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Whose Fault Is This? Learning to Like the Mega-quakes in ‘San Andreas’ and the Sloppiness of ‘Aloha’

Aloha Means Run for Your Life: ‘San Andreas’ and Cameron Crowe’s new romantic dramedy.

San Andreas has the same kind of preposterousness as its super-quakes: You don’t want to be crushed by a flying shipping container, but what choice do you have? My brain ran for its life until it could run no more, having been fully concussed by action, “plot,” and well-filled scoop-neck tank tops. You want to be better than this movie, and you are. But when Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino are piloting a speedboat up the belly of a tsunami, swerving out of the way of the ship from Captain Phillips, all you can think is what and wheeeee and phew. “Better” feels pretty dumb. The earth of San Andreas cleaves itself open to us like the devil’s sunroof. Who are we not to leap into the void?

This is a movie that, in less than two hours, merrily undoes almost every item on the U.S. Geological Survey’s Earthquake Facts & Earthquake Fantasy page. For instance: An earthquake on the San Andreas fault can cause a large tsunami. The USGS says hell no: “The San Andreas fault cannot create a big tsunami like the ones that happened in Sumatra in 2004 or Japan in 2011. Those earthquakes happened on subduction zone faults, on which … ” Blah blah blah, counters San Andreas. The movie reserves its most prurient destruction for San Francisco, where I’m sure the filmmakers think subduction is a culinary trend, gay bar, or type of yoga — or all three. In any case, nobody involved cares about what earthquakes are or aren’t. They are something to behold, especially in 3-D, which the movie puts to relatively tasteful good use.

So, what’s our story? This being a disaster movie, you get a bunch. At the California Institute of Technology, Dr. Paul Giamatti labors on an earthquake prediction model that his partner, Dr. Kim Park (Will Yun Lee), has a hunch might be working. [You can totally hear the USGS: Um, guys … ] They run off to the Hoover Dam, where a cluster of tiny quakes turns into the Big One, wrecking the dam and devouring Dr. Kim. Devastated, Giamatti somehow gets back to his office in Pasadena and uses a news reporter (Archie Punjabi) to warn the world that this thing isn’t over and is headed for the East Coast. [USGS: Come on. Seriously?]

Meanwhile, Chief Ray Gaines (Johnson) saves lives as a Los Angeles Fire Department helicopter-rescue pilot. He had plans to drive his allegedly teenaged daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario), to a volleyball tournament in the Bay Area. But he’s got to go to Nevada to deal with the dam, which super-well-adjusted Blake is cool with. Anyway, his divorce papers just came in the mail and he’s sad, having just run a hand over some old family photos of a trip to San Francisco, which happened before their other daughter died in what flashbacks reveal to be some kind of whitewater rafting disaster that he couldnt stop. Now, his ex, Emma (Gugino), and Blake are moving in with Emma’s new beau, a businessman named Dan Riddick (Ioan Gruffudd, living up to the “dick” part). Chief Ray is furious that he has to find this out from Dan, who also boasts that he’ll take Blake to the tournament. And he does — in a private jet. [USGS: OK, not our business here, but are you kidding with this?]

On his way to take the chopper for a tune-up before he heads to Nevada, Ray calls Emma and apologizes for being mad. [USGS: Hey, is the dam an emergency or what?] He phones just in time — not because the earthquake destroys the top-floor restaurant where Emma is lunching, but because her lunch date is an icy bitch played by Kylie Minogue, who’s having a good time giving a terrible performance. (Her exit is the movie’s most wittily awful.) Ray flies over to pick Emma up from the collapsing skyscraper. But considering all the leaping and running and climbing that a very fit Gugino does, he may as well be fetching her from the gym.

Ordinarily, Chief Ray would totally be headed for a Taken movie, in which Dan would be a sex trafficker or a terrorist. Here, in an earthquake movie, he’s the next best thing: a real estate developer. On the flight up to San Francisco, Blake asks why he doesn’t have kids. I do, he says, and instead of adding, “You, Blake,” he presents her with property brochures. [USGS: It’s us again. Forget it. This is amazing.] While he’s upstairs doing deals, she waits in the lobby and endures the timid advances of a mushy British guy named Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt), who’s looking for a job with Dan. He’s so wobbly that she and his little brother Ollie (Art Parkinson) have to practically show him how to hit on her.

