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Shark Bite TheatreSan Andreas: The Family Is At Fault
by Andrew E. Lindsay
In 1939, a movie starring Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald, and Spencer Tracy was released titled, San Francisco. It was love story, of sorts, about saloon-nightclub-gambling-joint-owner Gable pursing professional singer MacDonald, with interference from Gable's childhood friend, Tracy, who is now a Catholic priest. The story is set against the backdrop of the days leading up to the infamous earthquake of 1906 that destroyed most of the city. Fine acting performances all around, and the special effects were, by 1939 standards, exceptionally good. They may look a little dated today, but the film still holds up pretty well.
It is now 2015, San Francisco has long since been rebuilt, and the memory of that real-life disaster has mostly faded from the general consciousness of our country. But earthquakes continue to shake the world, at home and abroad, and there is a general attitude that at some point, the infamous San Andreas Fault Line will go bananas and dump California into the Pacific Ocean.
Which brings us to the first reason the movie San Andreas works. We've all heard of the San Andreas Fault, even if we're not seismologists and even if we don't live on the west coast. It's a really long tectonic boundary between the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate that extends over 800 miles through California, and everybody knows that if it starts moving around, really bad things happen in a hurry. What we don't know, including seismologists, is how to predict with any real accuracy when this is going to happen or how catastrophic it will be when it does.
So San Andreas immediately taps into a looming, collective fear that many people have that a disaster of Biblical proportions is one plate shift away, and it's impact will be global. This isn't some made up, impending meteor that suddenly appeared in NASA telescopes, or some random, rogue wave that just happened to be rolling around some section of ocean with a stalled cruise ship. The fault line is real, it's big, it runs through a lot of very populated areas, and it has already caused major problems in recent history.
The second reason San Andreas works is the absolutely phenomenal use of special effects. They are terrifyingly real, and do not require the same kind of suspension of disbelief as, say, watching dinosaurs or superheros do their thing. When the quake hits San Francisco, it is devastatingly powerful; skyscrapers collapse, streets are torn apart, tidal waves move mountains of water, people die horribly, and it is all real and disturbing and visceral, as a nine-point-something earthquake literally destroys a city.
Director Brad Peyton captures well the chaos and panic and confusion that ensue in this kind of disaster. Rational behavior is abandoned, along with decency and morality, and some of the worst of human behavior is exhibited in the midst of the mayhem. And yet, it is also is a showcase for some of the very best of humanity, where selflessness and sacrifice are second-nature for some, who choose to do the right thing, even when there is no compulsion or even expectation to do anything other than look out for number one. At times, these two disparate reactions to the tragedy come face-to-face, and these moments provide us with some necessary and satisfying relief from the overwhelming tensions of the story.
The third reason the story works is that the writers, Carlton Cuse, Jeremy Passmore, and Andre Fabrizio, actually made an effort to write a story. It would be far too easy to simply throw some characters into the middle of a disaster and let the special effects do the rest. We've all seen that movie, more than once. This is actually a story about a family on the verge of breaking apart, set against the backdrop of a city about to break apart. Yes, the city is a main character, but we're rooting for this family. We don't initially know why these intelligent, caring people are on the brink of divorce, but we like them, and we want them to figure it out.
The father, Ray, is played thoughtfully by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. He's a chopper pilot with the LA Fire and Rescue with a very long string of successful missions. He's also big and strong and handsome and looks like an heroic kind of guy. But he's extremely likable and humble, and slips just as easily into the husband and father role, as well. He and his estranged wife, Emma, played by Carla Gugino, are on the verge of signing divorce papers, although the reasons why are not immediately clear. Daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario), the apple of daddy's eye, is supposed to spend the upcoming weekend with Ray driving up to San Francisco.
Then the first quake hits in Las Vegas, and Ray is called into work. Blake travels to San Francisco with mom's very rich and successful real estate developer boyfriend instead (Daniel Riddick, played by Ioan Gruffudd). There she meets Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt), a young man hoping to land a job at Riddick's firm, along with Ben's younger brother, Ollie (Art Parkinson). The quake hits about the time the four of them are in Riddick's building in San Francisco, Mom is in LA, and Dad is returning from Vegas from the first quake. The rest of the story is all about Ray trying to find his fragmented family and get them to safety. And even for a larger-than-life-kinda-guy like Dwayne Johnson, this is no easy task.
There's also another story going on involving a seismologist professor at Caltech, Lawrence Hayes, played by Paul Giamatti. He's been working for a long time with a colleague on developing software that will allow them to predict, with great accuracy, when and where and how strong the next earthquake will be. My only real quibble with the storyline is that this technology is developed and proved effective the day before the earthquake hits and all hell breaks loose. It's a very convenient coincidence, plot-wise, and could've been something they figured out some time ago but just hadn't had a major quake to try it on. But whatever. I'll give them a pass, mostly because I like Paul Giamatti, and because of the nearly anonymous efforts of him and his colleagues, they're able to save thousands of lives. It seems to me that in real life, that's how most of the heros get it done: in quiet anonymity with names you've never heard of and faces you've never seen.
I think the fourth reason San Andreas works is that, although the circumstances are nearly supernatural in their scope and severity, the plight of the family is still very relatable. Families are fragile things thrown together in a very hostile world. Maybe the dangers aren't always natural disasters. In fact, they rarely are anything close to a super earthquake or wildfire or flood or tornado or whatever looks impressive on a movie screen. Sure, those things happen in real life. But not to everybody, not even to most everybody.
But most families are confronted by disasters just as dangerous, just as destructive, and just as difficult to navigate and survive. Marriage is hard work, and at best you hold on to the founding commitment of your relationship, to love each other every day, even on the days you don't like each other very much. But at least with your spouse, you get to pick the person you want to share your life with. When children come along, it's kind of like Christmas morning when you're a kid: you hope you get something really exciting that you'll want to play with every day, and not another pair of knitted pajamas from your Aunt Sue.
And so there you are, in your own ship of fools, a family more thrown together than drafted, and now you've got to figure out how to make memories and make a living, how to compromise without crumbling, learn how to laugh and when to cry. You deal with death and downsizing and disappointments and disease. You relish the highs, you endure the lows. You spend and save and scrimp and survive. At one point in your life, your natural disaster may be a broken refrigerator, and another time it may be the death of a child. Your victory may be a long-awaited promotion at work, or it may be someone passing 11th grade English.
The point is, life is hard. It's even harder with a family, because there are so many moving parts, so many needs, so many expectations. But it's also the only way to experience life, surrounded by people who love each other unconditionally. In spite of, not because of, what everyone brings to the table. And often, in the depths of our family disasters, we find the hope and the courage and the strength to stick together and come through it all better than we were. It's the trials in life that ultimately take the sum of our individual selves and make us one, make us whole.
And that, to me, is what I liked best in this movie. I'm not sure what the filmmakers hoped I would take away from this film, but in a day and age when families are much maligned and fathers are portrayed as fall guys or idiots, and thought of as optional or superfluous, this film showed us a man with flaws who still put his family first. The father is unapologetically the hero, not because of what he does for a living, but what he does for his family. He has taught them and prepared them and trusts them, and they trust him. When disaster strikes, he does whatever is necessary to gather them together and protect them, even as the world falls apart around them. And that sounds a lot like real life to me.
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