Hollywood disaster films have proliferated in the post-9/11 era, and San Andreas delivers one of the genre’s well-trodden tropes: the unforeseen shift from normalcy to sudden death.
Director Brad Peyton’s big-budget feature begins with an ebullient blonde bopping along to Taylor Swift’s “Style” moments before her trip morphs into misadventure. Shadowed though they are by lyrics that predict “a crash every time,” those first beats are some of the precious few moments of quietude in a relentlessly noisy narrative. Many disaster films make the move from innocence to doomed circumstance only once; but San Andreas clumps chains of catastrophes in a playlist of carnage, seamlessly crossfading from earthquakes to aftershocks to impressively real-seeming tsunamis.
In a plotline that follows a fault line, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson cures calamity after calamity in a series of video game-like tests of endurance and skill. The former WWE wrestler has never been more Barack-ish than in the scenes where he dramatizes the intersections of societal crisis and self-recrimination. Drunk with nostalgia for a sturdier past, his stirred-but-not-shaken voice solemnly vows “It’s Time. To Rebuild.”—surely a throwaway slogan from Obama’s 2008 presidential bid.
At the conclusion of San Andreas, the camera pans over an American flag hung from an all but liquidated Golden Gate Bridge. The credits roll. The lights come up. The snacks are gone because you’ve eaten them. And your removal of your 3D glasses reminds you that disasters like this simply don’t occur in American cities not named New Orleans.
Until they do.
Like everyone else, I’ve watched friends and colleagues on social networking lose their collective marbles over an article in The New Yorker that forecasted an impending earthquake that promises to decimate the Pacific Northwest. I first read the piece while listening to Seattle rap ensemble Shabazz Palaces on a southbound train in the Emerald City. When the train tucked under Beacon Hill, my pristine view of the skyline disappeared—and I internalized this disaster scenario with the aid of Shabazz’s submerged vocals and tectonic bass hits. The switch-up between the first and second halves of “They Come In Gold” seemed like a sonic tribute to a city that pivoted into a curt and untimely demise. In the three-minute tale of two towns, “They Come In Gold” captures the essence of Kathryn Schulz’s article in The New Yorker: the self-centered, unsuspecting Seattle of the present, and the one buried beneath the landmarks and idols it used to kneel before.
Fredric Jameson famously once declared “it’s easier for us to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.” But at this point, imagining the end of the world is capitalism. Films like San Andreas satisfy a quasi-pornographic urge to see our Great American Cities degraded in orgies of catastrophe and violence. And if Seattle author Sandi Doughton rides this commercialized tide of #EarthquakePanic with the same wave-braving fluidity The Rock displays in San Andreas, that article about the impending earthquake ought to be a watershed for the Amazon sales ranking of her 2013 book Full Rip 9.0.
How does a society used to turning suffering into spectacle mobilize a real response to foreseen danger?
The Seattle skyline I saw from my seat on the train made it onto the cover of the 2013 tome Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste, scholar Philip Mirowski’s sprawling summary of neoliberalism—a pervasive ideology defined by its disregard for non-market solutions to pressing social and environmental issues. Mirowski’s cover image shows half of Seattle vaporized by a crisis that was both caused and avoided by a callous status quo. Judging by his book’s critique of capitalism, Mirowski’s thrust in choosing this cover is clear: we think of our banks and major corporations as “too big to fail,” and because those institutions underwrite so much of our civic infrastructure, we think of our cities the same way. Brad Peyton drives a cute girl off a cliff in San Andreas and we stick around to see what happens, but the collective assumption is that a similar fate could never befall a civilization.
In cinema, clean and convincing narrative resolutions are a sign of craftsmanship; the geological mayhem of San Andreas relents just in time for The Rock and his family to watch a scenic sunset. But cities don’t move away from cycles of short-term accumulation so swiftly. What seems normal now may one day be judged as the beginning of an end. Because it’s one thing to passively imagine the future—but quite another to actively prepare for the events we’ll have to pass through in order to make it there.
We’ve all made memories in the cities we call home—and one day, we’ll be memories, too. Are you satisfied with what you’ve left behind?