Hollywood has a problem. No, it’s not that Donald Trump is President. No, it’s not the industry being full of moral cowards who enabled Harvey Weinstein for decades. It’s not even the metastatic cancer that is super-hero movies. I mean, as I write this they’re planning to make two different Joker films with two different actors playing the character. Does anyone think that’s going to work?
No, Hollywood’s problem is well illustrated as this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown looks at two flicks starring one of the closest things to a new movie star the business has seen in a long, long while. It’s “San Andreas” (2015) vs. “Skyscraper” (2018) to try and figure out what the sort-of-rise and inevitable fall of Dwayne Johnson is telling us about the future of motion pictures.
“San Andreas” is just another disaster movie that tried to be more than just another disaster movie and wound up failing at both. Raymond Gaines (Dwayne Johnson) is a distractingly swoll helicopter rescue pilot who just got divorce papers from his wife (Carla Gugino). And by “distractingly swoll” I mean there are several points in the movie where you wonder how bad the steroid shortage must be in California because Johnson apparently took ALL OF THEM. His wife is just about ready to move in with her rich new architect boyfriend (Ioan Gruffud) and Ray’s hot daughter (Alexandra Daddario) is fine with that. Then a massive earthquake hits the San Andreas Fault and Ray has to first save his wife in Los Angeles, then the two of them have to road trip to San Francisco to save the daughter and her quite impressive PG-13 cleavage.
The first time Carla Gugino has ever had a co-star with bigger boobs than hers.
Like a lot of modern blockbusters, “San Andreas” starts out fairly strong. There’s a reasonably exciting scene introducing Ray wherehe saves a girl who’s driven off a cliff. We get a nice taste of disaster action as the Hoover Dam is destroyed while two scientists try to prove they can predict earthquakes. And the scene where Ray has to zoom into and out of Los Angeles with his wife as the city shakes apart around them is pretty intense. And it’s fair to say this movie isn’t jammed full of disaster movie clichés, but that’s because this movie isn’t full of anything. It’s a weirdly barren and disjointed production where is appears the filmmakers wanted to do something interesting before ultimately being consumed by their own special effects budget.
For example, when we’re introduced to Ray, we’re also introduced to his helicopter rescue team. It’s established they all served in the military together and I would bet money that every single person who watches “San Andreas” comes away from the opening cliff rescue expecting that Ray’s team will be the major supporting characters of the rest of the film, with at least one of them getting killed helping Ray save his family. But then the rescue team disappears from the movie and except for one guy sticking around for a few lines of exposition, they are never even referenced again. It’s so odd and because nothing you see in a motion picture is there by accident, you have to believe the rescue team vanishing act was a deliberate effort to play around with the audience’s expectations…except there’s no actual point to it.
Somewhere Michael Dukakis is slamming his fist on a table and yelling "THAT'S the look I was going for!"
It’s not like the rescue team scene establishes anything about Ray or sets up some plot or dramatic element that is paid off later in the movie. It’s as if there was an early draft of the script where the rescue team was a big part of the rest of the film but when they abandoned that angle, they couldn’t come up with anything better to open the movie with and just left it in the screenplay. It’s like the infamous Biggs Darklighter subplot from the original Star Wars where he was someone Luke knew on Tatooine and then reunited with at the rebel base on the moon of Yavin, except “San Andreas” is getting the scene with Luke and Biggs on Tatooine and then never seeing him for the rest of the movie.
Or then there’s the whole thing about Ray’s broken family. We get an early scene where Ray is rightfully annoyed at his not-yet-ex-wife for not telling him she’s moving in with her new boyfriend and then a big emotional scene later on (which Johnson does very well) where we find out Ray and his wife broke up because he couldn’t handle the death of their other daughter on a river rafting trip. But we never see any genuine animosity between Ray and his wife or any emotional separation between Ray and his surviving daughter. There’s no blame or recriminations and no evidence the guilt has changed Ray or made him do things he wouldn’t otherwise do. At the end of the film when Ray has to save his daughter from a flooding building, it’s obvious the scene is supposed to be some sort of culmination of Ray’s emotional recovery from losing his other daughter. The problem is we never get any of the dramatic steps on that journey. Again, it’s like a previous draft of the script had those steps (or at least some of them) but they got cut because there needed to be more time for things shaking and breaking.
I know President Trump has talked about America's crumbling infrastructure but this is ridiculous.
Or take the wife’s new boyfriend who is plainly established at first in the viewer’s mind as not a dick. There’s nothing vaguely sleazy or cowardly or off-putting about him. He’s presented as a perfectly decent guy but then he abandons Ray’s daughter in the midst of the disaster and it seems like the movie is using him to point out that even basically good people can get caught up in the panic and terror of a disaster and do bad things. But the next two times we see the boyfriend, he’s become nothing but a villainous caricature where they audience is supposed to laugh when he finally gets killed.
And then there’s the earthquake scientists from the Hoover Dam who literally serve no legitimate function at all. We don’t need them to explain anything. Their earthquake-prediction method is useless since it gives you about 30 seconds warning beforehand. The scientists do nothing that helps Ray and his family. The two groups never even meet each other. There’s a throwaway line of dialog about how the public needs to start listening to the scientists except there’s no earlier scene where they were ignored. Again, it’s like they’re a remnant from an earlier and much different version of the screenplay.
"All I wanted was a bottle of merlot! Is that too much to ask?"