When they wind up fleeing falling debris and weathering more quakes together, Blake also has to show this pile of tears and fears how to survive. The depiction of British wimpiness is so vivid and unrelenting that it makes Magic Negro and Sassy Latina seem as noble as White Savior. (Gruffudd is Welsh, doing another iffy American accent.) At some point, poor Ollie says to pathetic Ben, “Blake’s going to die, isn’t she?” It’s as if the film’s writer, Carlton Cuse, were trolling John Oliver to mock-identify with the accuracy of the depiction. Ben gets a girl whom he seems constitutionally incapable of saving. When he tries to smash a window, another character waves him away in exasperated despair so that she can do it. Here’s another action movie this season, after Mad Max: Fury Road, that turns white men into hood ornaments for vehicles driven by women. (Asians, though, will still have to wait to put on a cape. The heroics of Lee’s Dr. Kim are completely self-sacrificing. He heaves a little blonde girl into Giamatti’s arms, then tells her to avert her eyes before the rumbling concrete swallows him up. Lee lasts two early scenes, so naturally the costume department gives him the Star Trek treatment and puts him in a red shirt.)

Johnson mostly performs daring feats of pretending to drive things into and away from danger. (This guy changes his mode of transportation more often than award-show MCs change outfits. The parachute sequence with a petrified Gugino is my favorite.) Johnson gets to do a couple of borderline embarrassing emotional scenes, save some people on the street, and, when Gugino asks, “What are we going to do?” say stuff like, “We’re gonna get our daughter,” in a tone that makes you think she’s been kidnapped. But that line brings down the house, in part because it highlights the ridiculousness of the stakes here: all this determination trained on one self-sufficient girl. It’s all so morally overblown that the movie is shoved into the disaster-movie camp of the Airport films, Volcano, and anything directed by Roland Emmerich. Really, camp is visible right from the opening scene: a cheap, sub–Jan de Bont/Paul Verhoeven–style gag in which a blonde’s distracted driving is punished not by an oncoming truck but by rocks loosened by the fault line’s idea of foreplay.

The movie works at making Blake seem like a daughter worth the effort, unlike the Kims of 24 and the Taken movies. What Blake appears to lack in Ray’s DNA (she’s neither brown nor enormous), she makes up for in resourcefulness. It’s not a great character, but she’s not insulting, either, which is interesting. The movie is a smart kind of stupid. Its 114 minutes whiz by, along the way meeting many of the requirements for something like this to work: Is the emotional center made of Velveeta? Will actual scientists carp? Does the White House explode or does an airborne cow go spinning across the screen? Yes, some version of most of all that happens in San Andreas — except the last one. A lot of what keeps the movie campy is that it feels oddly cheap. It’s several rungs above last summer’s lousy tornado movie, Into the Storm, and far beneath the majestic dimensionality of George Miller’s Fury Road. There’s no standout set piece in San Andreas. It’s an album with no single.

I remember the boat on the tsunami, but vaguely. The movie doesn’t really stop to take enough of it in. Michael Bay would have found a way to get 15 minutes from those 15 seconds, and the difference feels more like a matter of budget than a director capitalizing on the thrill of concision. The scale of Miller’s film might be an affront to the credibility of other movies’ productions. Fury Road seems handmade, the stunts done on the spot. The movie is one set piece. It’s all vision. You feel it. The effects in San Andreas might be state-of-the-art, but there’s something amateurish and hasty about the way they’re shot and assembled. At some point, Gugino falls several floors and crashes onto a panel of concrete rooftop, but you don’t get to marvel at it. It’s plow-plow-plow, lots of dust, cut away to her coming to as the sound design simulates her disorientation.

Disaster movies don’t need vision or filmmaking, per se. Indeed, the high of these movies — why they’re better than postapocalypse films (Miller’s excepted) — is that there’s no time or reason to think, whereas with dystopia stories there’s nothing else to do. And all that lacking — of vision, of aptitude, of acting (the performances here are a house over from those of Sharknado; sorry, Kylie) — compounds the straightforward and backhanded fun.

I’ve gone this long and haven’t even mentioned the director. His name is Brad Peyton, and he seems to have cribbed from Verhoeven and de Bont and Renny Harlin. The sexy unfurling of an American flag will make Bay leap to his feet and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Peyton furnishes shots of the unmolested San Francisco skyline that are like a wolf’s watering mouth as the predator surveys a henhouse. But what’s there left to do for a director on a movie like this? Peyton is making sure everyone meets the height requirement before pressing the button that starts the ride.

aloha-hpColumbia Pictures

The weekend was supposed to bring two disaster films, the other one being Aloha, Cameron Crowe’s allegedly execrable romantic dramedy with Bradley Cooper as a military consultant in love. Since at least late last year, people have been stabbing the movie in the front. It’s messy and shapeless and entirely characterized by the grating alacrity of privilege. But it’s a safe distance from Crowe’s lowest moments, including Vanilla Sky, which made money and has its defenders, and Elizabethtown, which bombed and has virtually none. Crowe’s idealism needs a suitable home, with actors who understand how to play it, the way everybody did in Say Anything… and Jerry Maguire and some people did in We Bought a Zoo.

