Earthquakes are scary things, and the Western US is on the edge of tectonic plates, so every so often there’s a pressure build-up and slip that causes either a little jiggle in the earth or a major quake like the Northridge quake in the mid 90’s or the Loma Prieta quake in San Francisco back in 1989. Cinema loves disasters because they force the drama. Rescues! Peril! Families Torn Apart! Explosions! Fires!
So it’s no wonder that San Andreas picks up the mantel of disaster movies by postulating a massive series of earthquakes that start in the Las Vegas area, move down to Los Angeles, then travel up the, yes, San Andreas fault to San Francisco, where it wreaks all sorts of destruction and produces a massive tsunami that floods an already destroyed downtown area.
But to be blunt, San Andreas is awful. It’s riddled with trite, painful dialog, the performances are almost universally poor, the storyline doesn’t actually make any sense to even someone with the slightest clue about disasters and even some of the special effects look like they’re shot with toys.
And it pains me to say this because I’m a fan of Dwayne Johnson (who plays LA Fire & Rescue chopper pilot Ray Gaines). But even his considerable charm and humor fail to materialize in this shlockest film that is so formulaic that we can predict every single plot “twist” at least fifteen minutes before it appears.
The film certainly starts out great with a teen girl driving down an LA canyon road while texting, grabbing things from the back seat, etc. A subtle and lightly humorous dig, it toys with viewers until a rockslide forces her car down the canyon, to end up wedged on a cliff, with her inside on her cell phone, calling for help. It shows up in an LA Fire & Rescue chopper piloted by, you guessed it, Chief Gaines. This first ten minutes are gripping and exciting, though the outcome is obvious to everyone.
Ray is a troubled hero, though, on his own precipice: His wife Emma (Carla Gugino) is filing for divorce and moving in with super-rich jerk Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd), along with their daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario). The daughter unwittingly heads up to San Francisco just hours before The Big Quake Hits, while Ray ostensibly wrestles with the impact of the divorce and feeling that he’s lost his daughter to the new guy. Well, sort of. Actually he doesn’t seem to care much at all about the divorce and Johnson’s emotional range in this film is incredibly tiny.
Meanwhile at CalTech, Professor Lawrence (Paul Giamatti) has figured out a way to predict earthquakes by measuring microquakes after a quake hits just outside Las Vegas with enough energy to tear Hoover Dam completely asunder (which, btw, can’t happen in real life. That’s one incredibly well built structure), causing what should be a massive flood but is quickly forgotten in the desire to zoom the storyline to Los Angeles. Sorry Vegas.
A massive quake hits Los Angeles, wreaking sufficient destruction that the skyscrapers downtown collapse and fall on each other like children’s dominoes, doubtless killing tens of thousands of people. But it’s okay because in a daring effort, Ray rescues soon-to-be-ex wife Emma with his helicopter flying prowess.
And that’s one of the greatest flaws in San Andreas: if the storyline is to be believed, hundreds of thousands of people would be dying as the cataclysm moves along the fault, but it ends up being all about Ray and Emma rescuing their daughter Blake. If they can rescue her, it’s all good, a happy ending, and sorry about all those other people, but whatever, they’re not part of the story. A weirdly sterile approach to a disaster film and even the banal final scene rings false, leaving the viewer flat and the story unresolved. Does no-one care about all the dead?
The special effects are usually what rescue a disaster film from being, well, a disaster and San Andreas does a very good job in this regard through almost the entire film. Some of the effects are fun to watch and believable, including the scene from the trailer with the tsunami building just outside the Golden Gate Bridge as boats try desperately to crest it before the wave breaks.
But it’s not good enough, and if you’re a fan of disaster movies and special effects-laden films, you might find enough to justify a ticket, everything else about this turkey makes me suggest that you wait until it’s on TV and save the money for a better movie.