The disaster film game is often about finding the most creative ways to smash up our SimCity towns. There’s a sick sense of glee associated with watching everything crumble, but the reason these films resonate with audiences (when they do) is because at their heart, they’re about people coming together in moments of extreme crisis. At their best, these films represent how we hope we’ll react if or when disaster strikes. I tend to be more forgiving of disaster films than most, so believe me when I say that San Andreas amounts to one big wet fart of a movie.
The San Andreas fault is about to make a hugely unprecedented shift. Dr. Hayes (Paul Giamatti) discovers he can predict earthquakes at the very moment a particularly nasty one knocks the Hoover Dam right out from under his feet. This kicks off a string of increasingly devastating earthquakes that slowly make their way from LA to San Francisco. Ray (Dwayne Johnson), a helicopter pilot for LA Fire & Rescue, watches in horror from his perch above the city as a massive earthquake rips Los Angeles to pieces. He’s able to rescue his ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino) from a rooftop downtown, and from there they make for San Francisco in search of their daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario), who is traveling with her millionaire soon-to-be stepdad, Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd). Fortunately, Blake turns out to be perfectly capable of rescuing herself.
Dr. Hayes serves as the expository backbone of the film, as he explains to TV reporters how the earthquakes continue moving up the fault toward San Francisco. While it’s fun hearing Paul Giamatti chew on all this seismo-babble, he’s basically a game show host telling the contestants how much time is left on the ticking clock. That clock really serves no purpose, though, because it’s not like the earthquake isn’t going to hit if Ray reaches Blake before the buzzer sounds. For as much tension as Carlton Cuse’s screenplay thinks it’s generating with Dr. Hayes, the real drama occurs moment-to-moment. How will our characters make it out of each calamity? Whose turn is it to be resourceful? Who will reveal themselves to be utter cowards? These are the questions that drive individual scenes, some working far better than others.
From a technical perspective, the destruction in San Andreas is huge and bombastic. Seeing the earthquake roll through Los Angeles from Ray’s vantage point is a spectacular sight, but as with any empty spectacle, it’s a case of diminishing returns. When we get to San Francisco, the incessant rumbling makes the city look like it was built on a giant waterbed. By the third act, it all becomes far too silly to take any of it seriously. Brad Peyton (who, critics love pointing out, made his feature debut with Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore), directs things with an alarming degree of sameness. There’s no sense of escalation from event to event; the film opens big with the Hoover Dam going kerblooey and ends big with a ridiculous tsunami crashing into San Francisco Bay.
The film works best in its smaller moments, where characters consider their surroundings and choose courses of action. As Blake treks through the streets of San Francisco with a pair of British brothers (Hugh Johnstone-Burt; Art Parkinson) in tow, the trio debate which route to take and what supplies they’ll need. It’s weird that I should latch onto these scenes, but in a film where an entire fleet of yachts and speedboats races up the side of a tsunami, it’s just plain easier to connect with three characters identifying problems and talking out solutions. It doesn’t even matter that their solutions often make no sense. I’m much more willing to follow characters making bad decisions than characters making decisions dictated by a CGI tidal wave.
And yet, for all of the simple problem-solving going on in this film, it has an oddly mean streak when it comes to its ancillary characters. Daniel, for example, leaves Blake trapped in a parking garage, ostensibly to find help (which, in his defense, he actually does), but after a brush with death leaves him traumatized and disoriented, he just sort of wanders out of the film. From this point on, everyone talks about how Daniel is dead to them, and he even shows up later violently pushing others into harm’s way. I get that we’re not supposed to like him from the outset, what with stealing Ray’s family and being rich and all, but vilifying a man who’s clearly in a state of shock just seems needlessly cruel.
In the end, we’re told that thousands have survived the incident as the American flag waves high above the Golden Gate. This should come as a comfort after all the rampant destruction we’ve just witnessed, but here’s a fun fact: Roughly 25 million people live in the area between Los Angeles and San Francisco. That’s a hell of a lot of people killed off in a single pen stroke, and it’s indicative of the film as a whole. San Andreas goes to such great pains to color inside the lines of the disaster genre that it becomes grotesquely morbid almost completely by accident.Liked This? Share It!