Joe Mathews: New earthquake movie tears down California

Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino star in “San Andreas,” which Joe Mathews says unfairly maligns California.
Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino star in “San Andreas,” which Joe Mathews says unfairly maligns California. Warner Bros. Entertainment

After watching the new earthquake movie “San Andreas,” I experienced my own dark seismic fantasy: As the Big One hits California, a giant hole opens under Burbank, and Warner Bros. falls into it.

I had been prepared for Warner’s “San Andreas” to be a dumb film of pseudoscientific nonsense about earthquakes. But it’s much worse than that. The film is so cynical that to call it reprehensible might be too kind.

The movie’s biggest flaw is its treatment of California. It trivializes the loss of our lives and portrays Californians – with a few exceptions – as foolish, panicked and cowardly. The glossy lead characters, when not talking about themselves and their relationships, kiss and flirt and – call me a prude – show a lot of cleavage as tens of thousands perish around them.

“San Andreas” stars Dwayne Johnson – formerly known as The Rock – as a Los Angeles Fire Department rescue helicopter captain. After a devastating earthquake swarm hits L.A., this public employee ignores the suffering Angelenos who pay his salary to save his estranged wife from a skyscraper. Since she’s played by the wonderful Carla Gugino, I was going to cut him some slack – until the couple abandon my devastated city to fly to San Francisco to find their daughter.

The film portrays California as very rich people see it – L.A. and San Francisco, and not much else of importance. We learn nothing of the dead elsewhere; no tears are shed for the Central Coast. A brief scene in Bakersfield is mainly an opportunity to slur its residents who, just minutes after the disaster, are busy looting.

Our self-involved protagonists arrive in San Francisco by jumping out of a plane and into AT&T Park, allowing Johnson to quip – in the midst of devastation – that it’d been awhile since he’d taken his wife to second base.

In the city, no one can think straight in the panic, except two young brothers who, in keeping with the movie’s anti-Californian bias, are British. Then, moments after a tsunami destroys much of San Francisco, the older British brother and Johnson’s daughter make out.

Who knew mass casualties were such a turn-on?

Yes, it’s true that over the past century Hollywood has destroyed California to create moments of cinematic wonder. But “San Andreas” feels especially cruel in how it ignores the victims. In contrast, at the end of the classic 1936 film “San Francisco,” the battered people march back into their ruined city singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

There is a whiff of political ambition amidst the cynicism. When I covered Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, his friends told me that Johnson was patterning his career after Arnold’s – from muscle (wrestling) to films, philanthropy and, eventually, maybe politics.

That seemed improbable then. But here is Johnson playing the hero in a statewide calamity, and promising at the end, in gubernatorial tones, “Now we rebuild.”

Unfortunately, “San Andreas” isn’t the only example of Hollywood’s contempt for its home state. Last year, the industry used all its influence to secure $1.6 billion in state tax incentives over the next five years. The money is supposed to bring back to California big-budget productions like “San Andreas,” which was filmed mainly in Australia.

But putting taxpayer money into movies like this is horrifying, and even worse when you consider the state’s more pressing needs, including billions for seismic retrofitting.

At least the timing of “San Andreas” is good. The film, arriving during state budget season, makes a convincing case for stripping Hollywood of those tax incentives, and putting the money into rebuilding our state.

Joe Mathews wrote this Connecting California column for Thinking L.A., a project of UCLA and Zócalo Public Square.