Tuesday, June 16, 2015

It Came From The Cineplex: San Andreas

San Andreas was written by Carlton Cuse and directed by Brad Peyton.

Cuse was a producer and writer for LOST. Peyton previously directed Cats & Dogs: The Revenge Of Kitty Galore and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (which also starred Dwayne Johnson). This may be the first film he's directed without a colon in the title.

It's a reasonably entertaining summer film, filled with cliches, melodrama, preposterous situations and all the scientific inaccuracy you can swallow— in other words, a typical disaster movie! Don't think too awfully hard about what happens onscreen and you'll be OK.

In the past, disaster movies were relatively simple. An ocean liner capsizes and sinks, the world's tallest building catches fire, an earthquake hits LA. Such prosaic tales simply won't do for this new millennium. These days the stakes have to be the entire world, or it's simply not worth watching. No longer will a simple earthquake striking one measly city do— now it's got to be the most massive tremor ever recorded, one that rattles the entire state of California, breaking it off the continent and dropping it into the sea. This ever-escalating, one-upsmanship becomes exhausting after a while.

Gone also are the intricate miniatures and matte paintings of 1970s disaster movies, replaced with the slick, clinical digital spectacle of CGI destruction. Unfortunately the devastation here is very similar to that in movies we've seen many times in recent years, particularly in 2012. Did I say similar? I meant virtually identical.

The scenes of Ray's chopper flying between crumbling buildings look exactly like the scenes of the characters doing the same thing in 2012. The same buildings even get destroyed in both films!

GROUND-SHAKING SPOILERS AHEAD!

The Plot:
As the film opens, a young woman loses control of her car and flies off a cliff. She's saved by the timely arrival of LA Fire Department helicopter pilot Ray Gaines (played by Dwayne Johnson) and his crew, who rescue her. This scene exists solely to show us that Ray is a heroic man of action.

After the save, Ray gets a call from his teen daughter Blake (played by Alexandra Daddario), who's starting college soon in San Francisco. Ray plans to drive her there the next day. Ray then receives divorce papers from his estranged wife Emma (played by Carla Gugino). Ray's upset that Emma has moved in with her new boyfriend, the fabulously wealthy and not at all evil real estate developer Daniel Riddick (played by Ioan Gruffudd). Despite all this turmoil, it's obvious that Ray and Emma still have feelings for one another (as is the law in this type of movie).

Meanwhile, Caltech seismologist Lawrence Hayes (played by Paul Giamatti, who apparently needed a boat payment) is working on a machine that he hopes will predict earthquakes. The device indicates seismic activity near Hoover Dam, so Hayes and a colleague travel to Nevada to test it. While there, a huge quake strikes, destroying the dam. Hayes barely escapes with his life, while his colleague perishes. Back at Caltech, Hayes' machine predicts that the San Andreas fault is becoming active, which will cause massive, not to mention impossible, 9.1 quakes in every major city on the West Coast.

Ray is then called to help with rescue efforts in Nevada (?), and reluctantly has to cancel his trip with Blake. The next morning she hitches a ride to San Francisco on Daniel's private Jet. Daniel seems like a nice guy here, as he diplomatically says he's not trying to replace her dad, but we all know he's evil because he's driven, hard-working and worst of all, rich.

The next day Ray is en route to Nevada, while Emma is having lunch in LA with Daniel's judgmental harpy of a sister (inexplicably played by Australian pop star Kylie Minogue). Daniel and Blake stop off at his office building in San Francisco, because he's rich. Blake cools her heels in the lobby, and "meets cute" an English lad named Ben, who's there for a job interview. For some reason Ben brought along his little brother Ollie, who's infatuated with Blake. That's perfectly normal, right? People always bring relatives to important job interviews.

Back in LA, a massive earthquake strikes, trapping Emma atop a high rise building. She's no dummy— instead of calling her rich boyfriend, she calls the ex with the chopper! Ray immediately ditches his rescue mission and goes to save her, which doesn't seem like something a real first responder would do, but what do I know.

A smaller quake rattles San Francisco, trapping Daniel and Blake inside his building's parking garage. Blake's legs are pinned in the limo, so Daniel leaves to get help. As the building begins to crumble, the rich and cowardly mogul hightails it out of there, leaving Blake to die. The movie desperately wants us to hate him here, even though we all probably would have done the same thing.

