Thursday, January 28, 2016

Maybe They Thought It Was 'GTA: San Andreas'?

I watch the movie 'San Andreas' last night alongside my wife, who is always up for a Big Dumb Disaster Movie. (The irony is that she also loves to read about geology and vulcanology--half her enjoyment is derived from picking apart the terrible science.) This one has a lot of Big and a lot of Dumb, but I think what bothered me most about it was that it also had a lot of Lazy and a big chunk of Uninteresting, served with a side of Creepy.

The plot, for those of you who missed it, is that the Rock is a frankly terrible human being who steals a rescue chopper in the middle of a natural disaster, abandons his responsibilities to thousands of people in desperate need, and goes after his perfectly capable daughter who has already told him at the halfway point of the film that she's safe and looking for a way out of the city. Along the way, he loots a truck, illegally barters it to some perfectly nice elderly couple (leaving them holding the bag for the inevitable grand theft auto charges) for a light plane which he ditches in mid-air to crash God knows where, then jacks someone's boat. This is the hero. This is the sympathetic guy.

The unsympathetic guy is his ex-wife's new husband, who alerts rescue authorities to the daughter's danger instead of freeing her himself, then wanders around the movie for a while looking for something to do before getting squashed like a bug.

Oh, and Paul Giamatti is in the movie, although he's really not so much "in the movie" as he is "generally movie adjacent". He plays a seismologist who warns people about the earthquake, and we're told saves lives because some of the people listened. He does not interact with the protagonists or antagonists at all, and the movie would be absolutely no different if every scene he was in was excised completely. Which I'm sure he lobbied for hard.

The thing that's hard to get away from is the bizarrely solipsistic tone of the film. The massive 9.1 earthquake that devastates Los Angeles and San Francisco is only ever shown in long shots and convenient set pieces involving the main characters. Everyone else, the entire population of both cities, is treated either as a convenient prop for the Rock to rescue, an obstacle to make their lives less convenient, or a faceless and panicky crowd to fill out the background while the Rock poses or Alexandra Daddario flirts with Hugo Johnstone-Burt. (Honestly, that may be the point of the otherwise entirely superfluous Giamatti scenes, to make people feel better about watching all the mass devastation with bland platitudes about people evacuating the city.)

I do think there's an interesting idea behind all this, believe it or not. I think you could make a movie that would be legitimately compelling about a rescue worker whose family is in the city he's helping save, one where he struggles with the moral dilemma of helping his loved ones or saving dozens of lives. But it would have to be a movie where the main character was actually aware such a moral dilemma existed, and the Rock's character is principally there to be steely determined and to Save the Girl.

(Who, again, would have been fine if he'd just told her at the halfway point, "You're doing great, keep right at it and let me know when you get to a refugee checkpoint!" instead of telling her to head directly into the middle of the burning collapsing city so that he could rescue her with the helicopter he stole.)

Watch it for the collapsing buildings, gleefully imagine the Rock being arrested afterward, and you'll feel okay about it all.

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