On mega-disasters and death tolls (and the Rock)

San_Andreas_posterIf I could say one thing to every movie maker telling a story about a mega-disaster, it would be this: don’t put all of your emotional eggs in one small basket.

I love disaster flicks, I love the Rock, so of course I went to see San Andreas.

I still love disaster flicks, I still love the Rock. I didn’t love San Andreas, and here’s the reason why: too many people died and there weren’t enough people (with names) who got into danger and lived.

For those of you who haven’t seen this movie [SPOILERS] the basic premise is that, a few years before the movie starts, Ray (who is part of a search & rescue team) lost one of his daughters while whitewater rafting. He and his wife (Emma) split up, although Ray maintains a good relationship with his daughter, Blake.

Time moves on, Emma serves Ray divorce papers and plans to move in with another man, and the guy seems decent enough until the quakes start (and he proves himself a coward.) Ray saves Emma from a building in L.A., and while they make their way up to San Francisco, they talk about their relationship and how Ray couldn’t forgive himself after his daughter drowned. Then they make it to S.F.,  a tsunami comes and his daughter almost drowns, but Ray saves her with CPR. (And again, I love the Rock, but Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio did it much better in The Abyss (“You bitch, you never gave up on anything in your life now fight fight FIGHT!!!!”))

Then the American flag unfurls over the ruins of the Golden Gate Bridge and Ray says, “Now we rebuild.”

…and I’m thinking that this movie is SUCH a disappointment.

As I’m watching the buildings fall and the tsunami come, as I’m watching millions of people die…I’m really supposed to care that Ray and his wife’s problems? I’m really supposed to care that while people are being crushed and drowned, that they’re finding their way back to each other?

And it’s not as if this can’t work well in a movie like this. Remember Jeff Goldblum and Margaret Colin (David & Constance) in Independence Day? They had the same setup: an estranged couple who find their way back to each other over the course of the movie. But it worked there. And it worked there for two reasons:

1) It was communicated through little touches and brief exchanges. There were little touches in San Andreas, but there were also long conversations about their feelings and the past. And it’s simply too much to ask an audience to care THAT MUCH about something that happened years ago — and the guilt the main character feels now — in a movie that always needs to be moving forward.

2) There weren’t any heartfelt conversations going on while PEOPLE WERE DYING. Oh my god, Ray and Emma are talking about their problems from the safety of an airplane and on the ground everything’s burning and exploding but they don’t even talk about how fucking horrible it is. No. Let’s talk about our feelings.

No no no no no no no no. I’m starting to HATE these characters by then. Because although on a visceral level, I totally understand the need to go save your daughter (I sure as hell wouldn’t be thinking of anyone else) the girl in the movie is not MY daughter and when so many people are dying — when the numbers are that freaking staggering and we’re seeing it all close up — focusing the entire movie on saving one person just isn’t enough. IT’S NOT ENOUGH*.

Independence Day knew that. That’s why when the movie is killing off millions and millions of people, it gave us a huge cast to care about. It gave us people from all different walks of life. We didn’t just have one family to care about making it through, we had four different core families to care about.

The latest Superman didn’t know that. And, okay, there were more problems with the mega disaster at the end of Man of Steel than just the number of people dying (like that he is a superhero that should have done everything possible to move the fight outside of the city and save them) but that seeing the small crew at the Daily Planet survive the carnage just wasn’t enough. It didn’t feel like much of a victory for Superman at the end because, sure, he saved the planet. But all of those people died when he was fighting Zod. And not just a few people, but buildings and buildings and buildings full of people. Seeing Kal-El defeat Zod isn’t enough after that. It just isn’t.

So to film makers out there, I would make this plea: if you are going to kill that many people, either give us a lot of people to care about so that seeing a couple of happy endings helps mitigate the absolute horror of millions of people dying and so that it actually feels like a new beginning and enough to build on, or keep your disaster small. Titanic, anyone? It focused on a few main characters. It worked, even though many people died.

Not millions.

*It could be enough if the one character that needs saving will save everyone else in return. But that’s it.