“San Andreas” (2015)
SPOILER ALERT: There is a reference in the following piece, which reveals climactic events in the 1970’s disaster films “Earthquake” and “The Poseidon Adventure”.
California is hit by a series of catastrophic earthquakes. Appropriately large numbers of helpless extras die for your entertainment. Hitchcock was right.
“San Andreas” is essentially an undated version of Mark Robson’s “Earthquake” only with enhanced CGI effects substituting for the much ballyhooed sensorial experience to be had with Sensurround, but in relieving the viewer of the earlier film’s cranial shaking, “San Andreas” presents an emotionally barren panorama of tectonic plate movement rudely dismissing the surface squatter’s rights asserted by mere humans. What transpires is a visual smorgasbord of devastation of such unrelenting, unfeeling efficiency that boredom quickly sets it; after all, when you’ve seen one skyscraper fall, you’ve seen them all, and it’s this apathy inducing causality that is the unhesitatingly squirm inducing problem (well, one of them anyway) with the film.
In essence, this colossal apocalyptic vision of cities dissolving into so much pixilated dust is simply the latest and deadliest steroid driven version of “Son of Lassie”, though that children’s film’s demonstration of honor and loyalty in a perilous journey to save a loved one has been perverted into an ugly pseudo-epic, in which the deaths of millions are callously dismissed as long as the cutest featured player is pulled from the well in time for hugs, kisses and insanely myopic jubilation (always accompanied by a blast of shamelessly sappy musical scoring, just in case you don’t get the point) at the fade out. That the intended (though fraudulently sought) sentimentality at the finale utterly fails to move is a testament to the rest of the film’s designed emotional distancing in which the filmmakers demonstrate a remarkably singular dedication to cold-bloodedly depicting as many ways for urbanites to be turned into jelly as possible, without raising an eyebrow of empathy.
“San Andreas” is the latest of a growing trend toward a disturbing “purge cinema”, in which whole peoples are blithely wiped from existence (intended for the amusement of the audience) in the service of a barely threadbare narrative masquerading the film’s genuine intentions as two hours of glorified thrill kills (superhero films count on this nihilistic aversion toward the sanctity of collateral human life; it’s their bread and butter). The films differ radically from the prototypical disaster films popular in the early 1970’s in that the current incarnations promote the emergence of a Nietzschean Übermensch who walks through the escalating chaos with nary a sweat stain, while the vintage examples of the genre, no matter how clunky their narratives, at least had the good sense to recognize the fragility of human life (Hollywood-style, anyway) to the point where stalwart heroics were still vulnerable to premature mortal expiration (hence the novel deaths of the lead characters played by Charlton Heston in “Earthquake” and Gene Hackman in “The Poseidon Adventure”). However, the post 9/11 emergence of the cinematic invulnerable man of action is a vulgarization of the very concept of heroism, for if a character is unstoppable and resistant to death (or even serious damage), then where is the danger faced by such an individual that they might consider self-sacrifice in the interest of others?
Bizarrely, the film is padded with a forced subtext with the hero brooding over his conflicted hesitancy in healing his marital and parental wounds; the type of material which might have been approached by a Paul Mazursky with amusement and insight, rather than a reliance on balancing the tribulations of personal relationships with gleefully presented graphic carnage. Was the film intended as a psychotic’s revisionist version of couple’s therapy? Where is Rod McKuen when we need him?
“Bride Wars” (2009)
Women haven’t fared particularly well in the realm of recent American film comedies; the occasions for a revision in the cinematic perception of the post-feminist woman being a rare species, as the gentler sex is perpetually relegated to the diminished stature of a driven career woman willing to drop all personal aspirations at the drop of a hat in order become the idealized subservient (think office pool Stepford Girlfriend) in order to win their dream man, or, worse yet, degenerate into the most odoriferous level of sophomoric crudity in mirroring the lowest possible standards of hijinks (in which the inclusion of a high volume of flatulence, vomiting and a host of scatological disfuntion signals a guarantee for the studio to open the film at a minimum of 2,500 screens) of their male movie counterparts.
The cynical, self-righteous absence of wit that has become signatory of the SNL set has become the standard to which almost all contemporary movie comedy has declined: wit has been replaced by an aggressive dare: that to find the film unamusing is a sign of being lethally unhip with the times. After all, the popularity (in box office numbers) announce triumphant success with the public’s taste; though this is only the result of decades of formulating opening weekends as opposed to the tried and true method of success being a film with longevity.
