For years, one of the greatest forces in the box-office at summer time has been the force of nature itself. Now, Jack Brindelli explores the shifting reflections of elitist ideology in the genre’s latest smash-hit San Andreas (2015).
For decades, artistic imaginings of the apocalypse, and humanity’s relationship to it have dominated summer cinema. Whilst the genre might be much maligned as being overly simplistic, unimaginative, and light on story, the disaster epic is often a signifier for the Hollywood elite’s perception of sea-changes in the global political climate. On the geo-political level, we can see this point emphasised by the career of Roland Emmerich – who continues to exemplify the genre with Independence Day 2 due next year – as the response to each crisis morphs along with popular preconceptions about US hegemony.
In the original Independence Day (1996), set during what was described by academics as the ‘unipolar moment’ after the end of the Cold War, when the US was seen to have won the ‘war of ideologies’ and was the only remaining super-power, the whole world essentially sits around playing with their nads, awaiting their doom. The fightback against a hostile race of locust-like aliens only begins after Bill Pullman’s American President speaks to literally the whole world, galvanising them into united action in the name of freedum. However, various crises emerged in real world politics after the release of the film, crises that the supposedly victorious power of the USA was unable to deal with as a lone power.
The perceived threats of global terror after 9/11, and the impending doom of an ever-closer climate disaster thanks to human-induced global warming – coupled with a resurgent Russian autocracy and a booming Chinese state capitalism, meant suddenly the USA was no longer perceived as capable of running the world on its own, or unrivalled. This was reflected in Emmerich’s later efforts, first The Day After Tomorrow (2004) in which we spend large amounts of time away from the USA with scientists supplying information to the hapless USA, and Mexico ironically providing refuge to the people hit by the storm, who a few months ago were arguing for tighter border controls. Then, in the infamously terrible 2012 (2009), the only option for America’s survival is collaboration with China. The world had changed, and in a global economy where huge chunks of America’s national debt were actually owned by China, it was impossible for the Hollywood elite to imagine a solution to any crisis in which their state was not in some way involved.
However, whilst the response to crisis began to vary in its sources, the nature of the action and the response remained depressingly top-down. In what could only be described as a Fukayamian nightmare, Hollywood continued to obsess on the response of the heads of states. Whether the states were democratic or authoritarian capitalist regimes is, to some extent, irrelevant – in the event of a global disaster – as with the coverage of our real global economic crisis – coverage has centred on the lives of those at the top of society, their struggles, and their solutions. After a good 7 years of the mentioned economic crisis though, it has become increasingly, painfully clear that the leaders of the global elite are either evil, or lethally incompetent. If we looked at our real-life elite in the context of these films, and assumed generously that they did actually care about us, the wave of privatisation, redundancies and bombing campaigns they’d use to “solve” the issue would surely imply they literally didn’t know the difference between their arsehole, and an ever-growing fissure in the ground. So why the hell should we listen to them?
That’s where San Andreas tears into the cinema. Brad Peyton’s film is hardly earth-shattering in terms of narrative devices, sure. Certainly, the ending is entirely predictable, I mean, The Rock won’t lose. That’s so obvious it’s not even a spoiler, and I won’t deny that the romance angle is cornier than the fields of Nebraska, either. But before we lay the smack-down on Dwayne Johnson’s latest box-office outing, it’s important to acknowledge that the way the action unfolds, for a disaster pic, is ground-breaking.
At no point is Peyton even remotely interested in what the President has to say. At no point are we invited to listen to an ageing black statesman of the acting scene pontificate about “togetherness”, “freedom”, or “triumphs over adversity.” No Danny Glover, no Morgan Freeman, no Denzel Washington ever try to teach us about the importance of liberal capitalist norms in the context of a disaster – it’s a trope that has been rapidly become disconnected from the lives and experiences of ordinary Americans. In the wake of the Bush’s abandonment of those in need post-Katrina, and the continued betrayal of “Hope” by President Obama – who has overseen 8 years of war-mongering, racial persecution and surveillance – which is finally being recognised as complete, ideological fiction.
Instead, we witness the terror of an earthquake that literally rips the East coast in half from the ground-floor of the towering sky-scrapers of San Francisco. We live through the event amongst the masses, we see their flaws and their virtues, portrayed unflinchingly – in a way that is genuinely refreshing in Hollywood’s context. There is a Romero-esque critique of consumer society, certainly, and a contempt for the rioting citizens more determined to steal wide-screen televisions than help each other evade a potential extinction event – but this eventually gives way to the other side of public consciousness. For all the poisonous ideology we swallow, in a crisis the people we can count on are the people we live, work and suffer alongside.
Ordinary people work together to survive – it’s what has ultimately led to our thriving as a species as a whole – and it’s what leads to the death of the slime-coated bourgeois Ioan Gruffard. He is the sole representation of the upper classes in the film, and is a man who literally has no understanding of the symbiotic nature of survival. Beneath his initial compassionate capitalist veneer, there is nothing but a self-obsessed vampire – and after abandoning his partner’s screaming daughter in a collapsing carpark, he directly leads to several deaths pushing ordinary people from cover to save his own hide. Because of the nature of the way he has built his business empire, the way he has learned to survive economically, through exploitation, he is ultimately doomed. His entire life has been devoted to crushing the aspirations of others to line his own pockets, and is symbolically crushed by a falling crate. Poetic justice.
Beyond this, fire-fighters, health professionals and rescue workers – you know, those public services created to help ordinary people, being butchered and sold off to pay for a banking crisis – are all central to the long term survival of humanity in San Andreas – as institutions created out of pressure from the masses threatening revolution if the state failed to provide for their collective survival. The film also presents an excellent case for universal education too though, intentionally or otherwise, as people working at Cali Tech, a University in the heart of the storm, play a central role in saving thousands of lives by warning those in San Fran to evacuate. Of course, that involves a crew of maverick scientists (most notably, the ever brilliant Paul Giamatti) who have trained all their lives for such an event – but it also involves a band of media students who hack a television network to get their ignored warnings publicised. Students who were learning what many refer to as a “Mickey Mouse subject” are instrumental in a way that no manner of market-driven education could foresee.
It’s an excellent case for free education – which we are told is ever more unaffordable because of an economic crisis it would undoubtedly help solve – and an excellent case against marketised education, which will undoubtedly see a future where those media students would have been studying human resources instead. And believe me, as much as HR ‘specialists’ would like you to believe their “transferable skills” equip them as experts for any situation, being able to hire and fire with a sinister grin on your face does not give you the capacity to advise people on surviving the shattering of a tectonic plate, or metaphorical equivalent.
Returning to my initial point then, that’s what makes San Andreas so interesting in its depiction of crises, and its reflection of popular ideological perceptions regarding their solutions. People are looking to the established voices for honest answers less than ever before in the history of global society. When even the capitalist heart-land of Hollywood begins to show that – and in the traditionally top-down disaster genre at that – we have to acknowledge a seismic shift in public ideology. Gerrymandered election results that continue to favour the status-quo are only half the story. Across the earth, people continue to lash out against the powerful who have prioritised profit over people to solve a crisis not of our making. People remain resolute in their calls for education, jobs, social security, and services that remain essential for their continued survival. Whilst they are ignored by a class of elitist vampires who claim they have their best interests at heart, it has become clear to more people than ever that our leaders don’t have a solution to the crisis, because they are an integral part of it. Culture is finally beginning to reflect that shift in consciousness. So when it comes to rebuilding, let alone surviving, in the words of the great one himself, it doesn’t matter what they think!