This week’s big movie pits The Rock against an earthquake, which sounds like a WWE match that never happened between Dwayne Johnson and John Tenta (aka Earthquake). Instead, it’s a below-average disaster movie, in which the entire San Andreas Fault goes off and destroys Los Angeles, San Francisco and Bakersfield – and presumably many other cities we don’t see – while Johnson, playing a professional rescue worker, pretty much saves only his wife and daughter (Carla Gugino and Alexandra Daddario) during the catastrophe.
This is not a movie that inspires discussion outside of its many inaccuracies, and there’s not enough going on outside the destruction to evoke much outside of the disaster movie genre. I didn’t want this just to be a list of other earthquake movies, but that’s at least a third of what you’re getting. Not just any, though. I’m not recommending 1974’s Earthquake, for instance, and not just because I’ve actually never seen it. Any disaster movies included below are there because of specific relevance and points to make about San Andreas or because they’re more obscure and hopefully something you’ve never seen before.
Like a listicle version of Paul Giamatti’s scientist in the new movie, I have to try to put out a warning: the comments on the following titles may spoil elements of San Andreas, in case you do have a desire to see it.
Evelyn: The Cutest Evil Dead Girl (2002) and Bad Luck (2004)
First, let’s get to know San Andreas director Brad Peyton, who showed great promise early in his career with Tim Burton-like shorts. Evelyn, his thesis film, is his most recognized work from that time, sort of a live-action cartoon about a lonely dead girl in search of friends. Bad Luck (aka A Tale of Bad Luck) is actually a music video for the song “Bad Luck” by Royal City, but it’s also a stop-motion-animated short about a teddy bear who selfishly abandons his doll girlfriend when a tornado approaches. I wonder if Peyton had the film in mind while making San Andreas, in which Ioan Gruffud plays a rich prick who selfishly abandons his girlfriend’s daughter when a natural disaster strikes.
Force Majeure (2014)
If you think Gruffud’s character in San Andreas is bad, consider that he at least thought about Daddario’s character for a few moments and seemed like he kinda wanted to help her, if he knew how without a chance of being crushed in the process. Not as bad as the father in this Swedish hit from last year (played by Johannes Kuhnke). He bolts out of presumed harm’s way without a single thought of his wife and kids, and that creates a lot of tension for the family for the rest of their ski vacation. The movie could have been all over very quickly had Gugino played the wife. Her character in San Andreas didn’t even want to discuss the matter. The situation called for immediate break-up (and maybe murder).
From One Second to the Next (2013)
San Andreas begins with a teenage girl getting into a car accident caused by falling rocks. Before the natural events that send her down a canyon in need of The Rock’s help, we are teased of her fate with a gag involving the girl texting while driving. It’s slightly humorous, but given how much of the movie turns out to be a PSA about earthquake preparedness and survival, its viewers deserve another PSA about the issue of texting and driving. Especially if there’s a great one directed by Werner Herzog. There is!
Straight Up: Helicopters in Action (2002)
If you were more interested in the opening sequence and The Rock’s character’s day-to-day rescues than the disaster movie stuff, you’ll probably appreciate this short documentary narrated by Martin Sheen. Directed by David Douglas (Island of Lemurs: Madagascar), the film was produced for IMAX screens (specifically the one at the National Air and Space Museum) but looks damn good on any screen as it follows a bunch of helicopter-based missions, including rescues in the mountains and at sea.
Though the Earth Be Moved (1964)
During Giamatti’s character’s Caltech class lecture, he mentions the 1964 earthquake in Alaska, still the worst in U.S./North American history. Some of the footage he presents might have come from this short film produced by the U.S. Office of Civil Defense, which documents the 72 hours following the disaster, including their own and the military’s response. You’ll notice that like the earthquake in San Andreas, this real one produced a devastating tsunami. Unlike the one in San Andreas, this tsunami was (obviously) scientifically accurate.
San Francisco Disaster (1906)
Let’s go back more than half a century to a more famous American earthquake, the one in San Francisco in 1906. That, too, spawned a number of immediate documentaries, and it became one of the first cinematically recorded disasters. In fact, Vitagraph’s The San Francisco Earthquake, American Mutoscope & Biograph’s San Francisco: Aftermath of Earthquake and the National Film Registry-preserved title San Francisco Earthquake & Fire: April 18, 1906 (see it here) are credited as the first ever films involving an earthquake. Then there’s this other one by American Mutoscope & Biograph, which has to technically be the first disaster movie depicting the events with special effects. Bad special effects. What you’re watching below is the burning of a model of San Francisco meant to reenact the first that engulfed the city following the quake. It still looks better than a lot of San Andreas.
Although the better 1930s earthquake movie is 1936’s San Francisco, starring Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Jeanette MacDonald and based on the real tragedy of 1906, this earlier disaster movie is somewhat more fitting to San Andreas due to the new movie’s inaccurate statement that the “Big One” will be so big we’ll feel it on the east coast. Deluge, which is more of a Biblically apocalyptic epic than a straight natural disaster flick, does have a California quake that, while not felt on the east coast, is tied to the destruction of New York City by tsunami. The clip below, with its waves crashing against the Statue of Liberty, should remind you of The Day After Tomorrow.
Any Roland Emmerich Disaster Movie (1996–2009)
I’m lumping Roland Emmerich’s movies together here so that you can take your pick. Whether it’s The Day After Tomorrow or Independence Day or 2012, even at their worst they’re better than San Andreas. Meanwhile, Peyton’s movie seems to rip off one of Emmerich’s favorite story arcs: divorced or separated couples at least seemingly getting back together after a global disaster. In The Day After Tomorrow it’s Dennis Quaid and Sela Ward, in ID4 it’s Jeff Goldblum and Margaret Colin and in 2012 it’s John Cusack and Amanda Peet. Now in San Andreas, it’s The Rock and Gugino. Emmerich may be getting away from his tradition, though, as Channing Tatum doesn’t wind up back with his wife in White House Down.
The best disaster movie to bring two separated characters back together, though, is probably one by Jan De Bont, mostly because the arc is more clearly derived from classic comedies of remarriage, particularly His Girl Friday. This movie may deal in tornadoes instead of earthquakes, but it’s got a good amount of links to San Andreas, including the rekindled romance, the concept of predicting the disasters and the character who is such a dirtbag that you cheer when he’s killed by the natural forces. Gruffudd’s character in the new movie is basically an amalgam of the Jami Gertz and Cary Elwes characters in Twister.
Superman: The Movie (1978)
You knew it was coming, so I saved it for a late slot. The first Superman blockbuster (still my favorite comic book movie of all time) has Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) plotting to blow up the San Andreas fault in order to clear the west coast and create a whole new beachfront, for real estate purposes. He succeeds to a degree, until Superman (Christopher Reeve) turns back time, and we get a lengthy disaster movie sequence similar to what is seen in San Andreas, including destruction of the Hoover Dam. The superhero also winds up focused primarily on his own loved one, albeit after he’s saved a ton more people than The Rock does. And a ton more than he saves in Man of Steel. Speaking of which, you gotta love Devin Faraci’s comment from Twitter here: “The Rock made San Andreas because he thought Superman saved too many people in Man of Steel.”
Finally, if you wished The Rock actually went around California killing a bunch of people rather than saving a few, this movie is for you. It’s also got two other San Andreas actors in it, Gugino and Matt Gerald. Like the new movie, this one isn’t very good, but just as with the new movie, it’s hard not to like The Rock in it.