Obviously, if you don’t want parts of this movie’s predictable wisp of plot spoiled, you should stop reading now.
Before we dissect the particulars, you first need to understand something of the basic structure of these kinds of movies. Now, just about every disaster movie made these days needs to be about its protagonist rescuing his estranged ex-wife and kids from imminent danger, and thereby winning them back, because it fits with our narrative expectations going all the way back to knights and damsels in distress, never mind that she is psychologically compelled to fall for her rescuer so this makes it all too easy. This leaves one small loose end, being the current romantic interest of said ex-wife that gets displaced by the protagonist. He’s not all that important, story-wise, but there’s this need to address this matter because otherwise this ex-wife may not be deemed so favorably in the eyes of the viewer, since this would make her a capricious flake, at best, for not having some reason for dumping him for the guy she just dumped to be with him. This is typically dealt with either by making the new boyfriend out to be a dick (though this dickishness must not immediately be too obvious or else why is she with him in the first place?) or by killing him off. Sometimes they opt for both – such as in this movie – to emphasize that this guy is such a dick that he really ought to die and you, as the viewer, may partake in some perverse pleasure from that. In any case, the film makers want to leave you with the impression that the protagonist is morally superior to the new boyfriend, enough so that we feel the protagonist is deserving of a second chance and won’t feel too bad for the new guy by the time he is summarily dismissed.
So how does the Rock, our protagonist, assert his moral superiority? Well, he’s an aerial rescue worker, and one who is shown to take risks and displays courage on the job right at the outset, which ought to score him some hero points. But the new boyfriend – we’ll call him Mr. Fantastic – appears to be a pretty stand-up guy himself. He’s the top architect in the world and he’s saying all the right things. And then all hell breaks loose and we got 9.4 magnitude earthquakes and massive tsunamis tearing through San Francisco and both these guys are tested.
Suddenly Mr. Fantastic doesn’t seem so fantastic. He’s with his girlfriend’s daughter who is pinned in the car and he cannot easily get her out. The building is collapsing all around him and he knows both their lives are in danger as long as they stay there. A hero might stick around a little longer to problem-solve but Mr. Fantastic is no hero and gets a case of the jitters, then runs off to find more qualified help. Before he can get help for the girl, he is nearly crushed by a giant piece of falling concrete and is stunned, panics and flees for safer ground, seemingly forgetting about the girl he’s been entrusted with. Not good. The mother finds out about this and is furious: “If you’re not dead already, I’ll kill you myself,” is the voice message she leaves on his phone. Mr. Fantastic appears in only two brief scenes after this. One is his death, where he is finally crushed by debris after all, and the one before that is meant to justify his death, if the situation with the daughter isn’t bad enough. An explosive shockwave of mangled debris threatens to destroy everything in its path and there isn’t much time or opportunity to escape this. In a split-second decision, Mr. Fantastic pulls a man out of his little sheltered alcove in order to take his place because there seemingly isn’t room for both of them. This man is blown away while Mr. Fantastic lives…for a little while. But by now it doesn’t matter. We have little sympathy for him whether he lives or dies.
As for the Rock, he’s caught in this mess too, but unlike his rival, he has the training and experience to deal more effectively with the situation because this is his job after all. He seems to be on his way to start doing his part in the rescue operations when he learns that his ex-wife, and later, his daughter are in danger. He promptly turns around and heads to San Francisco to try to save them and of course he succeeds in the end, though it does take a while since he doesn’t know where the daughter is. Then when it’s all over, he and his family can breathe a sigh of relief as they watch the skies fill with rescue choppers doing their thing and he says, “Now, we rebuild,” as if his part in the disaster relief is over and a new chapter is ready to begin in which they all live happily ever after.
But wait! Aren’t we forgetting something important here? Isn’t the Rock abandoning his general duty to rescue people in his more immediate vicinity when he goes on a wild goose chase to track down his family? Wouldn’t he be able to rescue more than two people if he approached the rescue operation in a more objective, organized way, such as if he just followed the orders issued by central command? Some would say that his family has to come first, that they’re his primary responsibility and that it’s not possible to be objective in that situation. This is understandable. Not many could blame him for his decision because they would probably do the same in that situation. But what would happen if all the rescue pilots did as he did? Well, hardly anyone would get rescued, save for those who just so happen to be in the immediate family of a rescue pilot! Seen in this light, this whole business starts to look less than heroic and even a bit self-serving, especially when we consider that government assets that are tasked with serving the public good are reallocated in this way. At least we must admit that the Rock ceases to be a true hero at this point in the movie. Any aid he spares along the way is merely incidental or instrumental to his main purpose, such as when he passes numerous people in distress but finally gives a ride to someone who has access to a plane that he can use to continue his meandering search for his daughter.
