San Andreas might be the stupidest film I've ever seen. I've seen a LOT of stupid films on my just-shy of 40 years on this planet. I spent my childhood in front of the TV, my teenage in flea pit cinemas and multiplexes, my adulthood working in video shops and my encroaching middle-age finds me on payroll at the BFI. Believe me, I've seen a LOT of stupid films. But San Andreas is a new breed of stupid.
It's not low-budget slapdash stupid. It's not aimed-at-children stupid. It's not silly knockabout action-star totally-fun stupid. It's stupid-stupid. The things that happen in it, the things people say, everything is done without a shred of intelligence, sophistication or even care.
I'm not writing this to review the movie, I'm sure others have already expounded at length on the plot holes, painfully expositional dialogue, hamfisted character motivation and the choice to forego the random "who lives? Who dies" thrill of the disaster genre for the notion that the polite people all survive, the rude people all die. Oh, sorry... *spoilers* And, yes, I said 'polite' and 'rude' as this film is too stupid for 'good' or 'bad'. Our hero can not really be called a good guy as his job is to rescue people in his massive rescue helicopter and during a national crisis, he saves just two people - his ex-wife and daughter. The nominal bad guy in the film's crime is, whilst clearly in shock, running away from saving a girl who is trapped in a car under falling masonry.
Whenever talk turns to rubbish films, somebody always seems to say 'well, there have always been rubbish films!' And I agree, there have. But these have mainly been B-movies, or films aimed at a teenage demographic or films which simply haven't worked and been slipped out to recoup on financial losses. I also refute the notion that the big budget action genre is one of low quality filmmaking in general. The direction is usually tight, the screenplays pithy and the stars charismatic. San Andreas seems to me to be part of a new trend. This is a big budget, big studio movie. Dwayne Johnson is a big star capable of charisma and pathos and the cast also features Paul Giamatti, a respected character actor. What I'm saying is that this film is not stupid by accident. It's stupid by design. And that scares me. The dialogue is simple and without nuance because the studio is actually aiming this film at stupid people. The story is as basic as one can get because stupid people will be watching it. The emotional scenes are spoken rather than emoted. Paul Giamatti's entire job as a Cal-Tech boffin is to say loudly 'an earthquake is about to happen' before an earthquake happens and then 'an earthquake just happened!' Immediately after. In case the stupid people watching are too stupid to work out why the buildings are falling over.
This notion of a film for stupid people is awful. It's patronising and offensive. This same audience can happily watch Mad Max. If people are genuinely too stupid to register any subtext, and I'm not convinced they are, then putting subtext in wont bother them. There is no subtext to San Andreas. No message. No theme. These things are replaced in the final shot by an American flag slowly unfurling over the smoking remains. What have we learned? Um... America is great? Stupid people will love that.
So, while I'm watching this film fuming that it considers its audience to be morons, and I'm thinking that this moronic audience doesn't actually exist. I realise that it does. And I'm sat in it. The people in this cinema, the Finchely Road Vue, are morons. The two lads sat behind us have their feet up on our chairs. They don't move them, even as a basic courtesy as we sit down. The group sat in the row in front of us chat, loudly, throughout the movie. As I look around, I realise that myself and my friend are in the minority. We are two of the only people who don't have their feet up on the seats and aren't talking loudly. And when I say talking, I'm not meaning a little comment here and there after a big set piece, I mean a full blown conversation, with raised voices to be heard over the film.
A week earlier, another friend convinced me to see a film with him at another Vue, in North Finchley. The people in the back row were talking and joking about so loudly every word was audible above the film. I went to complain at the kiosk, because it seems there is no such thing as an usher anymore, the guy told me he'd check it out. He didn't. Half an hour later, I went to complain again he said 'just see me after the film, I'll give you free tickets' - it was easier to just refund me than actually sort it out. And I don't blame him. If I was on minimum wage, I wouldn't want to walk into a darkened room and ask a bunch of loud, ballsy teenagers to shut up either.
Not that I want to generalise. When I say that every multiplex experience I've had recently, I've found the audience to be full of morons, I'm not in any way specifying them to be of an obvious class, age, ethnicity or gender. Quite the opposite. It just seems to have become the accepted norm that people talk loudly, put their feet up on the seats and use their mobile phones throughout the film. Principally, this is rude and inconsiderate during a communal event but, also, it seems stupid. Why pay upwards of £20 for a ticket and snack to not enjoy the one thing that cinema can offer - the chance to lose yourself in a film? Why are these people paying this much money to behave exactly how they would at home in front of the TV? Because they're stupid.
To get a little nostalgic for a moment, do you remember what going to the cinema was like a decade ago? Everyone excitedly taking their seats, then the ads, then the trailers, then the big red curtains would swoosh shut and you'd hear a mechanical whirring behind it, then the curtains would open and the screen would be a completely different size and shape, the BBFC certificate would appear and any residual chatter would be harshly 'shushed' as the film began? Remember that? Gone. Gone. There are no curtains in the Vue screen I was sat in. And no whirring. They didn't bother to change the masking on the screen, meaning that the film had grey lines above and below it throughout. Maybe not everyone would notice that. Especially not the idiots. But it displays a contempt for the audience that Vue didn't even bother to present the film as the filmmakers had intended. It also displays a contempt for the audience that no usher was there to make sure people were behaving. Do you remember also how there used to be an ad before the film saying 'please turn off your mobile phone'? Gone. That doesn't happen anymore. So, it would seem Vue are fine with this kind of behaviour. Of course they are. Their cinemas are full of stupid people.
Stupid cinemas showing stupid films for stupid people.
I've always had mainstream movie tastes and nothing compares to the thrill of sitting in a full cinema and being part of a group all being shocked, entertained, thrilled, entranced and scared together. But this weekend I made the decision that I'm done with multiplexes. The culture seems to have changed. I hope I'm wrong and that my experiences over the last couple of years are not the norm. Thankfully, in London at least, we have great indie cinemas and the BFI and Prince Charles will always be havens for true film lovers but it saddens me to think that the curtains might have closed on the great experience of going to see a decent mainstream Hollywood popcorn flick with a decent, respectful everyday crowd in a decent suburban cinema.