It’s as though there were several good ideas at one time for making “San Andreas” more than just another disaster movie. All of them, however, appear to have been sacrificed on the altar of spectacle and if “San Andreas” had come out in 2005 with this level of special effects it might have been worth it but by 2015 we’ve already seen towns, cities, continents, and whole planets devastated over and over and over again. If it weren’t for the good work of the cast, highlighted by Johnson, Daddario, and Art Parkinson as a Brit kid who gets caught up with Ray’s daughter during the commotion, I don’t even know if this motion picture would even qualify as watchable.
Then there’s “Skyscraper,” which is just another disaster movie that never tries to be or even thinks about being more than just another disaster movie and winds up a far greater success for its lack of narrative ambition. Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson) was the leader of an FBI hostage rescue team that lost his leg in an explosion when a rescue went bad. 10 years later, married to the surgeon (Neve Campbell) who saved his life and the father to two legitimately cute kids (McKenna Roberts and Henry Cottrell), Will is an entrepreneurial security expert hired to give the final okay to “The Pearl,” a 200+ story tall high rise in Hong Kong. When evil guys who are evil set fire to the building with Will’s family inside, he has to save them in as ridiculously difficult a way as possible.
“Skyscraper” has no clever twist. There’s no emotional subplot where our hero has to overcome some flaw or resolve some internal conflict. Will Sawyer is simply a monopod bad ass who loves his family and is willing to risk his life to keep them safe. The bad guys are simply bad guys. Will’s wife is simply a lovely bad ass about half her husband’s size. “The Pearl” is simply there to burn and collapse in interesting ways. No one here is trying to do anything but make a solid piece of entertainment to occupy your attention for a couple of hours and they accomplish that in spades. Unlike “San Andreas,” which had nowhere to go action-wise after the first earthquake, “Skyscraper” manages to keep upping the ante in a vaguely believable way with ever greater obstacles for Will to overcome. There are no loose ends. No characters or scenes that wind up going nowhere. It may lack the scope of “The Towering Inferno” (1974) and its villain can’t hold a candle to Alan Rickman in “Die Hard” (1988) but writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber has made an honestly good action flick here.
Did she wander in from a Matrix sequel or something?
The only problem with “Skyscraper” is this: It apparently cost $125 million to make. Add in the price of marketing and promotion worldwide and that means it probably needs to make around $250 million just to break even. Know how many times Dwayne Johnson has been the undisputed star of a movie that made over $200 million? Zero. “San Andreas” made about $155 million and Johnson’s movie from early 2018, “Rampage,” topped out at a smidge over $99 million. The only time Johnson has seen box office over $200 million has been joining the cast of the “Fast and Furious” franchise, being a bit part in “The Mummy Returns” (2001), teaming with Kevin Hart on a “Jumanji” reboot, or doing a cartoon voiceover in Moana (2018).
In a 17-year career so far in Hollywood, Johnson has made 29 films which have averaged a box office return of $114 million. That would be very good numbers if they were spending an average of $60 million to make those films, which is what the inflation-adjusted budget was for 1988’s “Die Hard.” But Johnson’s last five films have cost $125 million, $120 million, $90 million, $69 million, and $250 million. Johnson is a star because that $90 million was for the “Jumanji” reboot that made $400 million in America and the $250 million was for the latest “Fast and Furious” flick that made over $1 billion around the world. But the other three totals are for “Skyscraper,” “Rampage,” and “Baywatch” (2017) and all of them will probably wind up losing money. Yes, they spent $69 million on the “Baywatch” movie.
You know he's got to be angling for a 'Just for Men' beard-coloring endorsement out of this.
As far as this Throwdown, “Skyscraper” takes the win. It aims lower but hit a bullseye while “San Andreas” falters on its lack of follow through and today’s excessively high expectations for movie magic. How do these films demonstrate the real problem facing Hollywood? Let’s take a look at another number. Arnold Schwarzenegger was catapulted into movie stardom largely on the strength of “The Terminator” (1984). It made only $38 million at the U.S. box office but cost just $6.4 million to make. And if you check the other films from the 80s and early 90s that made Arnold’s career, their box office returns aren’t necessarily that impressive even after adjusted for inflation. But their production costs are so much lower.
Dwayne Johnson is a better actor than Arnold Schwarzenegger. He’s a better comedian. With the aid of 30 years of advances in nutrition and training, he’s bigger and arguably more physically impressive. And while few in cinema history can equal the “It Factor” Arnold possessed, Johnson is no slouch in that department. But to generate the same kind of profits, the same kind of return on investment as Arnold did, Johnson needs to be two, three, even four times more successful. That’s a business model which is unsustainable and when it crashes, what it does to Hollywood might make both “San Andreas” and “Skyscraper” seem like a spring picnic in the park.
San Andreas (2015)
Written by Carlton Cuse.
Directed by Brad Peyton.
Starring Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Ioan Gruffud, Archie Panjabi, Paul Giamatti, Hugo Johnston-Burt, Art Parkinson, Will Yun Lee, Kylie Minogue, Colton Haynes, Todd Williams, Matt Gerald, Alec Utgoff, and Marissa Neitling.
Either Neve Campbell is a lot taller than I think or she's standing on a box.
Written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber.
Starring Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Paublo Schreiber, Noah Taylor, McKenna Roberts, Kevin Rankin, Roland Moller, Matt O’Leary, Hanna Quinlivan, Chin Han, and Noah Cottrell.
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