Note: I caught San Andreas at a screening in Cinema City Nový Smíchov’s 4DX cinema, with its herky-jerky seats reacting to the film’s (nonstop) motion, along with mist, water, light, and smell effects. For a film like this, it’s probably an appropriate way to see it.
San Francisco, and presumably, much of the rest of Southern California, bites it in San Andreas, as the Earth violently opens up, countless skyscrapers are toppled, cities are flooded, and more mayhem ensues during the biggest earthquake in recorded history.
Hundreds of thousands (millions?) die, we can assume, but let’s not worry about those nameless, faceless souls – the film rarely stops to consider the poor saps about to meet their fates, and the PG-13 experience features no bodies or bloodshed throughout all the carnage.
No, the thing we really care about: will soon-to-be-divorced dad Ray (Dwayne Johnson) be able to save his daughter, hundreds of miles away, amidst all the chaos?
San Andreas, oddly, is a disaster movie with a plot lifted from Taken. It features such scenes as search-and-rescue helicopter pilot Ray casually glancing out of his window to see elevated highways collapsing and the Hollywood sign swaying and crumbling, and he doesn’t even raise a trademarked eyebrow. The Hoover Dam collapses early in the film – and then is never mentioned again.
This stuff is business as usual in the post-Roland Emmerich disaster movie genre, and I suppose the film might be right in treating it as such. We’ve seen it all before so let’s focus on this one, intimate, highly improbable storyline and who cares about all the rest.
I did like scenes featuring Paul Giamatti as a Professor of Earthquake Studies (really) who has been tracking earthquakes for years – and finally has the technology to predict them. Giamatti’s professor does, indeed, predict two earthquakes early on in the film – but only mere seconds in advance; what’s the use of that? (Somehow, he’s able to give slightly more advance for ‘the big one’ later on, after much of California has been torn apart).
With the earthquake science out of the way, San Andreas is all family drama as Ray is called in to respond to the situation in Nevada. He’s going to miss that bike trip to Seattle with daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario), but not to worry – Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd), the asshole boyfriend of Ray’s ex Emma (Carla Gugino), can fly her up there after he does his business in San Francisco.
The film’s opening sequence is a Cliffhanger-like suspense scene involving a car somehow embedded into the side of a cliff, and Ray’s search-and-rescue team piloting their helicopter into a narrow canyon to rescue the poor driver trapped inside.
Given Ray’s job, and the disaster that will soon follow, it might be reasonable to expect more scenes of him and team rescuing helpless earthquake victims. But that’s the last we see of Ray’s squad, and the most assistance he gives to anyone for the remainder of the film is to direct fleeing city dwellers to take cover next to the giant walls at AT&T Park. This “triangle of life” saves them – for now (we can assume they get wiped out in the ensuing tsunami).
The CGI-heavy effects work is acceptable for this kind of thing, and in the midst of sequels and remakes and superhero movies at the multiplex, it’s almost nice to see an old-fashioned disaster movie that at least purports to be plausible (in some sense). Watching these skyscrapers jiggle and sway, however, reminds us that not much has changed since the days of Earthquake.
Daddario – who shot to fame after a memorable nude scene on TV’s True Detective – is a total knockout, and even though fully clothed throughout the film the camera lovingly frames her figure in silhouette. Hugo Johnstone-Burt and Art Parkinson play two British brothers who Blake assists during the ordeal in San Francisco.
In contrast to the usual disaster film, San Andreas doesn’t develop enough characters to invest us in their fates; pioneers of the genre like The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, and Earthquake gave us a diverse cast of characters and one of the pleasures of watching them was to see who would make it out alive – and in what horrible ways the others would perish.
Here, the cast is so small that we know exactly what will happen and who will live and who will die, even though the film tries really hard to fake us out: one character goes almost ten minutes of screen time without breathing.
San Andreas offers few surprises but might offer enough unintentional (or are they?) laughs along the way to keep you entertained. Especially if your seat is jostling along with the action.