Here’s something about going to the multiplex in 2015: you’re primed to experience the spectacular. The screen is huge, the sound booms from all angles, your expensive seats are booked in advance, the movie’s in 3D. Even the commercials beforehand have exceptionally high production values.
Each of these individual elements combines into a barely audible but incessant whisper: this isn’t television buddy. This is something bigger. This is as close as you will get to experiencing magic.
All of which to say: when you enter a multiplex in 2015 and you watch the entire state of California go up in flames and it feels thoroughly unspectacular, you know that something is seriously wrong with not just this movie, but all movies. San Andreas is symptomatic of myriad different trends plaguing mainstream movies in this cultural moment.
The first of these is a lack of location specificity. One of the rapidly diminishing joys of going to the movies is getting to know a place. Disaster movies from The Towering Inferno to Titanic are adept at soliciting thrills by getting an audience used to a particular environment and then setting about destroying it. More recent films seem to jettison this approach in favour of an idea that moving a story forward has to mean traversing hundreds of different locations.
So it is with San Andreas. You’d think that a movie so self-consciously aligned with one state that its trailers feature various takes on California Dreamin’ would have an embedded sense of place.
Yes, we get to see the Hollywood sign topple over and the Golden Gate Bridge collapse, but San Andreas suffers from the same phobia about staying in the same place that most contemporary Hollywood movies suffer. The characters run, fly, swim and limp from city to city, spending barely enough time at each for us to stop and take in the sights. When the film finally settles for San Francisco, it’s an entirely computer-generated, flooded city. It feels hyperreal.
Even more bizarrely, panning across a Californian shopping mall in one scene incongruously reveals the very Australian spectre of a Ray’s Outdoors outlet. Is this a trace of the movie’s production context (it was filmed in Queensland)? Or is it some sort of localised product placement? (This isn’t as far-fetched as it might sound: the Australian trailer for Ted 2 features a reference to Centrelink, and Ray’s Outdoors is currently hosting a San Andreas-themed online competition).
Either way, it’s a jolting moment, one reminder among many that what you’re watching doesn’t really make sense, and that it doesn’t really make sense for you to be watching it.
To call the plot of San Andreas fable-like is to understate its simplicity. The charismatic Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson plays rescue helicopter pilot Ray Gaines, a salt-of-the-earth working class type whose wife Emma (Carla Gugino) left him for a rich property developer (Ioan Gruffudd). As a series of earthquakes and a tsunami wreak havoc on California, Ray and his ex-wife go in search of their daughter, who was abandoned amid the destruction by the progressively evil rich guy. Paul Giamatti plays a seismologist who predicted the whole thing.
So far, so formulaic. Now is the part where I’m supposed to say that none of this matters, because nobody goes to these things for the story.
But this patronising cliché, used for decades now to defend mediocrity at the multiplex, sets our standards woefully low. The fact is, some disaster films innovate in plot as much as visuals (I’m thinking here particularly of 2008’s Cloverfield). And even if the sole reason for going to San Andreas is to experience the spectacular, well it fails miserably on this count too.
We can thank the 3D. Intended to immerse you in what you’re watching, the film’s 3D had the exact opposite effect at the screening I attended. It felt like looking into a diorama. Planes and helicopters looked like toys, San Francisco looked like a model city. When Emma and Ray chart a speed boat through the flooded city, they looked like two-dimensional paper figures, unceremoniously dragged through the shiniest computer generated disaster zone yet committed to the screen.
The dialogue is unsurprisingly atrocious. At one point somebody asks the evil businessman why he never had children.
“These are my children,” he says, nodding to a brochure of skyscrapers. “I guess I spent too much time building them so I was too busy for kids.”
The final scene is so unsubtle it’s transcendent.
“What happens next,” Emma asks Ray, both of them surveying the wreckage of the Golden Gate Bridge.
“We rebuild,” he says, and a giant American flag unfurls itself over the bridge.
What a weird moment. What a weird film! This ending, combined with scenes showing people fleeing from collapsing buildings, makes this feel like some lost movie from the aftermath of September 11, ricocheted 14 years into the future. And it raises a question that would take an entire thesis to even begin answering: why, in 2015, is Hollywood nostalgically harking back to the politics of 2001?
► 1 1/2 stars
► San Andreas is currently screening nationally.