Those Thursday previews sure work for me, because not only do I often have nothing to do, there’s often a new movie I’m possessed to see, it’s usually in the “premium large format” theater [i.e. kind of IMAX but not really], and not only do I get to see it a day before opening, but the previews are usually sparsely attended, so few annoying others. I confess to be being pretty obsessed over seeing this for some months now, because I do love me some large-scale destruction rendered in obsessive detail and presented in 3D, although now I have little to say about the film—except that it made me question why I want to see large-scale destruction rendered in obsessive detail and presented in 3D.
The movie opens with this girl doing some quite poor driving… she’s on a twisty cliffside road and looks away from an oncoming car for a while to fish out her phone, then looks away from another oncoming car to text—I was expecting a texting-while-driving cautionary lesson—but she’s felled by a sudden avalanche that sends her car bouncing down a cliff. The crash is far beyond the point of anyone surviving, but she’s FINE! Not a scratch. The Rock [as Ray] and buddies show up in a helicopter to save her [but didn’t we just establish that, as she’s a texting-while-driving teen, she deserves to die?]. He and his crew all served together in Afghanistan, and are now all serving as a rescue team, the only difference being that now “we don’t get shot at.” Have you noticed lately that serving in Afghanistan [and to a lesser extent, Iraq] is becoming movie shorthand for “heroic?” For all the accusations of “liberal Hollywood,” it’s interesting that the complexity and moral complications of these recent wars are being washed away and boiled down to simple “heroism.” And all the Rock and friends were doing over there was RESCUING PEOPLE! That’s IT! Nothing more to it than a simple, straightforward desire to rescue people—no Al Queda, no civilian casualties, no muddled mission or faulty intelligence—they were just RESCUING PEOPLE. The only difference is now—they don’t get shot at, ha ha!
Anyway they rescue the girl, which involves the Ray ripping a car door off with his bare hands, before we settle in for some dull character-setting. Rock used to be married to Emma, but they’re about to divorce, so she can marry Daniel. They have a daughter, Blake, being taken in a private jet to San Francisco by Daniel, a architect who is completing SF’s tallest building. Meanwhile, Caltech seismologist Paul Giamatti as Lawrence and his buddy are onto a system for earthquake prediction which works—as they find out when the Hoover Dam is destroyed beneath them. The friend throws a girl to safety, but ends up impaled through the foot—ow!—and sadly doesn’t make it. You’ll notice that 95% of the students in Giamatti’s class have Apple laptops—it’s QUITE unmissable. In San Francisco, Blake meets-cute a British man and his younger brother. Those are your relationships—now let’s destroy things!
Ray’s rescue helicopter is called to help out at Hoover Dam, but he takes it to LA instead to rescue his wife, who is on the top floor of of a building as an earthquake hits. Others have noted that this is the second movie, after Holy Motors in which Kylie Minogue shows up for one scene and then falls off a roof. I think she could have at least delivered a tie-in single, maybe called “The Earth May Quake (Our Love Won’t Break),” or maybe something more like this. Anyway, Emma gets to the roof, buildings toppling around her, and after some mayhem, is saved. Meanwhile, Daniel has abandoned Blake in a car trapped in an underground garage, which she tells Emma, making him one of the shorted-lived “new love interest who is revealed to be a jerk” character arcs in cinema history. The British brothers rescue her, and mom and dad are on the way to rescue her. Unmentioned is that Ray is supposed to be rescuing strangers at Hoover Dam, but he stole the helicopter for his own use. For you see, Giamatti has shown up periodically to tell us that this isn’t just ONE earthquake, like in those old musty disaster movies, where only had one mass destruction sequence, but this is a “seismic swarm,” which means evenly doled-out mass destruction throughout the film. LA gets it pretty fast [and somewhat unremarkably], but we’re building up to the big one in San Francisco. On the way, Ray and Emma crash the helicopter, steal a truck [that was stolen already, so it’s okay], borrow a plane, parachute out of it into a baseball field, then steal a boat [which we don’t see—they’re just suddenly in a boat].
SPOILERS > > >
By this time, a tsunami has swamped San Francisco, but the water has helpfully evened out right away, at around the 16th floor of a building Blake and friends are in. Dad finds them in the boat that can magically make its way through debris-strewn waters without a problem, but Blake is behind a window that is somehow, suddenly, the only unbreakable window in the entire movie. Remember—Ray can rip a car door off with his bare hands. But somehow he just gives up at the sight of a window [and interior window, mind you, not a reinforced outer window] and doesn’t even try to break it. Blake drowns, they pull her body out, there are some sad, tense moments [especially since Ray and Emma’s other daughter drowned], but of course she pukes up a sip of water and then is FINE. The seismic activity stops as soon as the family is reunited, and they stand on a hilltop as the tone of the movie gets us back to feeling that everything is gonna be FINE! A sign says San Francisco will withstand this, we see missing posters, we see some people reunited, we see rescuers arriving, and an American flag unfurls on the remains of the Golden Gate bridge. Everything’ll be back to normal in a week or so, I bet. Emma asks “Now what?” and Ray responds: “Now, we rebuild.” Smells like the indomitable human spirit!
