Monday, June 8, 2015

A Geologist (also named Hayes) Sits Through "San Andreas", the Movie

What the heck is this? These are fault slickensides (scraping marks from fault motions) at Hoover Dam. Where the movie says there are no faults.

I love sitting through geology-based movies, so I can sit and smirk at the screen and criticize the horrible geology presented therein. And thus, I expected to do the same this afternoon, when I finally found time to catch "San Andreas". Mind you, there were plenty of geological issues with the movie, but I have to admit I actually enjoyed myself. It was entertaining. So here are some of the thoughts from another geologist named Hayes (the main geologist character in the movie was Lawrence Hayes. I'd feel complimented, but I noticed the movie's screenwriters, at least at some point, were also named Hayes. Plus, CalTech would never hire me).
Let's get the biggest spoiler out of the way first. Hoover Dam, Los Angeles, and San Francisco get destroyed in this movie. Strangely enough, Bakersfield gets nailed pretty badly too. The Hollywood sign and the Golden Gate Bridge get destroyed. If I was the maintenance guy for the Hollywood Sign, I'd be pretty tired of constantly replacing it by now.
Hoover Dam. It has its faults...

So, the opening scene as I recall involved a distracted young lady driving a mountain highway in the San Gabriel Mountains. A rock hits her windshield, and over the side she goes, at a rate of speed that defied the laws of gravity, and into a canyon so utterly steep that it defied gravity too. I grew up next to the San Gabriel Mountains, and yes, the mountains are steep, but yeesh. This was to establish our star as a superhero (Dwayne Johnson, aka "The Rock", doing better as a sensitive kind of guy than I would have expected).
Here's a steep canyon in the San Gabriel Mountains, but I don't think "The Rock" could fly a helicopter through it.
After the death-defying rescue, there was a lot of talking for awhile to establish the characters and bits of foreshadowing here and there. Estranged spouses, busy geologists, that kind of thing. I especially liked the poor professor very dramatically presenting the story of the worst earthquakes in history (this part was factually spot on, by the way), and then all his students waking up as the lights come back on in the classroom. One student asks ominously, "could it happen here?". What have they been studying all semester????

I get that a lot, too.
The geologists, who've worked as a team to try and predict earthquakes, predict earthquakes at Hoover Dam, and go there to investigate. Their little harmless quakes escalate quickly into a big quake, and the dam is destroyed. A couple of things: the geologists say there are no faults at Hoover Dam. The picture above is a fault at Hoover Dam. Actually, there are lots of faults at Hoover Dam. It might be more correct to say that faults there are not known to be active. Dams are known to reactivate dormant faults on occasion, due to water pressure along the fractures. Also, there was a variant of the movie trope of the black brother getting killed first. Paul Giamatti was the white guy geologist, and his associate was Asian. We immediately know he's doomed. By the way, Giamatti was pretty much my favorite character in the film. He always said very logical things, like "stop, drop and cover", and kept a cool demeanor all through the film. Oh, and laptop computers report the magnitude of earthquakes while they're still happening. It was then or later in the film that a grad student said something like "it just jumped from a 6.5 to an 8.5", again, right in the middle of the quake. It doesn't exactly happen that way. But I guess I'm being picky. Oh, and no one can predict earthquakes.
Well, almost nobody. These people predict earthquakes all the time (credit: Amanda).
The destruction of Hoover Dam showed the advances of thirty-five years of special effects technology. I liked the destruction of Hoover (or Glen Canyon) Dam in the original "Superman" movie with Christopher Reeves, but in "San Andreas" it was really something to see. I know they couldn't spend time on this kind of thing, but I sure would have liked to hear about the effects downstream on the Colorado River of having an entire year's flow happen in one day. It would have destroyed a string of dams all the way to Mexico, and flooded out of existence a number of towns. But that would have taken up an entire movie, and we had to get back to the destruction about to take place in California. Hoover was almost immediately forgotten.

An approximation of the remainder of the movie "San Andreas", courtesy of Amanda
So, for the rest of the movie, we see Los Angeles get devastated by the worst earthquake in west coast history, a 9.1 or so (no, it can't happen). Geologist realizes that it is only a precursor to a much larger quake in San Francisco, and warns people to get out of town. And go where? Modesto? We have some room in our campus gym, but that's about it. The giant quake hits, the city is largely destroyed, and our characters go about surviving one way or another. Oh yeah, there are characters in the movie. I almost forgot.

So here's the thing. The San Andreas is a transform fault, meaning it shifts sideways during earthquakes. It behaves in a segmented manner, with a history of large, but not gigantic, earthquakes  (in the real world, the quakes top out at about 7.8-8.0 magnitude, about 1/30th the size of a magnitude 9 quake. The northern segment broke in 1906, the famous San Francisco quake at magnitude 7.8 (the movie "San Francisco", 1936, still stands as one of the best earthquake movies ever). The central segment, from Cajon Pass to Parkfield, broke less famously in 1857. The southernmost segment, down in the Palm Springs/Coachella Valley region, has not gone off in about 350 years. It is pretty much the most dangerous stretch of the fault in California. No, there aren't going to be any magnitude 9+ quakes in California. You'll have to look north to the Cascadia Subduction Zone in Washington and Oregon (and far north California) for that kind of thing.

