You have to ask, where will it end? From Volcano to Twister to The Day After Tomorrow, Hollywood has a seemingly endless appetite for destroying the world via extreme geographical means, for taking the destructive power of the natural world to the nth degree and throwing the resulting chaos into the faces of the various protagonists and nameless extras who are unfortunate enough to get in the way, movie after movie after movie. San Andreas shows no signs of turning that tide around.
This time it is the turn of earthquakes to wreck havoc on the world, or, more specifically, for the San Andreas fault to turn Los Angeles and San Francisco into smoking piles of rubble. All the usual suspects are present: rouge scientist no one will listen to? Check. Famous landmarks spectacularly brought to their knees? Check. Heroic war veteran ready to save the day? Check.
The first point to make is that San Andreas contains so many ludicrous, unbelievable, and overly-dramatic scenes that if you watch this expecting realism then you bought the wrong ticket. And to say that the science is shaky would be generous; more like completely fictional (magnetic pulses indicating an imminent quake, anyone?). But that doesn’t make it an entirely wasted experience. The quality of film-making can be set aside in favour of an analysis on the content of geography being communicated through such mainstream media.
For starters, it is likely that this film will teach thousands, if not millions, a significant amount about earthquakes. Much of what they learn will be completely wrong – imaginary technologies shoehorned into the plot purely to add drama – but one would also hope that information such as how the Richter scale works, where and when the world’s biggest quakes have taken place, and indeed what the San Andreas fault itself is, will stick in people’s minds in one way or another.
The fact that the fault exists at all is likely news to many cinemagoers, and for that it’s worth considering the geographical implications. Also, what to do in an earthquake scenario – such as heading for open, high ground, or sheltering under a table if inside – is not inconsequential knowledge for people in many parts of the world. Additionally, the fact that water being sucked out to sea is an indicator of a tsunami is a vital piece of information which has already saved many thousands of lives (such as during the events of the Indian earthquake and tsunami on 26 December 2004). Geographical knowledge in such situations is indeed a lifesaver.
Natural disaster movies generally have the advantage of being able to stay away from the politics of division and othering. They therefore traditionally don’t suffer from the intense nationalism which accompanies such disaster films as Independence Day, or World Trade Centre. Nevertheless, there’s nothing quite like the sight of a lone, tattered stars-and-stripes fluttering in the breeze over the smouldering wreckage of the Golden Gate bridge to immediately politicise an entire narrative, and stir up some patriotic fervour. They couldn’t quite avoid dropping it in.
Ultimately, it’s a disaster flick-by-numbers, with little purpose other than to take many of the most absurd (and most memorable) scenes from its predecessors and repackage them into what will probably still be a highly profitable summer blockbuster. If you like top quality films, look elsewhere. But for some high-octane thrills, served with a sprinkling of geographical nuggets, you could certainly do worse.