Too Soon?: San Andreas, Nepal, and Disastrous Timing

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This weekend, the world sees the release of San Andreas, the latest big budget, spectacle-driven blockbuster that takes stock in apocalyptic scenarios and beefy heroes. Just over two weeks ago, Nepal suffered the second powerful, lethal earthquake in a fortnight, measuring 7.8 and 7.4 on the Richter scale respectively. Warner Bros., the studio behind San Andreas, showed no signs off postponing the release – but should they have ever considered to do so in the first place? Just how soon is ‘too soon’? Let me try and provide some clarity, if not definite answers.

There’s been somewhat of an uproar surrounding the release of San Andreas, mere weeks after the Nepalese disaster, decrying it as distasteful to the nth degree and insulting to those who died – and those who were left behind – after the earthquakes. Which sounds reasonable enough; but, I ask, when is a good time to see it? How many days should you leave before you buy a ticket for San Andreas? Is there some unspoken timeframe in which it’s deemed ethically A-OK to view the movie? A month? Three months? A few days? How about a few years?

It’s this type of absolutist thinking that I find particularly aggravating, admittedly the kind that exhibits a definite moral compass, but lacking in any sort of logic. What we need to do, in severely unfortunate circumstances that San Andreas finds itself is, is take a step back and weigh the information removed from the heat of topical bias. The point is, there isn’t just a movie about an earthquake coming out soon: there are also dozens of films released this year alone, and yet to be released, that deal with real events or situations from history both ancient and recent. Thousands of people die each day from conflicts overseas – but war films are constantly made, and no one is heard complaining (Drones continue to kill amorally overseas, and no one batted an eyelid upon Good Kill’s release). Movies take elements from the world they’re made in, and reflect our own reality in many ways; in San Andreas, a terrible earthquake happens. In reality, a terrible earthquake also happened. There’s not much else to it, except what you – and society – project onto it.

Consider Wild Tales, an Argentinian-Spanish movie that came out this year the same week of the Germanwings disaster happened. The opening skit of Wild Tales featured a plane-bound suicide scenario that was circumstantially similar to the real-life event; but it felt little backlash, if any. Perhaps it got away with the ‘World Cinema’ card, excused from the same accusations that a tasteless, shallow Hollywood production – like San Andreas – might suffer. On that note, last year’s big budget disaster flick Pompeii, similar in many ways to San Andreas’ tactless disregard for physics and valuing of spectacle over personality, met with no oppositon against its release. And why would it have? The disaster of Pompeii is a memory nearly two thousands years forgotten; but why should anyone treat the many deaths of those in that disaster differently to the Nepalese victims? It’s our own wobbly sense of morality that we’re judging, not these movies. Hell, in a few year’s time, there may even be a film made of the Nepalese quakes. I wonder how we’ll react to that.

Interestingly, Warner Bros.’ did indeed push back the release of one of its films in 2013: Gangster Squad. This was following the horrific shooting of audience members during a midnight screening of 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises (another WB picture), and Gangster Squad featured a scene – glimpsed in the first trailer – where a mob walks out from behind a cinema screen and lets fire on the unsuspecting crowd. They decided to postpone the movie’s release in order to dump that scene, and reshoot a Chinatown replacement sequence instead. There are many different factors, of course, for San Andreas not receiving a similar makeover: firstly, the entire movie is the disaster, not just one scene like Gangster Squad was. They had a decision to change a relatively small part of their film in a reasonable time, shifting the release date not an ungodly amount: if Warner Bros. were to take exactly the same attitude toward San Andreas, then that would mean not releasing the film at all. Which, naturally, would be a ludicrous idea for a studio to even consider. Instead, they decided to give the film’s marketing a humanitarian slant: ‘We will continue to evaluate our worldwide marketing campaign to ensure that we are sensitive to those affected by this tragic event,’ a spokesperson for the studio told Variety. And so, the latest San Andreas trailer comes retrofitted with a ‘how to be ready for an earthquake’ indent, complete with a hashtag. It’s reaching out on the tiniest scale, a borderline refusal to admit that the Nepalese disaster actually happened: but why should they, if their film takes on some deeper meaning that the makers never intended, thanks to events completely out of their control?

But it’s not how the studio handles things that’s the problem here; it’s our own perception. Films can mean whatever you allow them to mean. It’s your choice. On the one hand, does refusing to recognise some invisible line which, once crossed, means morality has been compromised or a social cultural faux pas committed, not cheapen our view on cinema as an artform that deals with serious issues on a global scale? Or do we simply, and quite rightly, want a mindless action flick? The choice, ultimately, is yours, no matter how your friends, the media, and the studio spin it.

It’s just a movie; it’s never ‘just a movie.’ The point is, this circular argument shows that we feel both a disconnect to what’s playing at our local cinemas, but we’re also liable to fall under a type of zeitgeist-charged spell; a movie like The Dark Knight drew lots of parallels to the war on terror that was being raged at the time. Would it have garnered as much acclaim if it were released five years earlier, of five years later? Possibly – but it’s down to our own perspectives, and what we decide is ‘topical’ or not, that informs our own further reading into a movie. And San Andreas is just a movie; whatever comes after is up to you.

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