Thursday, June 25, 2015

American heroism vs. American self-interest

There's no doubt San Andreas, this summer's foremost natural disaster movie, wants to position itself as just the latest film to pay its respects to the American heroism of the first responders. This is both an ongoing form of patriotism and a continuing shout out to those who gave their lives on 9/11.

Then why the hell does the hero of this movie, played by Dwayne Johnson, abandon his post during probably the greatest disaster to ever strike his country?

If you really don't want to know more about San Andreas than what I've already told you, you should probably consider this your SPOILER ALERT.

Let me give you a bit of the set up before I bring out the big guns.

Okay, so The Rock (I should really stop calling him that) is a helicopter pilot for the Los Angeles fire department. We know he's really heroic because in the opening scene, he saves a girl from a car that's hanging over a crevice in the San Fernando Valley. This is no ordinary rescue mission, as it's clear he has to endanger himself and his crew just to get the chopper in position to make the rescue. And when there comes a moment when it seems like he should abort, instead he hands the controls over to his co-pilot and descends to save both the girl and one of his fellow rescuers who got himself pinned in his initial rescue attempt.

So it's pretty clear that Johnson's Ray Gaines will go above and beyond the call of duty.

Except, you know, when the entire west coast falls apart.

Gaines is in his chopper bound for the Hoover dam area, which has just been demolished by a massive earthquake where seismologists thought there were no faults. As would logically happen in a situation like this, rescue personnel are called in from distant municipalities to save the unexpectedly crippled region. So Gaines gets the call.

As would not happen, Gaines is alone in his chopper. Apparently, one firefighter per chopper is the ratio favored in a scenario where rescue personnel are flooding in from other areas in whatever numbers the local police and fire can afford.

As would really not happen -- at least, not with the type of hero Gaines is supposed to be -- Gaines doesn't report in with his supervisors or return back from whence he came when the shit starts to hit the fan, and the titular fault erupts in such a way as it will destroy downtown Los Angeles. No, instead of following some kind of emergency protocol that would definitely be in place even if communications were down, he flies to the downtown L.A. highrise where his soon-to-be ex-wife (Carla Gugino) is meeting an inexplicably little-used Kylie Minogue for lunch. Conveniently, he was on the phone with her at the time the quake hit, so he knew where she'd be.

As would really REALLY not happen, once he has improbably rescued his wife (and only his wife, since no one else made it to the roof), the pair of them determine to fly on to San Francisco, where they have learned their daughter might be trapped in a collapsing parking garage. (Because, you know, they have no trouble getting her on the phone when a quake has just ripped California a new asshole.)

We would not blame them for their responses as parents. However, his response as a qualified professional whose job it is to assist during disaster relief, and who is piloting a multi-hundred thousand dollar piece of city-owned equipment, is completely unjustified. When you are a firefighter, you don't have the luxury to pick and choose which people you save (not once, but twice). You save the nearest people who can most readily benefit from your help. Especially when neither of the people you are attempting to save are particularly likely to be saved by your help.

What's all the more absurd about the impromptu trip to save the daughter (Alexandra Daddario) is that the quake that has hit San Francisco is from a Los Angeles epicenter, meaning it hasn't been nearly as disastrous as the L.A. portion of the quake. Local firefighters, who are actually doing their job properly, should be sufficient to help the young Miss Gaines. Or, more to the point, they are the only ones who can help her, since a trapped in a collapsing parking garage situation is not necessarily the type of situation that will hold for the two-plus hours it would take to fly a helicopter from Los Angeles to San Francisco. (It could take longer than that. Does a 747 fly only twice as fast as a helicopter? I doubt it.)

Of course, bigger shit is still in store for San Francisco, but none of the Gaineses could possibly know that. They aren't seismologists, and even if they were, they wouldn't likely know that the highest ever recorded earthquake is about to drop hell on San Francisco.

These concessions to both logic and duty are to support something that the movie spends a great amount of time on, even if it never does it very well. Namely, the Gaines parents lost their other daughter to a drowning on a white water rafting trip -- a drowning Ray thought he should have been able to prevent. Characters in earthquake movies always have back stories like this, and yeah, we want them to get their redemption if it's done right.

But "done right" means an anguished parent putting him or herself in harm's way, going the extra mile to save his or her family member when everyone else thinks there's no chance. More points to that parent if he or she is not a big, strong person whose source of employment gives him or her an increased chance of pulling off the rescue. "Done right" is not when a rescue professional forsakes all the thousands of other people who needs his or her help in order to prioritize the safety of his or her own family member.

I still gave San Andreas 2.5 stars on Letterboxd -- in other words, an almost thumbs up. I attribute this to my policy of not watching trailers anymore, which means that I had not seen a single image of destruction before sitting down Tuesday afternoon.

And hey, at my core, I still like to see shit get blowed up.

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