This last weekend we watched San Andreas, with Dwayne Johnson. While on the one hand, yep, it’s a disaster movie and you know what that means… on the other hand, it’s a really solid disaster movie, that doesn’t stretch out the tropes too much.
One thing I can say about disaster movies is that they make great popcorn movies – as in, there’s thrills, adrenaline, amazing effects, and somewhere along the line that can mean that tropes are relied on heavily, audience expectations that you feed on purpose – or subvert on purpose. So I’ll get to those after the jump.
But the one thing I want to say as a general, non-spoiler review: the destruction and mayhem in San Andreas is really solid. There’s no bad guy, no monster or aliens or evil corporation. It’s not even much of a social commentary, unless you count “man it would be great if we could detect earthquakes before they happen.” No, it’s just a massive, act-of-God disaster movie, without far-reaching world-destroying effects – but you know things wouldn’t ever be the same again. The effects were great, you got to see all kinds of things just fall apart. In other words, this was a fun movie. Now on to some analysis below!
My family: most important people in the world?
Often in these sorts of movies, you follow a limited number of characters. You have to. Independence Day pulled off a huge ensemble cast, but it’s also kind of the benchmark for this whole genre. In Independence Day, we followed the set of characters who all ended up together, and in getting together with their various experiences and expertise, they come up with a plan to save the world.
And if the world needs saving, the characters to follow are the saviors. Or else, not, and that’s a subverting-the-trope decision…
In a number of these movies, though, in following the one group of people (generally a family), we experience the whole disaster through their eyes, potentially up to and including saving the world. We saw it in last year’s Godzilla and before that in World War Z. And it strains my suspension of disbelief to think that one person – generally by chance – makes their way to all the important events. Yes, we see all the important events in Independence Day, as the audience, but we’re seeing the events through the eyes of a ton of characters, a good number of whom die when the clock hits zero…
Whoa, okay, that’s a lot of talking about other movies. Okay, so you may see from the trailers, Dwayne Johnson’s character is a helicopter rescue fire fighter guy. He’s the best. There’s a first bad earthquake, that takes out the Hoover Dam, and there’s a multi-state response and they’re all headed out to save it. This ends up with The Rock all alone in a helicopter as the next earthquakes hit. With literally millions of people in peril and no solid way to decide who to save, and no orders coming in, he defaults to saving his family. Makes sense.
And then, well, that’s the movie. They head north from LA, having saved his estranged wife and on their way to save their daughter… the earthquakes follow them north. Convenient, as it lets them show us the destruction as they go. But the whole string of earthquakes follow a path and they explain it to us, so that’s fine.
And they find her daughter and save her… and not a lot of other people. A couple of guys that saved their daughter, and were in turn saved by her innate knowledge from having a rescue father… and yeah, that’s it.
It’s not a movie about saving the world, or even about saving California. We follow a few people, who give us some action-packed saves and moments, and who get to see most of the action – but that’s it. They’re not the most important people in the world, except maybe to each other.
Wait, what happened to his team?
So the movie opens with a plot-unrelated rescue just to show us The Rock in action, and so we didn’t just start with destruction. So he has his whole team with him, and there’s some daring flying and out-of-helicopter work. There’s also a reporter there with a cameraman recording the whole thing.
And I feel like normally, the reporter and cameraman would be characters we might never see again… and his team of fellow firefighters? We would watch them throughout the movie.
At the end, Holly asked a single question. Where did his team go?
Presumably, they were off rescuing people at the Hoover dam, or on their way there at least. We don’t know, as they pretty much all leave the movie early and are never brought up again.
Meanwhile, the reporter and cameraman? They come up again. They end up with the scientists…
Saved by Science… reporting?
Now, if there was someone to save the world in this movie, it was Paul Giamatti’s character, an earthquake scientist from CalTech. He and his partner were testing an earthquake detection system at the Hoover dam. It worked… but they were a bit late figuring that out to do anything with it, and his partner dies.
They figure out that it’s working and telling them that everything is about to go pear shaped just in time for it to happen – again, they weren’t ready to act on the information, and LA drops a few meters…
Seeing the data that something even bigger is coming for San Francisco, and with a mostly intact CalTech – and the above-mentioned reporter there – they hack the airwaves and get out a broadcast to warn people about the earthquake.
From the number of extras we see get hit by every stage of the destruction in San Francisco, clearly not everyone gets the message… but enough do, and at the end, they’re thanking that pirate interview for getting the word out.
In a situation like this, honestly, that’s the believable sort of saving you can do. Let people know… and be praying for them. That’s what Paul Giamatti’s character does. Not much else they could do, other than dive under their desks…
So there are a lot of tropes for these sorts of movies, and a temptation to make your story about epic and heroic deeds, about saving the world and being victorious. This movie, while a huge destruction movie, is also a bit more humble. There’s no stopping this from happening. There’s no saving everyone. There’s trying your best, and saving who you can.
For instance, the mom knows a helicopter is coming – with The Rock. She’s telling people, and heading that way. No one joins her. They try to save people, but there’s just so much chaos, instincts that are sometimes good – like when all the boats go running at the tsunami – and sometimes bad.
Hey, they don’t spend time running away from things in the Prometheus style, so that’s good on its own…
It’s got tropes, sure, but it also quietly subverts many of them. We have people who need saving, but who also do a ton to save themselves and each other. They’re all of them strong characters. And keeping with a small cast meant that we really cared about all of them and got invested.
So overall? Fun movie, and much better than I expected. It might just be a general destruction movie, but it’s a really good general destruction movie. Just solid and fun. Would definitely recommend it! Have you seen it? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below!