What is generally missing in women’s comedies is a sense of sincere bonded sisterhood woven with an independent spirit existing beyond the influence of the male gender, giving bold definition of the woman as as both a member of a self-sufficient social sorority and as her individual self. This would also extend to reaching beyond the examples of behavior defining the current male movie role models. (As antiquated as young audiences might find the comedies of Doris Day, there is a defiant individualism at work even in the most domesticated of scenarios. One does not acquire the image of a professional virgin without thinking for one’s self.)
Much of this is hinted at. and actually is the thematic fulcrum from which springs the cinematic trifle known as “Bride Wars”, a trivial, insubstantial comedy made all the more frustrating by it’s unwitting opening of a few fresh veins of insight that not only go unexplored, but are unacknowledged by the filmmakers. (Haven’t they heard the criticisms of the film industry?) Rather than demonstrating the usual cynical prefabrication by which most contemporary American comedy is mired, there is a stubborn insistence at work, subverting the embracing of a fresh women’s perspective, instead substituting the use of the overly familiar tactic of having characters lose all sense of proportion in their motives and subsequent behaviors for the sake of contrived audience amusement; most troubling when the film cascades down the tired path of escalating revenge tactics which require knowledge beyond their limited skill sets and preposterously convenient access to locations to which they would have little or no undetected presence anywhere but in a desperate script. Originality be damned when a lazy continuation of desperately strained cliché will do.
The premise of the film- the breach of a lifelong friendship between teacher Emma (Ann Hathaway) and attorney Liv (Kate Hudson) and subsequent attempts to sabotage each other’s wedding, having it’s basis in a perceived minor perceived infraction of loyalty that balloons out of proportion, with the film unwisely moving from light comedy that flowers naturally from the story line to less effective, strained slapstick, in an obvious attempt to replicate the frat boy level of comedy prevalent with the rise and fall of such resistible farceurs as Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell. Playing with the comic possibilities inherent in the unconscious enmity existing between even the best of friends, the film’s conflict is ignited by a simple clerical error in a wedding planner’s office; a plot point that in reality would be resolved in a more professional manner adhering to contractual obligations, rather than involving the friends in an escalating campaign of mutual humiliation, neither of whom is responsible for the situation. However, for the purposes of ill-conceived comedy isn’t it far more plausible that the two friends would choose to viciously turn on each other despite the fact that the film has taken great pains to portray the pair as inseparable to the point of the pathological?
By the film’s contrived conclusion (a reconciliation which could have occurred far earlier in the film), the bonds of friendship (and literal sisterhood) are even more pronounced with a denouement that oozes treacle. Outside of their proclivity toward polar extremes in loyalty, the characters remain ciphers, reacting only to the demands of the script’s shaky premise and ultimately adhering to an antiquated ideal of career woman as housewife/mother. The helium voiced squeals that signal the pair’s delight in the abandonment of a feminist voice are a primal scream signifying the latest peal of the Hollywood death knell of Ms. Friedan’s cautionary mystique.
Sometimes you get the opinion that certain directors watch far too many films and that they just cannot restrain themselves from emulating what it is that has already excited them on the screen. If one is in the mood for a smattering of John Woo’s “Hard-Boiled” mixed with lesser parts “Altered States”, “Koyaanisqatsi”, “Scanners”, “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “D.O.A”, then “Lucy” might be your particular blend of intellectual hemlock. French director Luc Besson continues his fascination with the empowered woman who is simultaneously emboldened with both superhuman abilities and high powered weaponry; a partnership that might seem either unnecessary or contradictory, but certainly makes for a stylish, if predictable, brand of mayhem.
In Besson’s universe, violence isn’t an eruption, but a kinetic ballet; though in lacking a resonant aesthetic shaking core comparable (even in ambition, if not execution) to Peckinpah’s seminal ballets of bullets and blood in “The Wild Bunch”, it fails to elicit little more than comparisons (especially in this case considering the ethnicity of the lead criminals) to the run of the mill Hong Kong shoot-em-up, violence in a Besson film is not used as a means to an end, but simply as a substitution for more intellectual pursuits; which is odd considering the consistent window dressing of tacked-on grandiosity mated with criminally undeveloped philosophical ambitions.
