San Andreas, or "How Not to Behave During an Earthquake"

By James O Malley on at

Disaster film San Andreas hit cinemas last Friday but far from shaking things up, pretty much stuck to the blockbuster script to the letter - to the extent that watching it feels a bit like watching someone fill in a paint-by-numbers.

But this process doesn't have to be dull - it isn't quite like watching paint dry. Buildings collapsing and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson running about in the aftermath of the largest earthquake in history is still entertaining, and half of the fun is in predicting what will happen next.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the film though was just how stunningly irresponsible all of the characters behaved during a natural disaster. Far from being heroes, the characters in the film should serve as a warning to others to explain what NOT to do in an earthquake. Allow me to explain.

Spoiler Alert: This piece will, unsurprisingly, spoil some of what happens in the film. Though if you've seen any disaster film ever, you'll probably know what happens anyway.

Ray (The Rock)

So our main character is Chief Raymond Gaines, who plays a search and rescue helicopter pilot for the Los Angeles Fire Department. He's seen with his crew at the start of the film, before the earthquake hits, playing the hero in a complex cliff-top rescue. Clearly this guy is the best in the business - and someone who you would want around in a crisis. He's like Commander Chris Hadfield - a cool-headed, professional who you would think won't buckle under pressure.

So what does he do when the quake hits? He, umm, essentially steals his company helicopter and rather than rescue earthquake victims near to where he is, he takes his chopper into central LA to search the rooftops for his ex-wife. Presumably the rest of his crew were left on the ground, scratching their heads as they wondered where the helicopter had gone.

Hopefully there will be a sequel to the film written by The West Wing's Aaron Sorkin, which follows the Senate investigation into the earthquake response, which singles out Ray for prosecution. Why recklessly endanger the lives of people who could be saved with relative ease on a wild goose chase for a spouse? Obviously being Hollywood, Ray does successfully find his wife - but this doesn't justify the inevitable piles of bodies that were trapped waiting for search and rescue. The Rock has gone from "The People's Champion" to turning heel.

Emma (Carla Gugino)

Ray's ex-wife Emma is in a meeting with Kylie Minogue in a skyscraper (don't ask) - and happens to be on the phone to Ray as the quake hits. But as the building starts to shake what does she do? Rather than evacuate the building like everyone else, she follows Ray's advice to head for the roof despite the risk of the building collapsing. As luck would have it in the film Ray turns up in his helicopter at the last moment to save her - but were this a real earthquake, the odds of such a rescue taking place would surely be very slim.

Blake (Alexandra Daddario)

In a nice twist from a lot of Hollywood special effects films, Ray and Emma's daughter Blake is not a damsel in distress - she knows what she is doing, having been raised by a search and rescue veteran. In the film we see her use knowledge she has acquired growing up to find a "tactical radio" for use in emergencies, so she and her friends can follow what is going on. A great idea, yes, but in order to get the radio she had to steal it from a fire engine - a vehicle with a crew that might also need it. How many lives did she endanger?

Dr Lawrence (Paul Giamatti) and Serena (Archie Panjabi)

That's right, Paul Giamatti is in the film - and he had the decency to wait until the cameras had stopped recording before cashing his cheque. He plays a seismologist who with his university colleagues believe he has just figured out how to predict earthquakes.

Serena Johnson meanwhile is a journalist, who happened to be with Dr Lawrence covering the first earthquake just as the second quake hit. And this is where some stunning irresponsibility happened.

First off, Dr Lawrence claims to be able to predict earthquakes - having figured it out "yesterday". But before you could utter the words "peer review", he was already demanding to be let on the air to talk about his predictions. As a Professor at CalTech, he should know that this is not how science is done.

And this is where Johnson makes a hugely negligent error: She puts him on the air. So here's this crank scientist, with unverified claims about magnetic fields, predicting imminent disaster. Worse still, she lets him rant into the camera, live on TV about how people should leave the city and get out as fast as possible.

Now I'm not a city manager, but I'm willing to bet that having one mad bloke whipping up panic on TV is not the best way to carry out a managed evacuation of a city. In a real emergency, the authorities would want to make sure various things (like cops to manage flows of people) are in place before ordering the evacuation. Doing it like this just risks people getting trampled to death.

The Philosophical Paradox

As the film critic Mark Kermode noted on his BBC 5 Live show a couple of weeks ago, disaster films are most often positioned as "morality tales" - taking their cues from Biblical epics in which the bad guys get their just deserts and the virtuous are rewarded. And San Andreas doesn't disappoint on this front - the main villain of the piece is Emma's new husband, who is shown to be evil because he is rich and selfish (and, it turns out, also a bad architect). Needless to say he has the ending that you might expect.

There is perhaps another lesson in the film though, and that is the reminder that often what is good for people as individuals is not always good for society at large.

A good example of this principle is perhaps death. Death is terrible when it happens to you, but the impact of people living longer thanks to medical advances creates added burdens on society, as more old people demand more of pensions, medical care and other resources. It is within your interest to live as long as possible - but within society's interest that you die without being unproductive for too long.

San Andreas is essentially a dramatic demonstration of this principle: It is within the city's interest to manage its emergency response rationally, with everyone following their training and doing their duty with all of the available resources. But at seemingly every turn, that response is hampered by a group of narcissistic mavericks who think they know better than everyone else, and have stolen a emergency response helicopter to prove it.

Can you smell what The Rock is smoking?