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SURVIVOR

Producer: Irwin Winkler, Charles Winkler, Matthew O'Toole and Les Weldon 
Director:  James McTeigue
Writer:  Philip Shelby
Stars:  Milla Jovovich, Pierce Brosnan, Dylan McDermott, Angela Bassett, Robert Forster, James D'Arcy, Roger Rees, Frances de la Tour and Benno Furmann
Studio: Alchemy 

C-

A stellar cast is largely wasted in this routine post-9/11 espionage thriller that leans far too heavily on ticks taken from far better Hitchcock films. “Survivor” won’t have a long life in theatres, through it might hang on for a while on DVD and VOD on the strength of its stars, even if they’re not especially well used by writer-director James McTeigue.

Milla Jovovich is Kate Abbott, the recently-appointed head of visa security at the U.S. London embassy. Her interest is piqued by the application of Emil Balan (Roger Rees), a Romanian expatriate who claims to be traveling to the U.S. for a conference in pediatric medicine though he’s an expert in far more exotic fields. Only the intervention of her senior colleague Bill Talbot (Robert Forster), who’s concerned about processing applications quickly, and U.S. ambassador Maureen Cranepaul (Angela Bassett) speed the process against her wishes, though her boss, security chief Sam Parker (Dylan McDermott), supports her call.

It turns out, of course, that Kate’s hunch was right. Balan, who has reasons for hostility to America, is in league with a shadowy bunch of pharmaceutical folk to undertake a terrorist act on U.S. soil, and the conspirators enlist a stone-faced killer named Nash, also known by his nickname The Watchmaker (Pierce Brosnan), to deal with the troublesome Abbott. He plants a bomb in the restaurant where she and her staff of young visa agents are lunching, but she just happens to slip across the street to buy a gift when it explodes, leaving her slightly injured and everybody’s target. Nash is after her, of course, but so are British authorities in the person of Inspector Paul Anderson (James D’Arcy), not to mention Parker, though unlike many of his colleagues he’s convinced she’s being framed.

What follows is a long chase that mostly takes place on the streets of London but switches to New York City in the final reel. The template for Philip Shelby’s script is all too obviously Hitchcock’s “wrong man” thrillers, though it’s a “wrong woman” variant, and he and McTeigue are pretty shameless in ripping off classic sequences from them. A scene in a park that results in Kate’s being identified as a murderer is clearly patterned after the famous U.N. shooting in “North by Northwest,” and the final rooftop confrontation between Jovovich and Brosnan bears echoes of the Mount Rushmore climax of that film as well, though structurally it’s actually more indebted to the Statue of Liberty conclusion of “Saboteur.”

Setting aside the wisdom of the borrowings, however, which after all do invite invidious comparisons, and also the references to 9/11, which come off as rather crass plot devices, “Survivor” is a pretty weak genre entry, a chain of accidents, coincidences and hair’s-breadth escapes that grows more and more implausible as it rushes on, pushed forward not just by the plot but by Elan Eshkeri’s maddeningly propulsive synthesizer score. It must be said, though, that Kate Baird’s editing keeps the convolutions fairly clear (sometimes too much so, in fact, belaboring the obvious), and Danny Ruhlmann’s cinematography includes some nice shots of the London locations, though the interior work tends to dullness.

As to the cast, Jovovich shows her action-movie chops by dashing about even in shoes that don’t invite running. Brosnan doesn’t have an awful lot to do except look menacing by pursing his lips in an almost constant grimace. (The character of Nash can’t have inspired him much, since though the guy is described as the world’s best hitman, he’s singularly inept in this case. When he notices that Abbott has escaped his bomb, for example, he undertakes to shoot her on the spot, which would have immediately ruined his effort to disguise the fact that she was the target.) Everybody else goes through their paces decently, but none brings any special distinction to their stock roles—though it’s nice to encounter Frances de la Tour as Parker’s wheelchair-bound computer expert. It’s a clichéd part, but she manages to bring a touch of Le Carre to it.

Even for those who are devoted to espionage fiction—or who have a hankering to see Jovovich go through her physical exertions in modern clothes for a change—“Survivor” is likely to prove a grave disappointment.

SAN ANDREAS

Producer:  Beau Flynn
Director:  Brad Peyton
Writer:  Carlton Cuse
Stars:  Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Ioan Gruffudd, Paul Giamatti, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson, Archie Panjabi, Will Yun Lee and Kylie Minogue
Studio:  Warner Bros. Pictures/New Line Cinema

C

The disaster movie, which flourished under the aegis of Irwin Allen and other like-minded schlockmeisters in the seventies, was always a hopeless genre, but there was a time when the special-effects that made buildings tumble, volcanoes burp, avalanches roar, ships sink and tidal waves swamp coastlines proved entirely sufficient for destruction-hungry audiences; the sub-soap-opera plots that ordinarily went along with the scenes of wanton destruction, complete with characters that remained resolutely cardboard even when played by “all-star” casts, were pretty much beside the point.

More recently, such sequences of mayhem on a massive scale are pretty ubiquitous, being the virtual wallpaper in today’s endless stream of superhero movies. Watching a city get trashed in CGI splendor is now a humdrum affair. Only occasionally does a filmmaker manage a spin that reinvigorates what’s become a tired, familiar cinematic trope. Juan Antonio Bayona did so in “The Impossible,” for example, simply by managing to invest the family faced with survival with authentic human dimensions. More recently “Force majeure” employed a single extraordinary scene of such a disaster as the basis for a rumination on weighty familial issues. And of course many viewers thought that James Cameron had done the trick with “Titanic” by adding a swooning romance to the mix—“Romeo and Juliet” meets “The Poseidon Adventure.”