Ben and Ollie somehow hear Blake's cries for help, and go down into the parking garage to save her. Ben uses his engineering smarts to free her, and they exit the building seconds before it collapses. Blake finds a store with a land line and calls Ray. He tells her to head for San Francisco's Coit Tower, where he'll come and rescue her. Blake, Ben and Ollie then traverse the broken city trying to make it to the Tower.

Ray and Emma, still in LA, head for San Francisco to rescue Blake. Emma's furious at Daniel for abandoning Blake, and leaves a message on his answering machine telling him to piss off. And just like that, the stage is set for her and Ray to reconcile. They have a heart-to-heart talk about their youngest daughter who drowned a few years ago when Ray took her rafting. Emma doesn't blame Ray for their daughter's death, but he's never been able to come to terms with it.

Suddenly the chopper's engine fails and it crashes somewhere outside LA. Ray and Emma then do everything in their power to make it to San Francisco in time, stealing a truck and later an airplane in order to get there.

Just then the most massive quake in recorded history hits San Francisco, causing even more damage. Blake and Co. see that the Coit Tower is engulfed in flames, so they head toward a partially completed skyscraper constructed by the evil and rich Daniel. Ray and Emma arrive in San Francisco by plane, but there's nowhere to land, so they parachute to safety (!). Seeing that the city is nearly impassible, they steal a boat and head for the Bay, just as the tsunami sirens sound. Yes, somehow a quake that struck land has inexplicably generated a huge tidal wave headed inland. Take that, Science!

Ray and Emma head toward the wave in order to get over it before it crests, which sounds like something you should do, I guess. They manage to do so, just before the wave hits the Golden Gate Bridge. The evil and cowardly (don't forget rich!) Daniel is killed when a shipping container from a massive cargo ship crushes him on the bridge. Alright for you, rich guy! Not even your billions could save you from your comeuppance!

The tsunami strikes the city, flooding the building in which Blake and Co. are in. It begins collapsing, trapping them inside. In the greatest coincidence of all time, Ray and Emma just happen to sail past the building in their commandeered boat. Blake signals them, but before Ray can rescue her, the building sinks even further. Ben and Ollie are able to head for the upper floors, but Blake is trapped underwater and drowns.

Not to worry! Ray dives in and manages to rescue her (because he's able to hold his breath for five minutes at a time). Ray brings the now-dead Blake to the boat, where he revives her several minutes later with CPR, and she miraculously doesn't suffer brain damage.

The film ends as Ray and his family, plus Ben and Ollie, make it to a relief camp in Marin County. Whew! Forget about the millions that perished in the multiple quakes and the tsunami, the main characters are safe! Ray and Emma reconcile, and Blake and Ben have bonded over their ordeal. They all stare wistfully out at the destruction, as a giant American flag unfurls from the debris.

Thoughts:
• The film begins with a young woman driving along a treacherous mountainous highway. She reaches for her phone in the back seat, taking her eyes off the road for several seconds. We naturally expect her drift into the oncoming lane and kill someone, but she doesn't. Then she takes her eyes off the road a second time as she texts a friend. Once again, it looks like they're setting up a distracted driver crash, but it never happens.

Finally a rock slide crashes into her car, causing her to lose control and fly over the cliff.

So what was the point of all that eyes-off-the-road misdirection? Were the distracted driving fake-outs supposed to ramp up the tension?

• This is the third film to pair Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino. They were previously in both Faster and Race to Witch Mountain.

Alexandra Daddario plays Ray's teen daughter Blake. You may remember Daddario from the Percy Jackson films. You may also remember her and her, um... assets... from Season 1 of True Detective, in which she appeared fully nude.

Johnson and Daddario play father and daughter here, but in reality are only fourteen years apart. Such age differences seem to be a tradition in disaster movies. In Earthquake, Lorne Greene and Ava Gardner also played father and daughter, and were only seven years apart in real life!

• A TV interviewer accompanies Ray and his team on their initial rescue mission. When she asks Ray if he considers himself a hero, he gets an "Aw shucks" look on his face and says he's "just doing his job," and that he "goes where they send me." 

Oh really? The movie really, really wants us to see Ray as a hero, but unfortunately his actions paint him as a nothing more than a right selfish bastard. Ray's flying his chopper to Nevada for some reason, when a quake hits LA. The second it strikes, all that selfless stuff goes right out the window as he ditches his assignment and flies off to rescue his ex-wife and daughter. From that point on, his one and only thought is of saving them.

This feels like a slap in the face to all the real first responders out there, who put the needs of the public above their own every single day.

