LOS ANGELES — Here it comes again: The California Apocalypse.
As if motionless freeways, sky-high taxes and calamitous drought weren’t enough, Warner Bros. and its New Line Cinema unit have chosen this worrisome moment to unveil “San Andreas,” the latest
cinematic assault on an increasingly fragile California dream.
How big is the Big One in “San Andreas”?
“Even though it’s happening here in California, you will feel it on the East Coast,” promises a seismic expert, played in the film by Paul Giamatti. We have just seen the Hoover Dam disintegrate
in a mere foreshock.
Office towers crumble into dust. Yes, that is a tidal wave breaking over the Golden Gate Bridge. No, those aren’t the Mamas and the Papas chanting “California Dreamin’ ” through a trailer for the film: This version, a creepy dirge, is from Robot Koch and Delhia de France, and they’re not yearning to get here.
“San Andreas,” an earthquake action-adventure film that opens on Friday, is directed by Brad Peyton (best known for the action-fantasy “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island”) and counts Carlton Cuse
(of ABC’s “Lost”) among its writers. Dwayne Johnson stars as a Los Angeles Fire Department rescue chopper pilot on a mission.
The film is the latest in a long Hollywood tradition of making the rest of the world feel better by reveling in California’s slide toward its postapocalyptic worst.
It’s no accident that Warner’s “San Andreas” trailer features a collapsing “Hollywood” sign: Movieland is often the first to go in these fables.
“Audiences get a reflexive thrill in seeing Hollywood — the place that created the movie they’re watching — get decimated,” noted Ken Feil, an Emerson College professor who in 2005 published
“Dying for a Laugh: Disaster Movies and the Camp Imagination” (Wesleyan University Press).
Mr. Feil was referring to a theory put forth about the disaster genre by Pauline Kael in her review in The New Yorker of “Earthquake,” released by Universal Pictures in 1974.
In that film, Charlton Heston jogs by the Hollywood sign as things get rolling, and Geneviève Bujold plays an actress whose workday is ruined by a warning tremor. But Ms. Kael’s dictum might as
easily have applied to Paramount’s “The Day of the Locust,” which in 1975 found the beginning of the end in a flaming riot during a premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, or Columbia Pictures’s
“This Is the End,” from 2013, in which the world ended, more or less, at James Franco’s house.
Movie culture, said Mr. Feil, “seems to embody a kind of disposability, venality and manipulation that both personifies catastrophe and causes it.”
The urge to level those who live too well, or too wantonly, of course predates film: The Bible gave us Sodom and Gomorrah, inspiration for an Austrian silent blockbuster, “Queen of Sin and the
Spectacle of Sodom and Gomorrah,” by the director Michael Curtiz in 1922.
Watching seemingly successful people punished by earthquakes, sudden illnesses or bad luck “is literally calming down the people’s anger (that they are less fortunate) and a perverse
form of healing the tormented souls,” John-Stewart Gordon, a professor of anthropology and ethics at the University of Cologne in Germany, said in an email.
The suffering in Nepal is human; this is cinematic.
California’s earliest filmic leveling dates at least to 1906, when primitive newsreel footage captured falling buildings and smoking rubble immediately after the April 18 earthquake in San
Francisco, then a gilded capital of sin, known for its Barbary Coast red-light district. “There were ruins on every hand,” read a perhaps gleeful card on one such film, now posted by the Library
Destruction by earthquake reached feature length in 1936, with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s “San Francisco.” The melodrama starred Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Jeanette MacDonald; but the morally
tinged destruction of San Francisco’s liquor-soaked hangouts was the sell.
“An earthquake, noisy and terrifying and so realistic that the customers will be dodging the falling buildings and mentally hurdling the crevices that yawn in the studio’s streets” awaited
viewers, assured Variety in its review.
In “Earthquake,” Universal upped the ante with a Sensurround system that emitted low-frequency vibrations meant to make the audience feel as queasy as the people on screen. With
computer-generated imagery, “San Andreas” can now rend the earth with startlingly wide fissures, crumple skyscrapers and send Mr. Johnson’s speedboat over that tidal wave in ways that Mark
Robson, who directed “Earthquake,” could only imagine.
(Mr. Peyton and company also recorded seismic sounds of the San Andreas fault, and incorporated them in a score by Andrew Lockington.)
“We haven’t had a major quake in many years, and that scares me,” acknowledged Mr. Peyton, who is from Newfoundland, Canada, and is not eager to share the fate his movie dishes out. “This is as
close as I want to come.”
But filmmakers never stopped imagining the end of California, or parts of it, whether by giant ants, as in “Them!” (1954); pod people, as in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956); birds, as in
“The Birds” (1963); or Japanese bombardment, plus John Belushi, as in “1941” (1979). There were more earthquakes, as in “Short Cuts” (1993) and “Escape From L.A.” (1996); a volcano, triggered by
ill-advised subway construction, in “Volcano” (1997); falling frogs in “Magnolia” (1999); and armed aliens in “Battle: Los Angeles” (shot in Louisiana in 2009, and released in 2011).
In “Miracle Mile,” an indie thriller written and directed by Steve De Jarnatt in 1988, it rained nuclear bombs on a date gone wrong between Mare Winningham and Anthony Edwards. Ground zero was
the mid-Wilshire tower in the Miracle Mile district of Los Angeles that now houses The New York Times bureau: For those who live here, it gets personal.
(New York has suffered its share of movie damage, though it is usually not seismic. Apes and meteors often play a role, as in “King Kong,” from 1933, or “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact” (both from
More than a few of the California films settled scores with a place that seemed to have it too good. In “San Andreas,” overcompensated Northern California techies get their comeuppance as
tsunami-tossed ships, trolleys and office furniture crash through some of the most expensive real estate on the planet.
Salvation is low-tech: It comes in the form of land lines, hot-wired cars and raw nerve. Others might say Californians have done enough damage here, without Hollywood’s help.
Chuck DeVore, a former California Republican state assemblyman who is now vice president for policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, lists prohibitive housing costs, rising taxes and
overbearing bureaucracy as contributors, in his view, to a paradise almost lost.
“If I didn’t think so, I guess I wouldn’t be in Texas,” he said.