Now I know it was there because the plot progression demanded it, but this will not happen. The San Andreas will slip sideways 10 or 20 feet, but the ground isn't going to open up like this. The plot was slowing down after Ray's helicopter crash-landed in Bakersfield, and the drive to San Francisco was going to take a boring four hours. Something was needed to make them steal an airplane and get there faster. Oh, and the San Andreas fault is a right lateral fault, meaning during the quake, the side of the fault opposite the observer would shift to the right. The photo is showing a left lateral fault. Oh, and they said this was the Central Valley. The San Andreas doesn't go through the Central Valley. Oh, and because the fault motion is primarily lateral, it doesn't disturb the seafloor enough to do this:

In fact, even the world's worst earthquakes don't make tsunamis this big. Nor do they curl in like a surfer wave on the North Shore of Oahu. But heck, by now our heroes are on a boat, so there are some cool dramatic scenes of ships being destroyed. The cargo ship was great (you'll just have to see the movie). Because the plot demanded it, the movie's only "bad" guy was on the bridge when the wave hit, and he looked just like the lawyer in "Jurassic Park" before the lawyer got munched by a T-rex. Only he wasn't on a toilet.

So there are screams, and explosions, and falling buildings. Really, someone needs to sue the architects, because their skyscrapers kept falling down everywhere. This is another point that needs to be addressed. Most modern buildings will not collapse during the "big one". You will just be asking for a world of hurt if you are trying to get out of such buildings during the quake. As the geologists in the movie said, over and over, "stop, drop, and cover". You'll be much better off.
This is the absolute best lesson in the entire movie. Get under cover, preferably with an attractive person. If the building really does collapse, who do you want to spend time with while waiting to be rescued?
Those are my thoughts in the immediate aftermath of the movie, except for one thing. A really big thing, and it isn't geological. Our movie hero is a search and rescue hotshot for Los Angeles. A big earthquake hits, and his first action? He takes a helicopter that is badly needed for rescue operations, and flies off to find his estranged wife. They then take off to San Francisco in what is now clearly a stolen helicopter, in a clear case of dereliction of his sworn duty as a public servant. He crashes the helicopter in Bakersfield and steals a truck, with the justification that he stole it from someone else who had stolen it (that makes it right, right?). He gives the truck to a kindly old couple, making them guilty of receiving stolen property, and steals an airplane. He purposely crashes the plane (well, the airports were destroyed), and then steals a boat. All this to find and "rescue" a daughter who actually has spent the entire movie making incredible good and smart decisions, as well as saving a number of people (more than dad, certainly). So Ray, Dwayne, Rock, or whatever, you should have stayed in LA and saved people. Your daughter was doing fine. That's what made Giamatti, the geologist Hayes, the greatest hero: he had information that could save countless lives, found a way to pass that information on to the people of California, and thus there were still some people left at the end of the movie to rebuild the state (so it can fall over again in a century or two).

But like I said, I rather enjoyed the whole movie, and the special effects were quite good, even if these were things that wouldn't happen in real life. Don't use this movie as your education in the nature of earthquakes. I highly recommend this sort of thing: Or this:


Deb said...

Great review Garry. I figured you would have to watch this movie, just to point out all the mistakes.

jrepka said...

Though Giamatti's little exposition for the class was mostly correct, I cringed when he referred to the "Richter Scale" when talking about the magnitudes of the '60 and '64 quakes.

But my first thought, as the credits rolled by on the drum seismograph, was how poorly first responders were treated in this movie: Johnson's character is supposed to be the hero, but he abandons his job and steals a helicopter when he hears his daughter might be in trouble _400_miles_away!_

His daughter is smart and resourceful, but she steals an emergency kit from a fire truck for her own use. Are we to assume that the truck's crew had abandoned the truck and had no need for the radio, the first-aid kit, etc.? Then I tried to remember scenes showing police or fire crews or paramedics helping anyone in the movie (other than The Rock). Did you see any? I didn't.

So apparently all the first responders in the movie are either dead, incompetent, or have abandoned their posts (probably to rescue their own family members in other towns). At least the crew of that fire truck didn't steal their vehicle to do so.

Garry Hayes said...

I didn't catch the Richter part. For those wondering what that means, Richter is only used for smaller quakes, up to 6.5 or so. Larger quakes are measured using the determination of the seismic moment, and converting to a scale roughly similar to Richter. Moment uses the amount of offset, the frictional resistance of the rocks along the fault, and the length of the fault rupture. These are things that are not easy to calculate while the quake is happening!

Your comment reminds me of how a great many New Orleans police abandoned their posts during the Katrina hurricane and flooding. There's only so much you can do in the face of overwhelming destruction. But still, the characters in the movie made me think of an alternate title: San Andreas, a Looter's Tale

Celia Lewis said...

Damn! Such a great review, criticism notwithstanding, I'll have to see it now. Thanks Garry - you make my day with your geology-based posts - and the photos are always excellent. Cheers!

Anonymous said...

As with most of the other DESTROY CALIFORNIA movies, this one requires suspension of disbelief and, in essence, the thinking portions of the brain. Good review!

So a pole-vaulting cargo ship caught in the tsunami stood in for Godzilla wrecking the bridge (how many times has it been taken out now?), but GGB came through the quake itself fine. And how about some other odd bits of geography - like the GGB in some scenes appearing to run approximately through Alcatraz? And after the tsunami, the water doesn't go back down - instant sea level rise or did the land subside 100m?

BTW, I understand that recent re-examination of tide gauge records shows that 1906 *did* produce a tsunami - maybe a few inches high.

Still, as movies go, not bad. I saw the 3-D version; not bad, actually without a lot of in-your-face effects - recommended. Oh bother - just go see it - find a $5 Tuesday or something like that, don't blow a wad, and have fun.

jrepka said...

A friend calculated that, even if the entire 400 miles of the SAF slipped at once, the maximum offset would still have to be about 0.6 miles in order to produce a magnitude 9.6 earthquake.

Anonymous said...

I laughed out loud at some of the most obvious errors, but the theater had the volume SET SO LOUD no one could possibly have heard me...I ended up using ear plugs for 90% of the movie. Still, an entertaining destruction movie in a chilly theater on a hot summer's day, grievous mistakes or not.