The joy of watching buildings crumble
In one Eureka moment while watching San Andreas , I understood why I loved that last scene of Fight Club so much. There’s something beautiful about buildings being razed, something darkly enchanting about giant structures crumbling into rubble. Remember a similar jaw-dropping scene in Inception when Cobb and Mal stroll past collapsing skyscrapers? This is not to demean the victims of a disaster though. Regardless of how breathtaking it is to behold such a visual, it’s dreadfully sad to have people running around in mortal fear, even if sometimes, it has to take a catastrophe for people to remember that which is important in their lives, that which they have taken for granted — as the protagonists in such films so often do: in this case, Raymond Gaines (Dwayne Johnson). But this is a film, after all; so the guilt you feel when you wonder if you’re enjoying watching thousands of people running amok, is assuaged. It’s harmless fun, much like a video game in which you enjoy playing an assassin.
This is a movie that’s perfect for Dwayne Johnson. His character Raymond works for the LA Fire and Rescue Department and goes about, like a superhero, rescuing people from dangerous crevices for a hobby. In the opening scene, a reporter talks up the hype for him by asking him what he thought about being the officer with the most number of successful rescue missions. He barely looks at her, as he’s flying a helicopter, and mutters, “Just doing my duty.” I almost laughed out loud at his coolness, his swag.
The main story of San Andreas is nothing new and seems like a rip-off of 2012. A separated man seeks familial redemption and has to save his daughter in the backdrop of a disaster. While 2012 at least tried to show the new husband of the protagonist’s separated wife as a decent man, San Andreas lazily portrays Raymond’s rival, the high-flying architect Daniel Riddick, as a coward. It is just too easy, even going by Dwayne’s standards.
The character I really wanted to see more of was Lawrence Hayes (the underrated Paul Giamatti), a seismology researcher at Caltech. You could make a case for him being the true hero of the story (I hope The Rock won’t land the People’s Elbow on me for saying this). While Lawrence tries to save people at the cost of personal loss, Raymond’s only concern, despite working for the government, seems to be his family. He’s happily (okay, scratch ‘happily’) flying around in his government-sponsored helicopter, looking out for his family, despite thousands running for dear life. Not quite hero material. The characters of Ben Taylor (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and Ollie Taylor (Art Parkinson), who show that kindness begets kindness, are also quite enjoyable.
For a disaster flick, there’s a surprising amount of depth in the relationship between Ray Gaines and his wife, Emma (Carla Gugino). The trauma in their past makes it all so much more meaningful, and lends so much urgency and importance to Ray’s rescue mission of his daughter. It isn’t just her he’s rescuing, it’s also himself. What a lovely idea — a man with the most number of successful rescue missions now has to rescue… himself.
But perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of San Andreas was how it didn’t over-reach. The destruction (great CGI work) while being colossal, is limited to a region. The world isn’t ending in this one, and I was happy for that. Sometimes, the world doesn’t need to end for it to end. Failure to save a daughter can do it too.