Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
It’s ridiculous disaster-porn, but with a surprisingly subtle statement on the structures that deserve our love.
I walked into director Brad Peyton’s San Andreas expecting a standard entry into an established genre: Disaster films that show California (especially Los Angeles) meeting a violent, quasi-natural demise (earthquake, comet blast, shark filled tornado, pick your apocalypse), that it always seems to deserve. Sure enough, amidst the daughter-saving heroics of helicopter rescue pilot Ray (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), we watch every man-made structure from L.A. to San Francisco shatter, burst, or incinerate as a swarm of worst-ever mega-quakes breaks along the titular fault line.
In keeping with its thematic predecessors, the film often suggests that California’s architecture, and by proxy its builders, has had it coming: What hubris to stack skyscrapers along a fault line! There’s an anti-1-percenter sentiment here, too: Luxury high-rises and corporate bank towers are the sites of San Andreas’s greatest wrath. The film climaxes inside the newest project of villainous starchitect Daniel Riddick, a (s)Nob Hill supertall he trumpets as San Francisco’s strongest. The floors, however, fall like hastily stacked cake layers and fill with brackish tsunami water.
But not all architecture is treated as total folly. There are shots of certain structures that are downright reverent (before they’re throttled to dust). Nevada’s Hoover Dam, shown filled to the lip in an alternate, pre-drought universe, is given an admiring aerial treatment, its curves strong and grand (but not grandiose!). Griffith Observatory is pictured as a kind of jeweled crown overlooking Los Angeles. The Golden Gate Bridge is similarly adored. Ditto S.F.’s Coit Tower, L.A.’s Mulholland Drive, and a few of the Central Valley’s well-worn highways. In 3D or IMAX, these shots are reminiscent of awe-inspiring documentaries you might watch at a science center.
Notably, the structures that San Andreas marks as lovable are public. In fact, all of those that I mentioned were built (or decorated, in the case of Coit Tower) by the Works Progress Administration of the ‘30s and ‘40s, which quite literally built America—including 572,000 miles of rural roads, 122,000 bridges, and nearly 20,000 county, state, and local government buildings. It also created millions of jobs at a time the country desperately needed them. Many argue that the conditions that necessitated the WPA—high unemployment and a crisis of decaying, ill-maintained infrastructure—is upon us again today.
San Andreas is still ridiculous disaster-porn that defies both science and narrative coherence. It makes no explicit infrastructure policy recommendations: That would be asking way too much of a movie that raked $55 million in its opening weekend. But, intentional or not, the film contains a subtle code about the kinds of structures we should love (and yet neglect) and the kinds we should loathe (and yet build incessantly).
The film’s closing shot affirms this as Ray, his estranged wife, Emma, and their daughter are reunited at a Marin County relief camp, where community is re-emerging out of disaster. Public good is valued over private. “What now?” Emma asks, as the sun sets over the shambles of San Francisco. “We rebuild,” says Ray.
Only a movie universe that revolves around The Rock could offer that kind of hope.