by Kathie Smith
It takes an earthquake—a really big earthquake—to mend the wounds of a suburban American family. Such is the trajectory of San Andreas, director Brad Payton’s jump into the summer movie big league after Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012) and Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore (2010), as it rambles along the trail of a disaster zone from the Hoover Dam to Los Angeles to San Francisco. Cause and effect may be on the minds of scientists at Cal Tech honing their abilities to read early warning signs of earthquakes (an inane subplot of San Andreas), but it is also on the mind of Ray (Dwayne Johnson), a helicopter pilot for the L.A Fire Department, in regards to his marriage that has withered after the accidental death of their younger daughter. Fate intervenes, in the form of the largest recorded seismic tremor in history, taking us on an absurd CGI-laden adventure through maudlin family drama and simplistic domino-effect urban destruction, requiring leaps of faith that no amount of special effects can render possible.
Director: Brad Peyton
Producer: Beau Flynn
Writers: Carlton Cuse, Andre Fabrizio, Jeremy Passmore
Cinematographer: Steve Yedlin
Editor: Bob Ducsay
Music: Andrew Lockington
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, Paul Giamatti, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson, Will Yun Lee, Kylie Minogue, Colton Haynes, Todd Williams, Matt Gerald, Alec Utgoff
Genre: Action, Drama
US Theatrical Release: May 29, 2015
US Distributor: Warner Bros.
The movie first has to provide an adequate introduction to Ray and his superhuman courage to match his superhuman physique. A car driven by a young, beautiful blonde woman (ripe for saving) through the winding mountain passes of the San Fernando Valley careens off the road when a minor avalanche causes her to swerve—her car getting impossibly lodged on the side of the cliff. Cue the cowboy guitar music as the search and rescue team helicopter pulls up over the horizon to save the damsel in distress. Ray, the lead of a four-person team, maneuvers the helicopter into a narrow canyon and eventually (switch from the bodacious guitars to heroic horns on the soundtrack) rappels down himself to rip the door off the car, save the girl and his teammate before the car falls to the valley below. If you don’t get a few chuckles out of this first sequence—which only seems over-the-top because we haven’t seen the rest of the movie yet—you and I may be on different wavelengths.
After performing the aw-shucks impossible rescue, Ray is looking forward to a couple days off with his surviving daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario), who is heading up to San Francisco for college. Their plan of a father-daughter drive up the coast, however, is hijacked when an earthquake hits the Las Vegas area, destroying Hoover Dam in what will be the first of many earth-moving special effects extravaganzas. Ray has been summoned to help with the clean up, and he’s forced to leave his daughter’s travel to his soon-to-be ex-wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), and her new boyfriend, Daniel (Ioan Gruffud). While Ray heads east to help in Las Vegas, Blake heads north to San Francisco with the somewhat coiffed and loathsome Daniel leaving Emma in L.A.—perfectly situating his family at separate points along the fault line. Meanwhile, a professor at Cal Tech (played by Paul Giamatti) has landed on the key to forecasting earthquakes and predicts that the Hoover Dam quake is merely a precursor to a violent shift about to occur on the San Andreas fault line.
You get the picture, but this hardly prepares you for the cartoonish plotlines San Andreas employs. En route to the Hoover Dam area when the earthquake hits L.A., Ray turns his helicopter around to swoop in and singlehandedly save his wife from the top of a high-rise as everything crumbles around her; they head to San Francisco together to help Blake but they have to crash land the chopper in a Bakersfield mall; they steal a truck only to find a crevasse as wide as the Mississippi and as deep as the Mariana Trench in their path; they steal a single prop airplane but can’t land anywhere near the devastated San Francisco, so they skydive into AT&T Park; they realize they can’t get anywhere on the city streets so they steal a boat only to meet a tsunami head on; and after navigating around a massive cargo ship, its propellers and its freight containers falling into the water on the crest of the tsunami, they head into the ocean-flooded city to find their daughter. There. Now you get the picture.
Despite wanting to call it out on its obvious, yet inadvertent, comedic value, San Andreas has two centerpieces that beg you to take it seriously: The Rock with his undeniable charisma, and the knockout special effects that turn an imaginary catastrophe into a visual reality. Whatever Pavlovian impulse drives audiences to disaster films is exemplified in the thrill of watching Los Angeles crumble one building at a time and San Francisco disappear under a giant wave. But whatever adrenaline rush might exist in seeing a wide shot of the earth undulating under L.A., it hits a wall with the clichéd mechanics of drama and character—flatlined elements that take up an annoying amount of space because apparently you can’t just have 112 minutes of computer generated demolition. Although most of the cast may not be worth defending (including Kylie Minogue in a brief, inexplicable appearance), they are given little to work with. Johnson has a way of working with cardboard lines, but you can almost see Giamatti choking on his.
If Mad Max represents upper-tier summer movie diversion, then San Andreas represents the lower tier where, despite the feverish post-production work, too many key components add up to nothing. Worse yet, the movie fails to cash in on the level of absurdity utilized, maintaining a straight face throughout instead of embracing the humor. But perhaps the funniest unintentional by-products of San Andreas are the immediate scientific evaluations of what is real and what isn’t. In some ways, I can’t fault anyone attempting to take advantage of a bozo disaster movie to talk about and get people interested in real science, but most of these “reports” are as superficially cheeky as the movie itself. (Earthquake with a 9+ magnitude in CA? Not possible. Giant tsunami caused from San Andreas quake? Not possible. Nevada earthquake? Possible. Emotional turmoil during an earthquake? Possible.) You want to know what is real in San Andreas? Nothing. It’s a movie. And one that will come and go so fast with so little relevance that no opinion—mine, the scientist’s, The Rock’s—will matter.