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The disaster movie provides an opportunity to show the experience of, well, disasters from various perspectives. 1970s classics The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno brought together disparate people whose differences proved essential to their survival, a trope also used in Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. Ric Roman Waugh’s Greenland follows a similar pattern to those of Emmerich, but with a serious tone more akin to those of Irwin Allen. Rather than treating the impact of a comet on the Earth as a rollercoaster ride, Greenland leans into the grim and frightening aspects of the disaster. Part of this comes from the wide scale destruction, but there is just as much horror to be found in the actions of humanity. Structural engineer John Garrity (Gerard Butler) and his wife Allison (Morena Baccarin) and son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd) are selected for evacuation by the US government. However, no one that they know is selected, and their journey towards safety rapidly exposes the severe triage being enacted on the population. Only those designated as healthy and useful are to be evacuated, and desperation leads to panic leads to violence. There is ample destruction and some jaw-dropping spectacle, but Waugh wisely keeps the focus on the human drama, ensuring that we feel every panic-stricken step of the Garritys’ journey. The film’s commitment to this conceit results in a tense and gripping tale of family, fear and hope, that also succeeds in being emotional and moving.
The biggest earthquake in recorded history rocks California, amidst the dire warnings of a leading seismologist (Paul Giamatti). Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson), the biggest man in the Los Angeles Fire Department, is THE man to save the day. Buildings crumble, fissures open in the ground, but nothing will stop this man mountain from saving his family. Lots of other people die but apparently that’s not interesting.
The spectacle of San Andreas is impressive, as whole sections of cities buckle, landmarks are destroyed and judder after judder shake the audience. But the film lacks an equivalent human scale, its focus too narrow on the broken family of Ray, ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino) and daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario). Disaster movies like Titanic and The Day After Tomorrow as well as classics like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno work because they either show the wide effects of the disaster or focus on a small group of characters. San Andreas falls between these stools (or should that be continental plates) by occasionally presenting other victims of the earthquakes, but then abandons these plot lines to just focus on the Gaines. This is most glaring when Ray is on a rescue missions that he suddenly abandons to rescue Emma before both of them set off, in an LAFD helicopter, for San Francisco to get their daughter, Ray and the film apparently disregarding everyone else.
Politically, this is an unfortunate manifestation of conservative individualism – save yourself and your family – but it is also narratively aggravating because tighter plotting could have avoided it. It may seem odd to complain about the plot of a disaster movie, but action films of this type, when done carefully, often exhibit precise and efficient storytelling. But the sloppiness of Carlton Cuse’s screenplay, including the tired device of INEXORABLY RISING WATER as a climactic set piece, detracts from director Brad Peyton’s fine handling of the action sequences, including some enthralling long takes that draw the viewer through the onscreen architectural carnage. The generic clichés are perfectly fine, such as the slimy new boyfriend and the random strangers Blake bonds with in the crisis, while scenes at Cal-Tech with Lawrence (Giamatti) and a news crew are very good. Overall, however, San Andreas is let down by its shaky screenplay that could easily have been tightened up.