Scarlett Johansson plays the eponymous character, a relative innocent who conveniently (for the plot, anyway) has a close associations with an extremely shady character, resulting, through rather contrived circumstances, in finding herself forced into the role of a surgically implanted drug mule for a shadowy Korean drug cartel run by the odious Mr. Jang; the kind of conspiratorial invention of the movies which purports to operate in secret while flamboyantly laying waste to whole blocks of urban areas with exaggerated gun battles of which even the most narcoleptic of law enforcement agencies would be bound to take notice. Lucy’s internal baggage is a sealed quantity of a state-of-the-art drug which, for no apparent reason except to get the plot moving, is ruptured when one of Mr. Jang’s henchmen decides to practice Rockette high kicks into Lucy’s abdomen; releasing the narcotic into her bloodstream, triggering transformative psychic and physical abilities that are meant to coincide with a continuous sliding gauge of brain usage, until the mystery of what might occur if a human reached full 100% capacity is revealed. SF films (or in this case, action/SF hybrids) have a peculiarly dispiriting habit of failing to capitalize upon the public’s collective curiosity toward the unknown; the banal limitations of the screenwriter’s imagination more often than not revealing itself to be perfectly at home with the most trite of conceptions as long as they are magnified through the cinematic cosmetics of blaring scores, frenetic editing and pyrotechnic special effects; an empty sensory beating.
Besson’s film is even more problematic in that it suffers from a cerebral example of might well be best described as the Brooks Syndrome; a failed reactive dichotomy in which the audience reacts at odds with what is being presented onscreen; best exampled in Mel Brooks’ 1968 comedy “The Producers”, in which the onscreen audience begins roaring with hysterical laughter over the stage production ofSpringtime for Hitler(though, curiously, not during the genuinely funny musical numbers), showing a far more enthusiastic response than the actual one in the movie theater. In this case, the film promises the escalation of intelligence while simultaneously dumbing down to almost unfathomable levels. What begins as a bizarre hybrid of (even if the presented science is a bit of hoodoo) overheated Hong Kong crime drama and unfocused faux theoretical science documentary clumsily blended, though, even from the start, there is clearly a collision of purpose within the film’s design, that is intended to set the stage for a collision of these insoluble genre elements, though it proves to be an insoluble concoction; at least in the conceptual methods of the director. Certainly there have been many prior examples of SF films which have merged unlikely genre tropes, yet few have attempted such a humorlessly straightforward introduction of pop art kineticism (the now overly ritualized Hong Kong bullet battles) and dry academia (no matter how screwball the concepts), intended to veer onto a radically abstruse ontological path; all intended to be taken seriously while each intrudes upon the central thread of the film: the ascent of Lucy to an improbable (even in the context of trashy science fiction) form of transmundane entity.
Certainly, this set up of fractured circumstances falls flat in its reach to justify the kind of Kubrickian metaphysical leap that the film rather clumsily inserts in between bout of hyperbolic high caliber athleticism, nor does the movie achieve greater intellectual legitimacy through the pedantic academia presented by none other than Morgan Freeman (blurring the lines of his frequent authoritatively toned documentary narrative voice, which becomes peculiarly reminiscent of such pop culture family fare as “March of the Penguins” rather than associative with transcendent deep thinking). Freeman portrays Prof. Norman, a fictional renowned expert on the generally discredited 10% human brain usage theory, but his role is almost scandalously decorative- neither his nor his endless, empty Spielbergian stares of awe contribute the slightest to the film. Freeman is a supremely talented actor who seems to be willingly engaged in roles which use his mollifying manner and voice as an increasingly generic brand of thespian sedative, yet beyond the posture of a kindly figure of dignity, there is little to justify his presence. To be fair, in this instance, Besson’s script gives him absolutely no wiggle room in which any idiosyncratic depth might be attempted; the character is essentially a walking dissertation. Still, the actor must have seen this before the cameras rolled. Which leaves any semblance of empathy to be the burden of the lead character Lucy, played by Scarlett Johansson, who, despite an unfortunate creeping apathetical transmutation, manages skillful shadings with a role inexplicably calling for fewer degrees of humanity as her character’s mind reaches its fullest human potential.
The resultant metaphysical mumbo jumbo turns out to be merely a smokescreen to divert attention away from one of the most deplorably illogical crime movie plots in recent years, not to mention the absurdity of the credibility deadening (again, even taken within the context of nonsense science) incomprehensibly spot-on bursts of insight by Prof. Norman explaining to his fellow scientists the significance of Lucy’s rapidly escalating transmogrifications (always a sign of creative insecurity, when a director feels obliged to italicize the meaning of the obscurity they are presenting), despite the fact that he would have no prior knowledge of such seemingly random special effects parlor tricks.
What could Besson have been thinking?
The movie ends with an absurdly meaningless utterance: “Life was given to us a billion years ago. Now you know what to do with it.” If that rather deliberately enigmatic quotation (a quixotic obtuseness which the film hasn’t earned) is meant as a pretext to overreach and produce patently silly movies, then mission accomplished.