Director Brad Peyton and writer Carlton Cuse had the chance to do something truly remarkable in San Andreas, something that might have sent a shockwave through mainstream American film equal to the quake that decimates the Pacific coast in their movie. Something that might have changed the course of human history. The fact that they didn’t shouldn’t surprise anyone. In 2015, it would have been almost impossible to get away with such a thing. And therein lies a massive problem.
OK – I’m about to give away the ending of San Andreas. I would normally refer to this as a SPOILER ALERT, but what I will reveal should hardly qualify as a spoiler. You can see it coming from as far away as … well, wherever you happen to be sitting when the ending unspools.
Professional rescuer Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson) must save his wife Emma (Carla Gugino) and daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) when the big one hits SoCal. He scoops up Emma in the first half. The rest of the movie is about Ray and Emma getting to San Fran to save Blake and the two cute English brothers with whom she has teamed up.
Basic disaster stuff. Nothing earth-shattering, unless you count the CGI. When you throw in the back story that Ray was unable to save his other daughter from drowning, and when you remember that along-for-the ride seismologist Dr. Hayes (Paul Giamatti) has oh-so-subtly explained to his class that tsunamis come after earth quakes and can be equally destructive, you can kind of puzzle it all out. Blake will end up trapped in a ruined high-rise, which is being flooded, and Ray will be given the chance to redeem himself by saving her. When critics complain about derivative stories and predictable plots, this is what they are talking about. But here’s where San Andreas flirts, ever so briefly, with greatness and meaning.
Ray fails. Even with his giant arms and a mastery of super cool technology, he is unable to save her. We see her mouth open, her eyes roll back, her body just floats away.
Of course, she doesn’t really die. For even though he had been trying his damnedest to clear the doorway that would allow her to escape, actually seeing Blake breathe her last appears to have given Ray the 5-Hour Energy boost he needed to go back to that same doorway and strain those same mighty arms just a wee bit more. Passageway cleared, he can then use his professional life-saving skills to CPR her back to the living. Mom weeps. The cute English boys hug. The world begins to rebuild.
I say the following with full knowledge that there was no way in hell that Warner Brothers (a subsidiary of Time Warner, don’t you know) was going to let pretty young Blake die on screen. But they should have. Blake should have died because if she did, audiences would have been pissed off and bewildered. They would have been pissed off because they liked Blake. They invested in Blake and her rescue. They would have been bewildered because they would have witnessed a Hollywood movie in which there was an actual, painful consequence. They would have witnessed a mainstream piece of Hollywood entertainment in which a very clear danger (be it from environment, or terrorists, or corporate greed) exacted a price. In which not everything turned out OK in the end. And that is simply not done in Hollywood, or America, or perhaps the world at large, in 2015.
I also say this with knowledge that movies, for a great many people, provide an escapist form of entertainment. Mainstream Hollywood has always favoured the happy ending. They do not see it as their mission to predict gloom and doom, and most of us do not want that when we plunk down a couple of Andrew Jacksons for popcorn and a Coke. But consider the following:
In San Andreas, there are a bunch of “good guys.” Ray, Emma, Blake, English boys, Dr. Hayes and his team of multi-national students. With the exception of Dr. Hayes’ colleague Dr. Park (Will Yun Lee), who is on screen for about three minutes in one of the opening sequences, none of these good guys die. In fact the only major character (or at least the only one of the first eight characters listed on the movie’s Wikipedia page) to die is the rich coward who has stolen Emma away from Ray, Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd). Daniel abandoned Blake when the buildings began crumbling, so we want him dead. Scores and scores of no-name extras and stunt people plummet to their deaths, are squashed by heavy beams, or generally decapitated and skewered. But we haven’t invested in them, so we don’t really care, do we?
Were movies always like this? Even mindless popcorn/disaster movies? Back in 1972, producer Irwin Allen put out a string of equally mindless, very popular disaster pictures. One of his most successful, 1972’s The Poseiden Adventure revolved around the intrepid Reverend Scott (Gene Hackman) leading a ragtag group of luxury liner passengers to rescue after their ship begins sinking. Though most of the small group do survive, several main characters perish in the journey, including a sweet Englishman, a hot Caucasian woman, and a funny grandmother. At the climax, Scott, in Moses-like fashion, sacrifices himself so that the others may be saved. So, even in a mainstream schlocky disaster film from the ‘70s, audiences were subjected to the pain of major characters dying on screen.
Move into the ‘90s. Another mainstream, schlocky disaster movie, this time about an alien invasion. Independence Day (1996) shares several things with San Andreas. A tough talking black guy who flies planes (Will Smith). A nerdy white scientist who no one listens to until it’s almost too late (Jeff Goldblum). Lots of dead extras. (Sorry, I don’t know your names). But in addition to the dead extras, Independence Day also kills off the benevolent First Lady (Mary McDonnell) and single Dad goofball Russell Casse (Randy Quaid) who sacrifices himself at the climax to enable survival for his children. Again, most of the good guys live, but not without sacrifice and pain and consequence.
San Andreas is part of the current trend which treats the very real threat of disaster as amusement park attraction. It doesn’t matter how serious the threat is. Technology, or the human spirit, or a pair of really big biceps, will be there to bail us out.
(By the way, for a different cultural take on this entire topic, watch a Russian movie. Doesn’t matter which one. You might start with Leviathan, the brutal and brilliant 2014 drama about petty rivalries. Both personal and political, in a Russian province. In Russian movies, everything goes horribly wrong. Do you know that back in the silent era, when studios could easily switch the language of the inter-titles and market movies all across the globe, they would sometimes intentionally film unhappy endings specifically for the Russian market? If Russia made San Andreas, the earth would have simply opened its mouth and swallowed California whole. But I digress.)
The other apocalyptic warning in current release, Disney’s Tomorrowland, may be even worse. That movie swears up and down that global destruction is imminent and unavoidable. Hell, the entire movie is premised on that fact. But then, miraculously, a spunky young Caucasian girl (Brittany Robertson) makes it all go away. The world will be OK after all. Those dire predictions were in fact wrong. At least Tomorrowland does kill off a character with whom we have identified – a little Caucasian girl, no less. She is, in reality, a robot, so perhaps the human cost of catastrophe is not really all the great. But still, they kill her, and she does not pop back up to life with a happy little song and dance.
And so we have climate change deniers, or worse, the multitudes who don’t deny climate change but simply don’t feel like they need to do anything about it. Just like we have multitudes who know that corporations shouldn’t be collecting massive data on us, but figure, “oh, what the hell. It’ll be all right, somehow.” Or multitudes who know on some level that accelerating income inequality will probably destabilise our society, but who assume some smart guy in a lab will team with some no-nonsense guy with a gun and make all the problems go away.
This is what movies in 2015 teach us. Fiddling while Rome burns. Munching popcorn while SoCal falls into the ocean. Maybe killing Blake wouldn’t have changed any of that. Then again, maybe it would have changed the world.