June 20, 2024

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San Andreas: The Uncanny Valley (Fault Line?) Of Disaster Movies

Not pictured: Channing Tatum

It may seem strange to compare a disaster movie to a theory on robotics but San Andreas is an earthquake movie starring The Rock so comparisons to strong creatures with limited, if any, emotional range are purely coincidental.  The Uncanny Valley is a theory, pictured above to the extent any theory can be, that says as robots become more and more human-like there is a moment where our emotional reaction to them dips before coming back up.  To the left of the valley the robots are so unlike humans that we perceive them as curiosities.  To the right of the valley the robots are close enough to humans that we can have positive emotional responses to them.  But that moment when the robot is close to being a human without getting it right and instead it is just…creepy–that is the Uncanny Valley.  And San Andreas is the Uncanny Valley of disaster movies.  There’s a lot to discuss here and some of it involves spoilers, so you can read more after the break.


I am usually a fan of disaster movies but I was deeply uncomfortable during the entire screening of San Andreas.  That was new for me and I tried to figure out why after the screening.  Here’s what I came up with.

  • Most disaster movies are ludicrous.  Independence Day, Godzilla, or just about any zombie movie has a higher mortality rate than San Andreas. But all of those are pure fantasy.  Aliens, giant monsters, and zombie infections can certainly be allegories for larger, real threats.  But they aren’t real and I can disconnect that part of my mind that thinks any part of it could be real.  I can watch those large scale disasters without any of it sinking in.  It’s an insane roller coaster ride I’ll never go on.
  • Some disaster movies are intense, but small in nature.  Here I’m thinking of Gravity, Titanic, or even The Perfect Storm.  While those are impressive spectacles on screen, the disaster they cover is relatively small albeit emotional.  These stories are also disconnected from the “I may actually worry about this someday.”  These are insane roller coaster rides where the train is already full and I’m not riding it.
  • I grew up with the threat of earthquakes.  Being a Californian, the threat of earthquakes was always a very real thing.  I still remember the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, the waves of water sloshing out of my pool, the feeling of powerlessness, the trickle of information as the damage was revealed–and I was 60 miles inland, spared from the significant danger.  Still, this hit closer to home than any other disaster movie.  San Andreas is the actual ride people could be forced to take some day.  People I care about.

All of this combined to make me feel genuinely uncomfortable while watching the movie.  A good chunk of that might have been the third element, but the first two certainly played their part in that the enjoyable moments from a disaster movie were taken away.  Standard disaster movie tropes–bridges falling, roads collapsing, clouds of billowing dust from toppled buildings–felt less amusing and more unsettling in San Andreas than in any other similar film.

But even with the discomfort from the actual disaster at issue this movie had numerous problems.  First, even though our hero The Rock is supposed to be the good guy that we all cheer for because he’s trying to save his family he’s really a selfish prick.  We are intended to understand his selfishness because he is trying to rescue his estranged wife and daughter.  But early in the movie it’s revealed that he has one of the few rescue helicopters left in Los Angeles after a major earthquake hits–he was flying it to a maintenance center because of course you wouldn’t put the helicopter maintenance center where the helicopters actually sit.  So he’s in the air when the earthquake first hits Los Angeles and he uses the copter to save his wife–fine, everything was in a rush, may as well save somebody.  But then when he discovers his daughter is in trouble in San Francisco he decides to fly the helicopter there.  Not trade the helicopter for something else.  Not hand it over to, you know, RESCUE people so they could do some good with it while he attempts to rescue his daughter.  Nope, he’s heading north and he’s taking the last helicopter with him.  Screw you, LA.

Oh, wait, actually I’m cool with that.  Never mind.

We’re accustomed to heroes being self-interested in disaster movies but never over this great a range.  He actually flies over emergencies and fires and places in trouble and ignores them.  The only thing that forces him to get involved is when his helicopter crashes.  At which point he abruptly leaves the situation.

He was doing an appearance at the mall. No, not really.
He was doing an appearance at the mall. No, not really.

There’s also a weird moment when the helicopter crashes.  He and his wife are fine, because of course they are.  But fuel is being leaked onto them.  Now, we all know action/disaster films can only mean one thing when the words fuel and leak appear anywhere near each other–things are about to get explodey!  Rock and Mrs. Rock run through the remnants of the department store they crashed into (he aimed for a mall when crashing, for which I will award him 10 points) and he grabs a jacket because his other shirt has combustion juice all over it.

And that’s it.

No explosion.  No fire.  Heck, even the jacket disappears a few scenes later.  It’s a truly bizarre moment in an already odd movie.

Another strange moment is the Bad Guy.  Yes, he has a name but it doesn’t matter.  And unlike other disaster movies, he didn’t cause the disaster, he’s just a prick.  First, he’s shacking up with The Rock’s ex-wife which is already a really bad idea.  Second, he’s super rich and The Rock is a real salt-of-the-earth truck-driving good guy and Rich People are bad.  Third, although he’s generally a rich douchebag at first he shows his true colors when he leaves The Rock’s daughter pinned in a limo trapped in a collapsing underground garage.  When he goes for help he’s almost hit by falling concrete–the concrete does absolutely murder one of his really expensive shoes.  This triggers a flight instinct and Bad Guy wanders away.

Maybe he’s in shock, we might think.  So we’re given another scene where Bad Guy needs to take cover from a billowing cloud of dust that, for some reason, is filled with solid things that will kill you (unlike the other clouds of dust we’ve already seen that do not contain sold, lethal chunks).  He can’t find cover but he found another guy who has a super sweet spot to hide.  So the Bad Guy throws the smart hiding guy into the cloud and takes the hidey hole.  Confirmed Bad Guy.

The problem here is that the Bad Guy eventually gets what’s coming to him.  In this case he’s on the Golden Gate Bridge when a tsunami sends a super tanker tipping over into the bridge.  One of the cargo containers falls free and squashes the Bad Guy.  It’s supposed to be a moment of comedy since Bad Guy got flattened but any elation we’re supposed to feel is immediately undone as the rest of the ship proceeds to rip the Golden Gate Bridge to shreds and we see hundreds, if not thousands, of people killed.  And there’s no way all of them were mean to The Rock’s daughter.

This scene and so many others have a cold, callous regard for the disasters being witnessed that I don’t recall in other disaster films.  When The Rock is in his helicopter as the earthquake hits he looks outside and sees highways collapsing, cars falling into lethal crashes, and he just turns away.  No regard at all.  No shock even.  Granted, he’s about to fly his own copter into a giant domino set of skyscrapers to try and rescue his wife, but it seems every time death or serious injury on a massive scale occurs nobody cares.  The destruction is given as much attention as a slow motion replay during a sporting event.  Yup, that building totally pancaked to the ground.  Let’s see what’s next!

Just as the San Andrea fault ripped a hole through the heart of California, the movie San Andreas fell into a deep chasm of the Disaster Movie Uncanny Valley.  Next time, let’s just use time-traveling robots to blow stuff up, mmkay?