Against such a backdrop, “San Andreas” proves a daring picture—not so much because it’s being released so soon after the horrendous events in Nepal (though one might certainly raise the question of tastelessness on that basis), but because it’s such an unabashed throwback to the simple-minded disaster movies of decades ago, particularly Mark Robson’s 1974 “Earthquake,” which Pauline Kael memorably described as “swill,” adding “but it isn’t a cheat”—because it delivered the destruction that was its sole purpose. Her assessment applies equally well to Brad Peyon’s effort. The effects are for the most part fine—a few chintzy moments apart. And viewers certainly get their money’s worth in that department—the picture starts with an avalanche, proceeds to a dam collapse caused by a rupture in the fault line, then offers up not one but two earthquakes, the second followed by a tsunami. For those who eat up such stuff, “San Andreas” is an invitation to gluttony, besting all those old disaster movies by a mile in terms of quantity.

But that’s about all it has to offer. The human dimension is utterly flat. Disaster pictures used to provide a small army of potential victims, and part of the supposed fun was in guessing who would be plucked off next, and what might be the imaginative method of their demise. (In a way the genre was the precursor of the slasher movie.) Here, while literally millions are in jeopardy, and thousands are disposed of within our field of vision, the focus is on a very small group whose personal problems are treated, absurdly enough, as at least of equal importance as the devastation going on around them. Foremost among them is the hero, Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson), an ex-military man turned top man in the L.A. Fire and Rescue Department, as we see in the landslide-related prologue. He’s morose, though, because his wife Emma (Carla Gugino) has left him and taken up with Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffudd), a famous architect; their teen daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) has gone off with her, and Daniel will be flying her up to college in the Northwest in his private jet after they make a brief business stop in San Francisco. (Ray was scheduled to drive her, but the first earthquake—which destroys the Hoover Dam—calls him away on duty.)

It’s not long before Los Angeles and San Francisco get hit too, however—there are repeated cutaways to seismology expert Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti), who barely escaped the dam destruction, explaining what’s happening and why in semi-scientific gobbledegook from his CalTech lab. And Ray must spring into action. First he saves Emma from the roof of a disintegrating L.A. skyscraper in his helicopter; then they join forces to get to San Francisco to rescue Blake. She’s been abandoned in a collapsed basement garage by cowardly Daniel, but thankfully is extricated by cute Brit Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his precocious little brother Ollie (Art Parkinson). These three then try to make their way to high ground, where Blake is sure her father will come for her. Meanwhile Ray and Emma—who reunite when they realize that their separation was caused by the emotional stress arising from the accidental death of their second daughter in a kayaking accident, for which Ray has blamed himself—will resort to commandeering any form of transport (helicopter, pickup, plane, boat) to get to her and her newfound friends. In the process Ray performs feat after feat of remarkable derring-do without even getting his hair mussed (though, to be fair, Johnson doesn’t have much). Meanwhile other people are dying by the droves in the background—a fact that the filmmakers pretty much ignore, save for Hayes’ monitory broadcasts to the public (CalTech is apparently immune from the quakes’ worst effects—perhaps the school allowed use of its name to assure parents of its invulnerability as a recruitment device) and the inevitable moment when Riddick finally gets his comeuppance, to the audience’s smug satisfaction.

All this “human” material is on the crudest level of manipulative melodrama, and grows progressively more preposterous as the action unfolds. And despite all the rumblings of earth, grandiose shots of skyscrapers collapsing and impressive inserts of tidal waves approaching, transport ships careening wildly, freeways buckling and bridges (most notably the Golden Gate) collapsing, there’s little sense of real danger to the characters in the forefront of the action. This is one of those comic-book level pictures in which, however dire the circumstances, the people we’re meant to care about simply must emerge only slightly scathed. That’s the reason why the implausible reunion of parents with child, presented in a fashion that’s supposed to be emotionally wrenching, has no impact whatsoever—not just because the script construction sets it up in the most calculated possible fashion (making it a virtual replay of the family’s tragic past) but because you’ve seen this scene play out so many times before that you can practically count the beats before it resolves itself.

Acting, of course, is pretty much inconsequential in this sort of picture; even greats like Paul Newman couldn’t do anything with material of similar kind, and the performers here might be likable enough, but nobody in his right mind would call them great actors. Johnson does his usual he-man strut, with less opportunity for humorous asides than his roles ordinarily afford him; Gugino and Daddario do what’s expected of them decently enough; and Gruffudd is certainly sufficiently smarmy. Johnstone-Burt, an Australian playing a Brit, goes a mite too far in the Hugh Grant flustered department, while whether Parkinson strikes you as charmingly precocious or merely obnoxious will be a matter of taste. As for Giamatti, he lets his harried shtick carry the day for him.

One really can’t blame the actors, though: when they signed on for a movie like “San Andreas,” they surely knew full well that they’d be upstaged by the CGI hubbub occurring around them. The effects team have managed the disaster footage well enough, but one hopes we’re reaching the point of wretched excess with such stuff. How many cities do we really want to see reduced to rubble? How many times do we want to watch famous structures collapse? When the White House blew up in “Independence Day” it was something new. Now seeing the Golden Gate buckle and fall is a ho-hum affair.

And so is “San Andreas.” And the fault lies not in our stars, or even in the California ground, as in ourselves—the audience’s willingness to pay for such mindless destruction and Hollywood’s willingness to serve it up repeatedly, even if it means (as it does here) sacrificing the Hollywood sign itself in the process, just another landmark biting the dust.