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The Real Fault of San Andreas Is How It Maligns Californians

Joe Mathews: Even this jaded journalist was shaken by the cynicism in Hollywood's latest disaster movie.

After sitting through a matinee of the new earthquake disaster movie San Andreas, I experienced my own dark seismic fantasy: as the Big One hits California, a giant hole opens up in the ground under Burbank, and Warner Bros. disappears into it forever.

San Andreas

The Real Fault of San Andreas Is How It Maligns Californians -- Joe Mathew

I had been prepared—by the foreshocks of advance publicity—for Warner’s San Andreas to be a dumb film full of pseudoscientific nonsense about earthquakes. But San Andreas is much worse than that. Even for a jaded journalist, the film is so profoundly cynical and callous that to call it reprehensible might be too kind.

I am not talking about the nonsense spewed onscreen about chasms and tsunamis and seismic prediction that are life-and-death subjects in many parts of the world. Nor am I referring to the self-important suggestion made by the filmmakers—both in the movie and in promoting it—that they are sending an important message about earthquake preparedness—a claim that should register above 8.0 on the Chutzpah Scale.

No, my main beef with San Andreas is its treatment of California and its people. Fundamentally, the film trivializes the loss of human life. And it offers thinly disguised contempt for Californians, who are portrayed—with few exceptions—as quick to panic, cowardly or corrupt. In response to calamity, the Californians in this film don’t work together; they think only of themselves, ignore instructions, scream and lose their composure, or take advantage of the emergency.

Then there are the glossy lead characters who—amidst indescribable tragedy— spend considerable time talking about themselves and their relationships. They also do a lot of kissing and—call me a prude if you like—show off an awful lot of cleavage as two cities are destroyed and tens of thousands of people perish around them. Yes, Californians can be awfully self-absorbed, but this is the sort of self-absorption that should get people tried at The Hague.

For those lucky enough not to have seen the film, it stars Dwayne Johnson—the artist formerly known as The Rock—as a Los Angeles Fire Department rescue helicopter captain. After a devastating earthquake swarm hits L.A. and downtown buildings collapse (except for the Bank of America building—is that product survival placement?), this public employee ignores the millions of suffering Angelenos who pay his salary to focus exclusively on saving his estranged wife from a skyscraper.

Since she is played by the wonderful Carla Gugino, I was willing to cut him some slack. But then, after rescuing her, the couple—without a second thought— abandons my devastated city to fly to San Francisco to find their daughter.

The film portrays California as very rich people here see it—two cities, Los Angeles and San Francisco—with not much else of importance anywhere else. We learn nothing of damage and lives lost along the San Andreas between those cities—no tears are shed for the Central Coast, or even the East Bay or San Jose. There is a brief helicopter crash landing in Bakersfield, but that scene is mainly an opportunity to slur the people of Kern County, who—just minutes after the greatest disaster in state history—are devoting their energy to looting. To add insult to injury: in a film where even the Caltech scientists are improbably good-looking, the Bakersfield folks are grizzled and have bad haircuts.

Our self-involved protagonists arrive in San Francisco by jumping out of a stolen plane and into AT&T Park, allowing Johnson to quip inappropriately—in the midst of disaster and death—that it’d been a long time since he’d taken his wife to second base.

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Even this jaded journalist was shaken by the cynicism in Hollywood's latest disaster movie.

In the City by the Bay, no one can think straight in the panic—except two young brothers, who help save Johnson’s daughter and, in keeping with the anti-Californian bias of the movie, are British. Then, just minutes after a tsunami destroys what was left of San Francisco after the earthquakes, the older British brother and Johnson’s daughter do some kissing.

Who knew mass casualties were such a turn-on?

Yes, it’s true that over the last century Hollywood has destroyed parts of California to create moments of cinematic wonder. And Californians don’t always look so good in the process. You could almost say that Hollywood filmmakers like portraying their neighbors as expendable folks, whose extinction can be enjoyed by worthier Americans in the heartland.

But San Andreas feels especially cruel, particularly in the way it ignores the victims. In contrast, at the end of the classic 1936 film San Francisco, the people get to march arm-in-arm back into their earthquake-ruined city as they defiantly sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”.

There is also a whiff of political ambition amidst the film’s cynicism. When I was covering Governor Schwarzenegger, Hollywood friends of his told me that San Andreas’ star Johnson—the Rock—was patterning his career after Schwarzenegger—from a muscle business (wrestling) to action films, then comedy, philanthropy—and eventually, maybe politics.

That seemed improbable at the time. But now comes a movie where Johnson is the hero in the midst of statewide calamity. Once the shaking stops, Johnson gets the movie’s final word, promising in gubernatorial tones, “Now we rebuild.” Even in this stinker, you can smell what the Rock is cooking.

It’s easy to dismiss this film’s contempt for Californians as mere melodrama—but the ugly truth is that San Andreas accurately reflects Hollywood’s attitude about its home state. The entertainment industry last year summoned all its influence to secure $1.6 billion in state tax incentives over the past five years. The money is supposed to bring back to California big-budget productions like San Andreas, which was filmed mainly in Australia.

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Of course, putting taxpayer money into trash like this is horrifying, and such tax incentives make little sense with so many more unmet pressing needs here—including buildings and infrastructure that need billions in seismic retrofitting.

Indeed, there is one good thing about San Andreas. The film, arriving at the height of state budget season, makes a convincing case for stripping Hollywood of those tax incentives, and putting the money into rebuilding our state.

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Joe Mathews
Zócalo Public Square