Disaster movies have been around for a long time. In more recent years they have become even bigger and more disaster-y with improvements in special effects. It’s also allowed less-than-capable directors to reach beyond their capabilities and make incredibly sub-par movies that promise big spectacle, but ultimately disappoint (The Day After Tomorrow, 2012 come to mind) because everything has such a somber and serious tone or it’s just flat-out bad. San Andreas, while certainly not a great movie, and probably not even a good movie, falls into that “so bad it’s good” category because it thinks it is somber and serious but it really isn’t. It eventually drops its pretensions and embraces its genre conventions, offering big spectacle, predictable characters and dialogue, and plenty of moments for running gag commentary.
San Andreas kicks off with a girl whose car is forced off the road by a rock slide (while on her cellphone, let that be a lesson, kids). Hanging in a car over a deep ravine, she is saved in a harrowing rescue effort by a helicopter crew led by Capt. Ray Gaines (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). Ray works for the L.A. Fire Department, in the helicopter rescue department. It is revealed that while he excels at work, his personal life has somewhat fallen apart. Separated from his wife Emma (Carla Gugino) and his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario), he finds out they have moved in with Emma’s new boyfriend, Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffudd), who is a real estate developer. Ray’s plans to take his daughter up to San Francisco to college are interrupted by a major seismic event at the Hoover Dam, witnessed by a geological team headed up by Lawrence (Paul Giamatti), whose team has just discovered how to successfully predict earthquakes, right at the moment a gigantic one hit all along the San Andreas fault line, causing earthquakes across the state of California. With the everything crumbling around him, Ray attempts to rescue his family, first Emma, from the destruction in Los Angeles and Blake, who is trapped up in San Francisco.
Director Brad Peyton throws a lot onto the screen. The visual effects are mostly impressive, but some of the shots are either poor CGI or clearly films for 3D purposes. There are a lot of big set pieces, including the opening ravine rescue, the Hoover Dam, a helicopter rescue from the top of a crumbling skyscraper, and several other big action moments. Some of it is impressive, some of it is generic. The story that unfolds is completely generic. Of course, there is the central hero of the story, played by The Rock. There is the scientist that is trying to warn everyone (in this case it’s not that no one is listening, but that it’s just too late), played by a slumming Paul Giamatti. Just about everything you can imagine in a typical disaster movie is in here, with maybe the exception of a pet dog or something being saved from peril. The action is increasingly ridiculous, cresting with Ray and Emma speeding in a boat out of the harbor and up a giant tsunami.
There’s a lot of unintentional comedy going on in this movie. It feels like it aspires to be a straight up action disaster movie, but it shows such a wanton disregard for the majority of people outside of Ray’s immediate family that it can’t be taken too seriously. Ray essentially abandons his job, commandeering his own helicopter, in order to save his own family at the expense of anyone else. There are a few token scenes where Ray saves other people from certain doom, but mainly it is about this heroic figure doing heroic things for his family and few others. Conversely, when Blake goes up to San Francisco with Daniel instead of her dad and things take a turn for the worse, he becomes increasingly spineless in the face of all of this destruction. At first it starts off innocently enough in a “I’ll go get help!” way, only for it to increase exponentially in his few others scenes. Part of this is done merely so Carla Gugino can have a scene where she plays the lioness mother who is showing protective anger for her cub. Any prior exposure to this genre and you know what his fate will be. The movie lays it on pretty thickly that the earthquake is almost a metaphor for the state of Ray’s family, devastated by a past trauma that the movie then makes obvious parallels to how things play out over the course of the story. It’s entertaining that Ray is trying to keep his family from crumbling apart as everything around them crumbles.
There’s not much to say about the acting as most of it reacting to green screen effects. The Rock is given one emotional bit of dialogue with Carla Gugino that he does manage to pull off. There is a news crew led by Archie Panjabi’s character that manages to interact with both Ray and Lawrence, serving as a tentative tether between two storylines that don’t really overlap at all. One of the weirder aspects of the film is the casting of Alexandra Daddario as Ray’s daughter. While she is perfectly fine as Blake, and is capable of carrying her own story thread in San Francisco as she is stuck there with two British brothers, Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his teenage sibling Ollie (Art Parkinson), the way the movie sexualizes her reeks of a studio exec saying that the movie needed something for the teenage boys in the audience. A lot of people were talking about a topless scene she did for HBO’s True Detective last year, and here we are introduced to her lounging by the pool in a skimpy bikini. Later on, there is an underwater scene that gratuitously is all about her cleavage. Normally, these things wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but given that she is the daughter of the main character, it’s an odd choice to make.
The best way to approach seeing this movie is with lowered expectations and to think of the earthquake as a terrorist. “The earthquake is attacking our city!” “The earthquake has our daughter, we have to go rescue her from it!” San Andreas is not a good film, but it is a movie with enough of the right elements to make it a fun viewing experience if you see it with the right frame of mind. It aims to entertain, and while it doesn’t do so just on the merits of a good story alone, it provides ample moments of genre clichés that you can chuckle at and enjoy. It’s a B-movie with A-movie production values. Embrace the genre schlock, the gleefully predictable dialogue (When Giamatti is asked “Who do we warn?” you have to know what his answer is.), the increasingly outrageous scenarios stacked one on top of another, the questions (“How come the water from the tsunami hasn’t receded when they were up on higher ground?” Or, given how many people were just wiped out by that tsunami, how come there are no dead bodies floating, just debris?”) that are sure to pop into your head, and feel free to whisper a few creative lines of running commentary to the person you’re seeing it with (“That’s an inconvenient place for a convenience store.”). Do this and you will maximize your San Andreas movie experience, a summer popcorn movie through and through.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars