Q: Have you heard the one about California turning into cookie dust?
A: It’s San Andreas’ fault.
“San Andreas” doesn’t just topple San Francisco and flood the bay area with a tsunami, it takes Los Angeles down, too. Inhabitants of Bakersfield aren’t very happy either but, hey, most of us wouldn’t recognize the town’s skyline if we were staring right at it, so no Hollywood filmmaker is going to waste camera time converting it to matchsticks.
In fact, in the splendid first act of this enormously entertaining apocalyptic rubbish about “The Big One,” the mammoth earthquake that some science and a lot of folklore insist is lying in wait for California’s San Andreas fault, the whole thing starts off at the Hoover Dam, whose destruction is as picturesque and exciting as you could possibly want.
If you read veteran San Francisco movie critic Mick LaSalle’s splendid piece in Thursday’s Gusto, you read one Bay Area resident’s understandable complaints about his fabled American city always turning into rubble for the fun and profit of America’s Entertainment Industrial Complex.
When 9/11 happened, the late film master Robert Altman stopped everyone dead in their tracks by blaming Hollywood for the imagination that inspired those who inflicted horror on New York, Washington and, indeed, the American soul.
But John Frankenheimer’s “Black Sunday” – about a blimp terrorizing the Super Bowl – was based on a novel by Thomas Harris, who also wrote “Red Dragon” and “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Hannibal” and whose imagination must be identified as the most influential pulp imagination of our time, by far.
The fact is, California – the gorgeous edge of our continent – has always been a place where fantasies of apocalyptic destruction bloom right along with the oranges and avocados. In the greatest Los Angeles novel of them all, “The Day of the Locust,” the protagonist can’t stop himself from painting “The Burning of Los Angeles.”
The old joke often told by natives with advanced cases of gallows humor is that “L.A. isn’t the end of the world but you can certainly see it from there.”
So here’s the newest fantasy about the earthquake waiting in nature’s peaceful bosom to take California down. What a wonderful movie to see for those of us whose most beloved family members live out there. How the devil are we supposed to enjoy THIS fantasy, we might well ask.
Well, I did anyway. It’s exciting, terrifying and, yes, also fun to watch in a deeply primitive Saturday matinee action movie way where the entire human species (all possible genders) is transformed into little boys whose great pleasure at playtime is both building with blocks and then knocking them all down.
It’s our species: The more we love what we’ve created, the more we need to imagine its destruction. In the most childish possible way, it’s our way of telling ourselves that we’re bigger and better than our buildings and bridges and ballparks.
That’s especially true if our rescuing surrogates for movie purposes are Dwayne Johnson, formerly known as The Rock, as a firefighter and rescue specialist Carla Gugino as his soulful ex-wife who deserves better than the ultra-slick one-percenter she’s moving in with. He’s San Francisco’s richest and busiest skyscraper builder.
His buildings, naturally, take a hell of a licking before the movie is over. The audience’s regard for him doesn’t fare at all well either. But then in any Johnson movie, pencil neck geeks aren’t going to flourish much, especially if they wear suits that cost more than most people’s cars and are rich enough to travel in their own planes.
Builder boy here was about to fly Dwayne and Carla’s lovely daughter (Alexandra Daddario) to college in Seattle but the movie follows the course of “The Big One” as it ripples the land and destroys California.
It begins with a young girl in the San Fernando Valley who is appallingly texting while driving on a mountain road in the San Fernando Valley and then is suddenly knocked off the road by a minor avalanche. (There’s a lesson there about distracted driving, let’s hope.) Then it hits the Hoover Dam despite the on-scene presence of two brilliant Cal-Tech scientists (the important one played by Paul Giamatti, as the doomsaying good guy).
On the Richter scale, the successive events get bigger and bigger – 7.1, 9.1, 9.6. Our scientist begins the film by telling us that the largest earthquake recorded was 9.1 or, as he puts it, 10 million times greater than the destructive power of the Hiroshima A-bomb.
The 9.6, he tells the world, will happen in California but it’s going to rattle the East Coast.
But there’s Johnson and his family, just trying absurdly to reunite as the state is obliterated by terrific, moderately priced special effects and CGI.
Carefully note that the only human stories told in the script by Carlton Cuse (the former Harvard boy who invented “Nash Bridges” and developed the early “Lethal Weapons” franchise) are ones endangering the principals. Actual human destruction on this scale is of no interest to the makers of this film. It’s all heroes, villains, buildings and bridges. Tens of millions of innocent bystanders are just extras.
So are we in the audience.
Box office money is the star.
The woman behind me at the movie laughed all the way through it. It was all just an amusement park ride to her.
I thought it a well-made anthology of disaster movies – with some “Earthquake,” some “Deep Impact,” some “Independence Day,” some “Poseidon Adventure” and a few dozen others for good measure.
Heaven help me, I had a great time.
Even so, Altman’s anti-Hollywood grousing has been in my head for 14 years. It’s probably not going away anytime soon.
3 (Out of four)
Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Paul Giamatti, Archie Panjabi, Alexandra Daddario and Hugo Johnstone-Burt in Brad Peyton’s disaster movie about “the big one” – the earthquake that takes down California.