Peyton's natural disaster flick is destructively satisfying but emotionally tame.
In the advertising for Brad Peyton‘s natural disaster flick San Andreas, there’s an unspoken promise. It’s one of unbridled tectonic terror and eye-popping structural devastation, the sort of stuff we used to lap up like thirsty dogs every summer in the ’90s, when disaster movies came out seemingly every week. In this respect, San Andreas makes good on its promise, with a sizable chunk of its nearly 2-hour runtime dedicated to demonstrating in painful detail the effects of a series of earthquakes that rattles California and reduces San Francisco to a pile of urban mush.
But there’s another, deeper promise that comes as a package deal with all of the NorCal mass destruction: death (minor spoilers inbound). Earthquakes and tsunamis are frightening because they kill us, simple as that. The script written by Carlton Cuse (Lost) has a major flaw in that nobody of consequence dies. Aside from a bit player meeting a heroic demise early on, every death we see involves either an extra (typically computer generated) or a character whose death Cuse makes one hundred percent certain will not make us sad. The establishing of stakes and value of life is the difference between a bad disaster movie and a good one, and on this front San Andreas bites the dust.
Dwayne Johnson plays Ray, a rescue helicopter pilot for the Los Angeles Fire Department. He’s a family man, though that’s been a stressful role to upkeep as of late as his family’s been recently fractured. He and his wife, Emma (Carla Gugino) are in the process of getting a divorce. What’s worse, Emma’s getting ready to move in with her millionaire developer boyfriend, Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd), and she’s taking she and Ray’s daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario), with her. This obviously doesn’t sit well with Ray, who’s a ball of pent-up frustration and regret, but he’s got lives to save.
When a “swarm” of earthquakes surges up the San Andreas fault from Los Angeles to the Bay Area, Ray and Emma reunite to save their daughter, who’s flown up with Daniel to the soon-to-be-flattened San Francisco. Daniel, of course, reveals himself to be a sniveling villain who leaves Blake for dead in a pile of rubble. Thankfully, while her parents race against the clock to make their way up the coastline, Blake befriends two British brothers (Hugo Johnstone-Burt and Art Parkinson), who aid and accompany her in her mission to find higher ground in the hilly city by the bay.
Bolstering the parents’ drive to save their daughter is the dark memory of their other daughter, Mallory, who died in a river rafting accident years before. Aside from providing grandiose views of buildings toppling into each other like sky-high dominos, the 9.6 quake at the center of the movie also serves to shake up the repressed guilt and sorrow Ray’s bottled up inside since his daughter’s death, feelings that contributed heavily to he and Emma’s divorce. This is meant to be touching, but really, it’s just another way for the film to tiptoe around death. While tragic, Mallory’s death is a red herring, a plot device designed to give the story gravity without actually killing off a character we actually get to know. Nice try, Cuse, but no cigar.
The film’s obligatory scientific expert is played by Paul Giamatti, who’s cast perfectly. The “expert” character’s job in any disaster film is to sell us on the seriousness and consequences of the impending events. Giamatti does a bang-up job, especially when he screams at his fellow seismologists at Cal Tech to “TAKE COVER!” whenever he senses an incoming tremor. His character develops technology that’s able to predict the time and magnitude of earthquakes, but of course, it’s too little too late. It’s essentially a detail written in as an excuse for him to deliver the “here comes the Big One” speech, a speech which obviously can’t be made in real life since seismologists have no way of predicting when the next “Big One” will strike.
The images of destruction the filmmakers and visual effects teams conjure up look great. I’m a Bay Area boy, but there was a sadistic thrill in watching the landmarks and buildings I’ve grown up with smashed into oblivion. Some memorable shots: the Bay Bridge twisting and contorting so violently it takes the shape of a DNA strand; a gang of boats racing up a towering tsunami to make it to the other side before it crests; a long shot of Emma frantically scrambling to the roof of a crumbling building. These sequences, exhilarating as they are, are strung together so poorly by the narrative that they offer no more enjoyment than a Universal Studios theme park ride.
When Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson left the world of professional wrestling to conquer Hollywood, everyone laughed (including me, a lifelong WWE fan). When he started, he was awful (The Scorpion King is an unwatchable shlock-fest). But San Andreas is yet further proof that “Rocky” has proven everybody wrong: he ties with Giamatti as best actor in the movie. (That’s not for lack of competition, either, as the rest of the cast do a great job themselves.) He nails not just the action scenes, but the somber ones where he laments the loss of his daughter.
His casting feels a bit off, though. He’s got more muscle on him than everyone else in the movie combined, but he rarely gets to use them. Mostly, we see him driving things: helicopters, trucks, boats—you name it. I don’t want to see him drive stuff; I want to see him smash stuff! He punches one guy and moves the occasional semi-heavy thing out of the way. I’m not saying Johnson should be hitting things in every movie. But in this movie, more physicality would have been nice.
[Spoiler warning #2.] San Andreas is just one kill away from being pretty good. If just one of the main five characters had died, it would have made a world of difference. The effects are great and the destruction is extensive, but the loss of someone we care about is the one thing that could have truly sold us on the weight of it all. Instead, Peyton and Cuse are gun-shy and baby us like over-protective parents covering their children’s eyes during the “scary” parts. The scariest thing about San Andreas is that, as a depiction of such wide-spread death and devastation, it only elicits a half-hearted shrug.