< < < SPOILERS END
So… how was it? Well, it does what it says, and if you want to see digitally-rendered mass destruction, you will get it in spades. To the point where you might start to ask yourself: “WHY do I want to see this? Is there something a little bit wrong with me?” You see several buildings topple, bridges broken and falling, lots of post-destruction landscapes, and the land under LA and SF rippling like waves. Yet the destruction is somehow not entirely satisfying, and seems strangely distant from our main characters. I attribute this to the moral complications of making a disaster film in the present day, which we’ll get to, but… we just kind of cut to mass destruction, then cut back to our characters, and there doesn’t seem to be that much interaction. Smart move to make Ray a helicopter pilot, for then we have a good excuse to see lots of birds-eye views of the cities collapsing. We see very, very few people actually die, which might be another reason for these distant perspectives, and there are no bodies [let alone limbs or a drop of blood] in the streets, only slightly-injured and dirty survivors, all streaming toward safety. And our characters rarely interact with any of the other people, which I suppose would raise questions as to why they aren’t HELPING them. We do see Ray and Emma help a bunch of people who are too dumb to take shelter from falling scaffolding, who then act as though the couple are the collective return of Jesus, but that is the end of our interest in other people. Millions of people are dying, but this movie, and our characters, are only concerned with each other, and when the movie ends, all of our characters made it, so everything is FINE. We’ll just rebuild. See? No real problem.
The movie obviously wants to be FUN, and let us get off on the mass destruction as though it’s a funhouse ride, and I assume that is why the destruction and the humans are kept so far apart. What it pays for this approach is our interest in these characters, or any sense that any kind of human drama is unfolding here. But things that should be thrilling—like a container ship flipping end-over-end and taking out the Golden Gate bridge, or a cruise ship bulldozing through a major city—just kind of appear on screen without any excitement or real, tangible bang and crunch. Is it because it’s all CGI? Partially, as CGI can render in exquisite detail but still struggles to convey WEIGHT, but I think it’s the distance we have to keep between people and the mass destruction in order to keep the entire thing a fun summer thrill ride. Part of the fun is knowing that millions of people are dying—I don’t think anyone would show up to see an uninhabited city be destroyed—but the reality of actual people dying is a bummer. So this is what you end up with.
In the classic disaster films, by which we mean such films as Earthquake, The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure, [I had to fight back the rising bile when I read a young whippersnapper, in a review of this film, refer to The Day After Tomorrow and Armageddon as “the classics of the disaster film genre”], the film used the disaster as a catalyst for human drama, to explore humanity in the face of crisis. We see who is selfish and who selfless, who finds unexpected courage and who finks out, etc. And they were usually a group effort, having to band together and cooperate to survive, and they pointedly involved people who didn’t previously know each other, and the whole idea of making effort to save someone you don’t know. So a whole thread of it—and the examination of humanity—was the extent the characters did or didn’t make efforts on the behalf of people they didn’t know. There was also usually only one disaster, which they spent the rest of the film dealing with.
Well now, obviously, one disaster is not enough, and we need to be able to spread multiple scenes of destruction throughout the film. The other thing is that we have now actually seen real huge skyscrapers toppling, and the explosion of media everywhere means we’re just a click away from seeing real earthquake devastation, with real dead bodies and human suffering, such as in Nepal. Thus, in order for a movie like this to be “fun,” we end up with this strange disconnect between the destruction and the human reality, and hide away any dead bodies and show relatively few people actually dying or injured. As for the move away from helping others—even people one doesn’t know—I attribute that simply to the cultural shift toward greater self-centeredness and protecting one’s own. If you want a longer point of comparison, check out A Night To Remember, a film about the Titanic sinking from 1958, in which the emotional action is about saving others and—get this!—stoically resigning oneself to certain death. The movies of the 70s were about humanity banding together, but already by the time of Titanic, the majority of the action is about protecting that one person you love, and most fellow-feeling is pushed to the sidelines. By the time of The Day After Tomorrow up to the recent Into the Storm, the central focus is on one family trying to reunite amongst the deaths of numerous unknown, faceless people.
To the point of moving away from helping others we don’t know, let’s not forget that in this movie, the main character takes the helicopter which he is supposed to be using to save others, actually stealing it from a service intended to save the public, and appropriating it in order to save his own family.
I was going to suggest that one approach they could take to making this more involving, while still not showing dead bodies, is to make the footage of buildings falling eerily striking and visually stunning, but I’m beginning to think that ANY serious audience involvement would start to verge in on creepy feelings. It’s hard to make a disaster film these days! If you go see this, you will indeed get what you expect, and one must marvel at the extreme detail with which we are now able to render mass destruction. Mankind has come so far!
If you want to see the extremely detailed, mass destruction of two major cities.