This latest disaster epic once again pushes the theory that the surest way to patch up any relationship is to wait for an earthquake, twister or some other natural disaster and then bingo-bango-bongo all your problems will be solved, and then you can walk off into the sunset together. Of course countless other lives may be destroyed in the process but you know you can’t make an omelette without breaking a tectonic plate.
San Andreas, by director Brad Peyton, presents the theory that if you are going to be in a massive earthquake your best bet to survive is to have Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as your dad, or at least be dating his daughter. We are introduced to our hero Ray (Dwayne Johnson), a search and rescue helicopter pilot, as he and his team save a woman trapped in a car that was swept off the mountain road by a rockslide. Because this is the world of disaster movies when our hero takes insane risks that jeopardize the aircraft and all onboard it all turns out fine, while if this had been the real world he most likely would have been fired. Or more likely, dead.
Now one can’t hang much of a plot on a natural disaster so it’s important to weave in human drama, this is where the “estranged couple” trope fits in, and this film plops it in amongst the destruction like a week old rotting fish. Ray isn’t happy that his wife Emma (Carla Gugino) has found a new boyfriend and filed for a divorce. It gets worse when it turns out that said boyfriend is construction tycoon Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd), a complete one percenter asshat. To prove he isn’t worthy of Ray’s wife when the crisis kicks in he abandons Ray and Emma’s daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) to certain doom when his building starts falling apart. Lucky for Blake she ran into a couple of brothers in the lobby of Daniel’s office building; Ben (Hugo Johnson-Burt) and his kid brother Ollie (Art Parkinson), who are able to get Blake out of a trapped car before the parking garage collapses. The adventures with Blake, Ben and Ollie, as they wind their way through a city crumbling makes up for most of the interesting drama in this movie, and all three actors give nice credible performances. The key to a good disaster film is creating characters that we actually care for and hope for them to escape. Films like Armageddon, Volcano, and Twister seem to forget this.
Now you can’t have a disaster film without at least one scientist who can spout off scientific gibberish while pointing at a computer graph, and filling that role today is seismologist Lawrence (Paul Giamatti). This character is useless. Not only does Lawrence have almost no effect on the “plot” but at one point he goes on the air and claims that they have discovered a way to predict earthquakes but his warnings were ignored. This is a complete fabrication on his part, that or those scenes of him being ignored are on the cutting room floor. Either way his “doom saying” usually comes minutes before the quakes hit so I’m not sure what the authorities could do with that kind of “advance” warning.
Of course the star of this kind of movie is not the actors but the visual effects, and in that this film delivers in spades. The earth tears up, buildings topple, and seas rush in all to give us a rollercoaster of action, but never to the goofy levels reached by the film 2012 but in a somewhat more believable manner. For the most part I found myself at the edge of my seat as our heroes scrambled from one horrific disaster moment after another (and there are a lot of them, Murphy’s Law must really hate these people), and even though in my head I knew they were all going to be fine, all except that jerk Daniel who we all knew he was going to die, the suspense was still there.
When Ray and Emma drove a boat up the face of a tsunami I was too busy laughing to be in suspense, but overall the script by Carlton Cuse kept me invested in the characters and what was going on. Could it have been a bit shorter? Sure, and it could have easily have jettisoned the whole backstory of Ray and Emma’s youngest daughter whose death is what tore their relationship apart, but as it still manages to be under two hours (something many “epics” need to try) I’ll cut it some slack there.
So if you come into this movie expecting to see amazing visual effects showing San Andreas tearing apart San Francisco you will not be disappointed. If you came to see nuanced family drama you possibly wandered into the wrong theater. In conclusion, this is a fun disaster film much in the vein of the Irwin Allen films of the 70s only with modern CGI allowing even greater excess in destruction. So sit back, eat your popcorn, and watch Dwayne Johnson and friends run for their lives. It’s a hoot.