Ray had his own chopper for Thor's sake, and could have saved dozens of people, but doesn't make the slightest effort to do so. They try to smooth this over by having him leave his partner in charge while telling us he's flying a damaged copter in for repairs. Wha...? Would you really fly a damaged chopper to a repair facility? One that could malfunction at any second (which this one does later)? Wouldn't it be infinitely safer to put it on a flatbed trailer and haul it to the repair facility?

Later when Ray and Emma are driving their stolen truck after the quake, they zoom right past an old couple struggling to repair a flat tire. Ray only has use for this couple after he realizes they weren't trying to flag him down for a ride, but were instead trying to warn him that the road was out up ahead.

This lack of regard for the safety of others extends to Ray's daughter Blake as well. After the first quake hits San Francisco, she, Ben and Ollie are following the crowd when they find out a tsunami is going to hit the city. They immediately turn around and go back the way they came, in order to reach high ground. Blake could easily share this info with any of the hundreds of walking wounded filing past her, but she doesn't say a word.

• Ray also says he and his chopper crew served in Afghanistan and decided to work together in civilian life because they're a "family." Of course once the quakes hit, we never see or hear from this makeshift family again, and it never occurs to him to find out if they're still alive.

• When an earthquake destroys Hoover Dam in Nevada, Ray and his team are called to help with the rescue effort. So... Nevada doesn't have rescue choppers of its own? I suppose if it's a big enough disaster they might call in squads from neighboring states, but it seems like a stretch.

Secondly, Ray and his team are scheduled to head out to Nevada the morning after the quake. Huh? So I guess anyone trapped under rubble or perched precariously on a rock hundreds of feet in the air will have to sit tight for at least twenty four hours.

• There's at least one shout-out to 1974's Earthquake in the film— when the quake strikes LA, Emma's in a restaurant high atop a skyscraper. In her rush to escape, she opens a stairwell door and sees nothing but empty space, as the entire side of the building has fallen away. A man clings to a piece of rebar for a few seconds before losing his grip and falling to the street far below.

A scene very similar to this happened in Earthquake.

• When Ray rescues Emma from atop the crumbling skyscraper, he pushes a button marked "AUTO HOV." I freely admit I'm not an expert on helicopters, but I don't think they can do that.

On the other hand, when the chopper malfunctions on the way to San Francisco, Ray shuts down the engine and says they're in "auto rotation" and they crash land into a parking lot. Auto rotation is indeed a real thing, so kudos to the writer for knowing that. When the engine is shut down, the chopper naturally begins to fall. This falling through the air causes the blade to turn, often enough to soften the landing to survivable levels. I learned that from playing videogames.

• Dr. Hayes seems quite pleased that he and his staff have invented a foolproof earthquake detecting machine. Unfortunately its early warning system varies wildly, making it practically useless. At one point it predicts a major quake will strike San Francisco within a few hours, which is good, as it would give people time to seek safety. However, at Hoover Dam it only gives them about thirty seconds' warning, which isn't enough time to evacuate anything (except your bowels).

• As you might suspect in a film like this, it's far more concerned with spectacle than scientific accuracy. 

Supposedly the filmmakers consulted with seismologists to make sure the film's science was correct. Apparently after this consultation, they threw all the info right out the window and just made up whatever they wanted.

The San Andreas fault is not long enough or deep enough to generate a quake over magnitude 9, as seen in the movie. That's because the plates along the San Andreas fault move past one another. To have a megaquake they'd have to be subduction plates, and one would have to move under the other.

The strongest quake possible would be an 8.3. That's still mighty strong, but nowhere near powerful enough "to be felt on the East Coast," as Dr. Hayes somberly intones.

Hayes is technically correct about feeling the quake on the other side of the country. If you have a standard earthquake detector, it can record tremors anywhere on the planet. But recording them and feeling them are two different things. There's no way a quake could ever be powerful enough to be felt all across the continental United States.

• In addition to the wholesale destruction and chaos, disaster movies generally feature one of two subplots: The Hero's Search For His Loved Ones, and The Estranged Couple Who's Brought Together By Danger. You can find these in pretty much every disaster film ever made, including Airport (1970), The Towering Inferno (1974), Earthquake (1974), Independence Day (1996), Twister (1996), Volcano (1997), Day After Tomorrow (2004), War Of The Worlds (2005), 2012 (2009), Into The Storm (2014) and Godzilla (2014).

San Andreas is no different, and proudly uses both of these tropes. The disaster brings Ray and Emma back together, and the two of them brave seemingly insurmountable odds to find their daughter.

