disaster movies? Broken down to its constituent pieces, you normally want things, well, broken down to constituent pieces – pieces of concrete, of glass and steel shattering into untold shards of shrapnelized weaponry. One wants to see things go boom, to have people running away in terror only to make it out just in time (or not make it out at all). We want visceral thrills and spills and chills and other things that rhyme.
We want, in other words, the movie to fulfil a strange fascination we have as human beings – for a species that has constructed more than any other on this planet of ours, we still have a keen, innate center of our brain that derives pleasure from watching things blow the fuck up.
Whether this schadenfreude segment of our brainstem can be mapped on a neurological or a glandular level is not really the point – it’s there, and we might as well feed that part of our psyche from time to time.
The question, then, is whether San Andreas feeds that part of our spirit in a satisfying way. And it’s fair to say that, yeah, kinda, it does.
There’s a story here, of sorts, involving a family coming together as the earth rips apart. But that’s not why you watch films like this. You watch them for preposterous tsunamis wreaking havoc on familiar landscapes (this time the touristy bits of San Francicso). You get the ripples of land like waves toppling buildings like dominoes, while shots of fleeing ant-like people try in vain to find escape. The Golden Gate bridge sways like the Tacoma Narrows footage, eventually tumbling into the bay below.
Thanks to the newest generation of computer effects it all looks perfectly terrific. Yes, we’ve become inured to watching cities being destroyed by those fighting spandex clad heroes or the collateral damage to infrastructure made by robots in disguise, but there remains a kind of purity in a film whose sole showcase is to actually give on the proverbial “money shot”, where it’s very being isn’t coy about want to thrill us with destruction porn.
So forget that shot that kind of reminded us of real terror, a scene where a man tumbles off the building into space that just for a frame or two echoed 9/11. Actual terror, actually thinking about the millions displaced or obliterated while a man in a helicopter saves a single person from the top of a single building is not something one is meant to linger over. This is fantasy, of course, but it’s also done in a way where you’re safe to watch the holocaustic firestorm envelope two major cities but still be happy that a video signal was able to give a few seconds notice from a Media Lab at CalTech.
Director Brad Peyton is a Newfie, so I’m pleased that a guy that directed four episodes of The Republic of Doyle is now tasked with telling The Rock to look tough while wearing a copter-captain’s helmet. In fact, the opening sequence where a girl is rescued from a crevasse is top-notch stuff. There are terrific angles employed, and genuine tension is created not just on the jump lines but in the way that the scene plays out. Great sound, great bits of ‘copter work, and it’s all a lot of fun. Sure, the rest of the film doesn’t quite have the same kind of purity, but there’s maybe something more there to work on from the sequel – I’d watch an air-and-rescue flick with Dwayne Johnson doing his thing any day, if only he took a better CPR course.
There are other people in the film too of course, such as Carla Gugino playing the mom, a fetching Alexandra Daddario who’s often being fetched, Paul Giamatti as a scene-chewing seismologist, Isoan Gruffdd as a schmuck and Hugo Johnstone-Burt and Art Parkinson as the British folk.
None of these people matter in the grand scheme of things, because despite the efforts the film goes through to craft narrative, it’s all about watching buildings smash, waters rise, and mayhem become more mayhemy.
So who’s to find fault with a film about faultlines, where one is simply supposed to revel in the seismocalypse and enjoy the tectonic fury? This isn’t a film for thinking or for human feelings, this is a film to watch things go to hell in an enjoyable way. Stripped away from any sense of humanity (or physics… or plausibility…) San Andreas might just have done what it set out to do – It’s a big mess of a film that wants to create a big mess, and thus succeeds admirably on its own terms.