I like Aloha the way I like, say, Steven Spielberg’s Always, in which the ghost of Richard Dreyfuss gets a hot firefighter to look after his girl (Holly Hunter). It’s a minor entertainment that’s got stars near the height of their powers. All of this sentimentality should be embarrassing, yet it’s not only that. Aloha asks you to believe, for instance, that Emma Stone is a quarter Asian. (Daddario makes more sense as the daughter of the Rock.) And the major event that happens in space would have far more dramatic fallout than this one appears to. But charm is a powerful trait in a movie, and this movie uses charm as a fragrant disinfectant of both criticism and cynicism, which is probably cynical, too. If you can get Cooper, Stone, and Rachel McAdams on the same page, it shouldn’t matter what you’re using to do the creative equivalent of cleaning your house.

The plot has the simple-yet-really-difficult quality of a Terrence Malick movie, while having none of the artistry. After years away and some trouble in Afghanistan, Cooper’s contractor, Brian Gilcrest, has come back to Hawaii to do the bidding of a billionaire (Bill Murray) who, with the military’s backing, wants to launch a satellite into space. Stay tuned for why (then explain it to me). He’s assigned Allison Ng (Stone), a chipper, naive Air Force captain, to remain at his side. She gets on his nerves and then, improbably, into his heart. They banter their way into some kind of relationship, even as it seems like Brian is still stuck on Tracy (McAdams), whom he once dated. Tracy does high-priority work that necessitates a lab coat, has two painfully adorable kids, and is married to a cryptic pilot (John Krasinski) who’s never home, rarely speaks when he is, and has a sinking feeling that something’s going to happen between his wife and her ex. All Brian does in this movie is negotiate, whether it’s negotiating over land with a native Hawaiian tribal chief, played by the actual nationalist activist Bumpy Kanahele (more or less as himself), or negotiating with the women.

You can feel someone trying to shave away some of the film’s shagginess. Whoever did that missed some spots. But that person has also shorn what I imagine could be construed as filmmaker vanity. What’s left is like a deluxe, high-calorie version of NBC’s Wings or a show that would run for eight interesting 24-minute episodes on HBO. Otherwise, it seems like a movie that someone had to sift for during editing. You get the sense that what the filmmakers were looking for was another Jerry Maguire, a film whose earnestness has variety and some edge.

Here, self-congratulatory do-gooderism predominates in matters of both the heart and nuclear armament. It’s like Food Co-op: The Movie. You know Crowe’s not going to bite you (although Alec Baldwin does show up for three scenes as a general whose pot boileth over). What you want with Crowe is for the niceness to penetrate. You’d like to see the sap turn into a more refined sugar. You want lines like “Your bad moods are unconvincing” and “I go hard, I go deep, and sometimes I break things” not to send you to the dentist.

Barring that, someone who can speak Crowe’s language really helps. McAdams might be the best he’s ever had. Cooper and Stone do all the requisite twinkling, even though someone here seems to think Goldie Hawn would have been even better in Private Benjamin if Judy were too competent. Cooper has reached his cruising altitude as a star. He makes Crowe’s droopier dialogue work for him. McAdams puts the perfect amount of air in her lines, giving the words a lightness that conflates optimism, amusement, and resignation. She’s never seemed lovelier, more instinctive, or more present, even though you get the sense there used to be a lot more of her performance.

None of this “works.” But it usually worked on me. Crowe has come up with a couple of good spats and relaxed adult conversations (people talk here; they listen). It’s true that Crowe’s films no longer appear to have much coherent to say. Honestly, all I ever ask myself when I watch one of his movies is, Why doesn’t he just make a musical? There’s a long passage here set at a Christmas party, in which Stone and Murray dance to the Gap Band’s “Outstanding,” which is six-plus minutes of mid-tempo heaven. Crowe lets most of the song play out, and until Baldwin’s general cuts it off (for “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”), there’s nobody else’s mess I’d rather be standing in.