OK, I get why these movies use these subplots. It's a universal human need to be reunited with those you love, and shared disasters often bring people together. But it's just plain old lazy writing when they use it EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.

• Once San Francisco is hit by a quake, Blake takes charge of her little group, seeking out a land line so she can call Ray, and looking for the supply chest in an abandoned firetruck. Kudos to her for knowing what to do in an emergency. Nearly everything she does is well thought out and rational.

Ben also displays above average smarts, as he uses a jack and flattens the tires of the limo to free Blake from the rubble that's trapped her.

• When Emma finds out Daniel abandoned Blake in the parking garage, she leaves an angry message on his voicemail, saying, "You left my daughter? If you're not already dead, I'm gonna f*cking kill you."

Aaaand there it is. According to the MPAA ratings board, PG-13 films are allowed exactly one use of the word "f*ck."

Play the San Andreas Drinking Game! Take a shot every time a character escapes a building that collapses one second after they're freed. You'll be dead of alcohol poisoning before the film's over.

• Ray tells Blake to head for the Coit Tower in San Francisco, and he'll pick her up there in his chopper. However the characters rarely call the place by name. They say things like, "That hill with the protrusion at the top," or call it that "nodule thing."

Why not just call it a "tower" and save themselves a lot of breath? Yet another script oddity.

• After Ray's chopper crashes, he and Emma steal a truck, intending to drive to San Francisco. Their plans change when they encounter a huge, miles long fissure in the Earth that blocks their path.

Whoops! Fault lines don't split apart like that. The ground on both sides of the fault line slide past one another— that's what causes the ground to shake. If they split apart then there'd be no shaking.

• It's tough to have a true villain in a film like this, since an earthquake is a force of nature, and not inherently evil. They try their best though with Riddick. He's the film's Designated Asshole,™ a character who acts like a jerk for no other reason than because the script says so. He starts out seemingly nice, but the minute disaster strikes he becomes a cowardly, selfish prick. He does everything but twirl his mustache.

The movie seems to desperately wants us to hate him just because he's rich, somehow equating monetary success with villainy.

• The tsunami scenes were all very well done, especially Ray's desperate attempt to get over it before it crested. Unfortunately the entire sequence was complete fantasy. Tsunamis happen when an earthquake strikes the ocean floor. A quake that hits dry land cannot generate a tidal wave, and even if it could, the wave would be heading out to sea, not IN.

They did get one small part right though— as the wave is forming, all the water in the bay rushes out, which is exactly what happens in a real tsunami.

• Welcome to Coincidence Theater! Ray and Emma just happen to sail past the one building in the entire city of San Francisco that their daughter Blake is in. San Francisco has a population of 850,000 and covers around 47 square miles. I'll let you decide how likely their meetup is.

• After Blake drowns, Ray pulls her lifeless body through the submerged building and out onto the boat. He then performs CPR on her for several minutes, even seemingly giving up for a few precious seconds before starting up again. Eventually he manages to revive her, but we see she now has brain damage because she was without oxygen for over four minutes. Not to mention her ribs have been crushed, which is a side effect of CPR no one likes to talk about (especially if Dwayne Frakin' Johnson pumped on your chest!).

Naw, just kidding! She's perfectly fine after her grueling ordeal, and none the worse for wear!

At the end of the film, the survivors survey the massive destruction of San Francisco. Suddenly a huge American flag unfurls from the atop the wreckage of a building. 'MURCA!! F*CK YEAH!!! 

• Emma looks out on the devastation and says, "What do we do now?" Ray stares determinedly into the distance and says, "We rebuild." Um... doesn't he live in LA? Why's he care about rebuilding San Francisco? 

Maybe he figures he probably no longer has a job, since the minute the ground started shaking he abandoned his assigned rescue mission and buggered off to save two people.

Plus, I don't know about anyone else, but if I lived in San Francisco and managed to survive a disaster of this scale, I'd be taking the next plane, boat or donkey cart outta there. No more building on unstable ground for me, thanks!

• In the final scene, the camera dramatically pulls up to reveal that San Francisco has now become an island. Um... that shot probably resonated for viewers in California, but I doubt if the rest of the country (or the world) got it. I don't think most people would know what a normal aerial view of San Francisco looks like, much less a destroyed one.

San Andreas is a typical summer popcorn flick, full of massive CGI destruction and ridiculous science. Don't think too hard about it and you'll probably have an OK time. I give it a B-.

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