Now Mr. Fantastic warrants a second look as well. Since he lacks the training and experience for a heroic rescue, going to get help instead of sticking around to problem-solve with the ceiling collapsing all around him was probably the wise thing to do. But how should we judge his choice to flee the scene altogether after his brush with death? Doesn’t he still have a responsibility to protect the girl that was entrusted to him? Perhaps it is more accurate to see it less as a deliberate choice and more as a panicked impulse where his survival instinct overrode any prior deliberations he had been making up until that point. When people called his name, he was unresponsive, so consuming was his terror that he could think only of escape. One could argue that he ceased to be a moral agent – one capable of making moral decisions – at this point because he has lost the capacity for rational consideration and is therefore beyond moral blame. I suppose it’s a fair point that he could have tried to do something after his panic subsided, if it ever did, but this is purely speculative. Perhaps by time he came to his senses, he had a sort of epiphany or reshuffling of his priorities as people often do after a near-death experience. He must have decided that his primary responsibility was to himself and the protection of his own life, that the life of this girl does not matter as much, and by necessity, neither does any romantic relationship— certainly not if taking steps toward securing it will jeopardize his chances of escaping this disaster alive (or maybe he finally got that voice message from the mother and decided there’s no point in sticking his neck out for someone who is now out for his blood!). By consequently breaking off the relationship, he liberates himself from any tacit promises that impress upon him in the role of boyfriend, and also increases his chance of survival. There is nothing praiseworthy about this, but neither is it particularly immoral under these circumstances. It is not as if it is his own daughter and therefore he does not have quite the same filial bonds that urge the Rock to protect her as it’s in his interest to do so. It happens that both characters are acting purely in a self-interested way, just that Mr. Fantastic’s sphere of self-interested consideration happens by nature to be narrower than that of the Rock.
What about the other scene that is meant to serve as the moral clincher, when Mr. Fantastic takes the place of a stranger so that he may live while the stranger dies – is there no redeeming him from our reproach? I think it depends on how honest we want to be with ourselves. It’s all too easy to dish out blame from the safety of our philosophical armchairs and assess the situation in terms of absolute principles and ideal standards with detached objectivity. We might humor our conscience and think, “I would never do such as a terrible thing under any circumstance.” But we cannot imagine what it would really be like to have to make a do-or-die decision like that within a matter of seconds. We cannot know for sure what we would do any more than we would know what anyone else would do once that powerful life-preservation urge kicks in. However, I have a hunch that many of us ordinary people would do just as Mr. Fantastic did – many more of us than we would be comfortable to admit. Sure, we may not make a big show of shoving the other guy out of the way, but in a desperate state we might tenaciously wedge ourselves into a spot that can only fit one, and keep squeezing in until physics dictates that the other guy is displaced into harm’s way. We may wrestle with guilt, or convince ourselves that this was inadvertent, but the consequence is still the same. We can only hope that we are never tested in such a way. Now, if Mr. Fantastic’s actions are a reflection of basic human nature and the will-to-survive is beyond good and evil then I’m not sure if we have any firm ground on which to judge him.
Isn’t the Rock still the better man though? I’m not so sure. He’s never tested in quite the same way, except when it comes to risking his life to save his own daughter – but we’ve already established that this is merely an extension of his own self-interest by way of his fatherly impulses (with perhaps some desperation thrown in there because I don’t think his psyche could handle losing his other daughter to drowning, not again!). However, while he’s running around San Francisco for hours searching for his daughter when he could have been doing his job rescuing other people, isn’t he essentially making the same choice as Mr. Fantastic, just not as vividly? While he’s not shoving people around to get to where he needs to go, it’s quite possible that those in more immediate harm that he would’ve been tasked to rescue will die while he’s busy looking out for ‘me and mine’. Furthermore, I don’t think it’s fair to hold our architects to the same standards as our ‘heroes’ – our police, firemen and other rescue workers who put their own lives on the line in the course of their everyday duty to help those who bear no relation to them. We expect a little something more from them because they have the knowledge, training and experience and even a duty to do what needs to be done in a crisis situation. The architect typically does not so we cannot blame them for behaving purely in self-interested ways in the face of imminent danger. If the Rock were just an ordinary person like Mr. Fantastic, he might be forgiven for acting in the same self-serving ways but because he abandoned his post and his duty there is something that I find a little disappointing there. It’s not immediately obvious but when you finally see through all the dazzling special effects, the bold performances and bombastic score, something didn’t sit right with me and upon closer examination the purported moral dichotomy between these two characters proves to be a farce.
Why do I bother to put such a forgettable movie under the microscope and write at length about it? Because I believe that the characters we see in the movie stand in for the kind of people that exist in the real world and the movie caters to and bolsters our typical perceptions and moral sentiments about these people. The movie wants us to see people like the Rock as heroes, and people like Mr. Fantastic as jerks beyond redemption and we gobble it all up because this is what we’ve come to expect. But maybe it’s time we put our judgments under the microscope as well.