San Andreas — the schadenfreude movie
Okay, I admit it—I got bored the other night and wasted ten bucks on the entirely predictable disaster flick, “San Andreas.” I knew deep down that it would be what it was—pure Hollywood crap, a cartoon hero movie with an obscene budget.
But as a guy who has written a fair bit about earthquakes, I wanted to see what they were going to do with a $100-million-plus dollars’ worth of computer animation. Short answer: they crumbled Hoover Dam, leveled the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco, and washed away the Golden Gate Bridge. The destruction was mostly sanitized (they were going for “holy shit” and “awesome,” not blood, guts and empathy) but extremely realistic otherwise.
I could just hear all those folks who love to hate California cheering loudly—or at the very least smirking—from the balcony. The movie made $53.2 million its opening weekend and was number one at the box-office. Somebody must have liked it.
The science, of course, was dead wrong. Ludicrous, one critic called it. The San Andreas will never rupture from end-to-end, never hit L.A. and San Francisco at the same time. It cannot produce a magnitude-9+ earthquake. San Andreas will not crumble the Hoover Dam. It will not cause a tsunami that rips out the Golden Gate. It just won’t. Ask any reputable scientist.
Given how much the residents of California already know about real quakes, I wondered why the filmmakers would go so far over the top. I mean, a little “creative license” is one thing, but this was beyond stupid and surely most people with an IQ north of 5 would know it. Then it occurred to me: they wanted a magnitude-9 quake in North America; they wanted wholesale, multi-city destruction—but the West Coast fault that really will cause this kind of disaster is virtually unknown. The bigger, more destructive fault is simply not famous enough.
I can hear the producer’s pitch: “This will be a movie about a quake like the one in Japan. That thing ripped for hundreds of miles along the coast. Did you see the tsunami? Awesome, right? So we want to do that with Americans…”
Fine. It just so happens there is a fault off the West Coast (the Cascadia Subduction Zone) that will do to North America exactly what happened to Japan. Magnitude-9 or higher plus a horrible tsunami. But the cities that get wrecked (Sacramento, Portland, Seattle, Victoria and Vancouver) are just not as sexy as L.A. and San Francisco. So Hollywood took the Cascadia scenario (it can and will rip from end-to-end, all at once, from northern California to the middle of Vancouver Island) and applied it to the lower half of California.
Sure, the visual effect was riveting. It was also disappointing. Because a tentpole movie with such a lavish budget could possibly have motivated a few more folks to do what needs doing. I know, I know—that wasn’t the point. The point was to sell popcorn.
The larger truth is that when the Cascadia quake does happen, we’re not all going to die. The vast majority of us who live within striking distance will survive the jolt. The crucial question is how well we endure the aftermath. And that depends entirely on what we do now to get ready for it. (Yes, I’ve said this a thousand times, but it bears repeating…)
A news item this past week confirmed (what many already knew) that the two busiest hospital emergency rooms in metropolitan Vancouver will likely collapse when Cascadia ruptures. What’s it gonna take for politicians to treat this threat seriously?
“San Andreas” was a missed opportunity. As one of my geologist contacts told me— “Too bad it’s so overblown. Lots of people might think that’s what the next earthquake will be like. And then think it’s so apocalyptic that’s its useless to take any action. So, I see it as very counterproductive.”
Go to Salon.com and search “San Andreas.” You’ll see an interesting little video about the California quake that “really terrifies scientists.”
Here’s the headline:
Forget about the San Andreas Fault. The West Coast needs to worry about something else entirely.