Lord knows there are enough real disasters in this world—earthquakes in Nepal, floods in Texas, droughts in California, wildfires in California, mudslides in California . . . I don’t linger over TV images of the suffering of real people in these rampages of Mother Nature. I feel for the victims of these incidents, I contribute to the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders.
But I just can’t help myself: I love me a good disaster movie! I’ve seen (and I own) ’em all, from THE TOWERING INFERNO to TITANIC, THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW to 2012. Volcanoes! Earthquakes! Rogue waves! Tsunamis! Flash freezes! Superstorms! Tornadoes! Super-tornadoes! (I do hold the line at sharknados. Sorry, not buying that one.) It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine!
I will tolerate any kind of disaster movie, but a well-made, well-acted one is right up there with a day in the mountains and fluffy kittens on my list of favorite things. So you know I was in hog heaven sitting in the theater to see Dwayne Johnson (formerly “The Rock”) save the day as a “swarm” of earthquakes of over 9.0 on the Richter scale take out cities all along California’s San Andreas fault in SAN ANDREAS. Yes, it is finally the day of reckoning for the Golden State, the one we’ve all known is coming, the Big One! And we are all safe in our seats watching it happen.
As is the tried-and-true formula of disaster movies, we meet the cast of characters in the first half-hour of the film: Johnson’s Ray, a Los Angeles Fire Department rescue helicopter pilot (and veteran) with a big heart to go along with his big muscles; his college-age daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario, an up-and-comer), as resourceful and brave as he is; his soon-to-be ex-wife Emma (Carla Guggino, LOVE her!), smart and sweet; the requisite bad guy (Ioan Gruffudd), an architect whose building amazingly does NOT fall down right away!; the scientist who warns everyone of the coming disaster (Paul Giamatti, terrific as always); and other supporting players.
We get the warnings—a little landslide here, a tremor there. A quake where there is no fault line, which destroys the Hoover Dam. The scientist begins to see the scope of things. Then all hell breaks loose as the entire San Andreas fault, which runs from L.A. to San Franciso, begins to crack wide open. Whee!
The quality of special effects makes or breaks a movie like this, and the effects are first class in SAN ANDREAS. The entire L.A. basin ripples and waves like a sheet in the wind. Buildings topple into each other and disintegrate into rubble. A tsunami carries a massive container ship into the Golden Gate bridge, tearing a huge gap in that span. Oh, and did I mention the Hoover Dam?
But none of these things would have meaning if they put no one at peril. We have to care about the people in the film for all this destruction to have any emotional impact. Carlton Cuse wrote the screenplay for SAN ANDREAS. Cuse’s screen credits include TV’s LOST, BATES MOTEL, THE RETURNED, THE STRAIN, and some of my personal favorite oldies, NASH BRIDGES, BLACK SASH, THE ADVENTURES OF BRISCO COUNTY, JR. Cuse has a special talent for combining action plots with character development, giving his characters emotional depth and “history.”
Cuse has done that with Ray and Emma and Blake in SAN ANDREAS, too. Blake had a sister, who drowned on a family outing. Ray blames himself for not being able to save her. At the beginning of the film, the incident and its consequences have nearly destroyed the family—divorce is imminent, Emma is ready to move in with her architect boyfriend, Blake’s headed off to school. But events intervene and reconciliation becomes possible as Ray shows his stuff, Emma sees her boyfriend’s true colors and Blake is forced to grow up fast. Nice character development in the midst of all that mayhem, I say!
I’ve thought a lot about why I like disaster movies so much. I think it’s because I have a secret fear of the Apocalypse. I’m studying up on survival techniques, reviewing those Too Stupid to Live actions-to-avoid. My favorite book as a kid was Swiss Family Robinson, and my favorite part of that book was the ingenious way they salvaged and made use of what was left from the shipwreck. I joined the Peace Corps later in life and lived without the luxuries of modern life for a time in Africa. I learned some things about boiling water, let me tell you!
But, as my karate teacher always said, the First Rule of Self-Defense is Avoid the Situation. I won’t be living in California—ever. I won’t be building a home too close to water or on a steep mountainside. As long as a sharknado doesn’t come along, I should be okay.