San Andreas
(M) Directed by Brad Peyton
Starring Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino

By Ben McEachen

Starring action man Dwayne Johnson and Kylie Minogue, San Andreas is the latest blockbuster that turns natural disaster into entertainment. Since the 1970s, movies and disasters have been in a steady partnership of spectacle. At cinemas this month, San Andreas will turn California into a wasteland, ripped apart by the titular fault-line. Previous disaster movie 2012 already demolished Los Angeles in a similar catastrophe, but San Andreas offers the fresh sight of a tsunami headed for San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.

In real life, we are shocked and grieved by the impact of cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis and bushfires. Especially if our family, friends or community are immediately effected. Yet blockbusters turn natural disasters into thrills. Why? Audiences love the safe threat of a cinematic experience. Being able to witness the enormity of natural disasters, without consequences, offers protected exhilaration. As the list below points out, they also teach us a lot about us and our world.

1. Disasters happen

Movies like San Andreas state the obvious: Bad stuff goes down. All the time. But we can suffer from empathy fatigue, when it comes to seeing the latest disaster on the news. Perhaps, as computer-generated effects demolish California in San Andreas, take a moment to remember these things really happen. If that isn't enough to re-start your heart, relive the colossal devastation of 2012.


2. We cannot stop it

Despite what Armageddon suggested when it sent Bruce Willis into space to detonate an approaching asteroid, we are officially useless at preventing natural disasters. Mercifully, most movies tell us so. From the storm-chasers in Twister to the two volcano movies released in 1997 (weird, right?), humans are unable to hold off what's coming.


3. Nowhere to hide

In San Andreas, Johnson is a helicopter pilot flying above crumbling California. That's about the only way of surviving. Because, when you're on the ground and a disastrous force is imminent, how can you escape? Be it a tsunami (The Impossible), earthquake (um, Earthquake) or ice storm (The Day After Tomorrow), movies do show that most people cannot get out of the way.


4. The alarm was sounded

“You need to get out,” warns Paul Giamatti in the San Andreas trailer. He's playing the scientist who is entrusted with an important role, found in most disaster movies. The role of “person who sounds the alarm.... and no-one pays much attention”. Apathy and arrogance are often the on-screen response to warnings. But none of us would ever be like that, though.


5. God be with you

For those in San Andreas who are unable to “get out”, Giamatti offers this: “God be with you.” This offhanded remark points to the only sure place of refuge. Romans 8:20 speaks of all creation “being subjected to futility”, which is a shorthand way to explain why natural disasters occur. They occur because God's perfect creation (Genesis 1:31) was contaminated by sin, and every corner of our existence has been tarnished. But as Jesus instructs in Luke 13:2-5, disasters should stir us all to seek how we can be safe and sound with God. Come what may.

This article was originally published in Eternity magazine, May 2015. For more Culture articles on Eternity, click here.