“San Andreas” should be judged exactly for what it is: A fast-paced disaster film with engaging performances and exhilarating set-pieces of destruction
I am not a fan of disaster movies. Never have been, probably never will be. I’ve had some thrills with some of them over the years, but overall, the wanton destruction of a populace in the guise of ‘fun’ just rarely appeals to me. I would like to think it is because of my deep, heartfelt respect for humanity…then I realize I don’t have any of that. It’s really just that these films have about as much story as an episode of Real Housewives, the dialogue is as cheesy as a Wisconsin parade, and the acting is as wooden as a Christmas tree farm. Therefore, whenever I sit down for one of these films, I have a hard time watching without wishing a tsunami would scoop me up and fling me far away from this nonsense.
Then I saw “San Andreas“.
If you walk into a film that revolves around an epic earthquake following along the storied San Andreas fault line – a movie about broken families, excessive death, and obscene amounts of chaotic carnage – and you walk out with a wide-eyed smile, PRAYING for an earthquake to hit your town that very minute? You are either certifiably insane, or you just had a fist-pumping great time at the movies. This was the latter for me…I hope.
What is “San Andreas” about? Oh right, the ‘story’. Ray (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson) is an L.A. Rescue chopper-pilot who plots a course to save his estranged wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), as well as his daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario), who has made the trek to San Francisco where the worst of the earthquake will eventually hit. We know this because Captain Exposition, sorry, Lawrence (Paul Giamatti), informs us of this repeatedly throughout the movie. Giamatti is always an engaging actor, but his only role here is to inform the world at large (i.e., us, the audience) of all the scientific mumbo-jumbo that is causing skyscrapers to drop into the abyss.
But you know what? You won’t care why it’s happening, because none of it makes any sense. Does it ever in these types of films? I mean, do you really think 5 tornadoes would really hit every locale Bill Paxton stumbles upon? He’s not THAT ‘extreme’. If you can swallow that, then you will be just fine here. Just keep pointing on your fancy map, Giamatti, and tell us where the party is gonna get ruined.
The reason all of this works is two-fold. First, the pacing and effects. Director Brad Peyton nails what it takes to keep a movie like this on track. Sure, we need a little character depth here and there, and the touching back-story of Ray and Emma’s youngest child’s death certainly works, but you also need to keep moooooooving. We came to see California destroyed, not to have a Hallmark moment for 2 hours. Peyton presents the rare disaster film that keeps you on the edge-of-your-seat, only filling-in story when his camera crew needs a minute to set-up for the next visual catastrophe. He also presents some of the most absurdly fantastic effects I have ever witnessed in a disaster flick – the rippling of an entire city when the earthquake hits its apex is astounding.
The second reason this works are the performances. This isn’t the “Furious 7” version of The Rock. At no time, much to my dismay, does The Rock ever punch the earthquake into submission. Ray is assuredly a heroic type, but he’s an everyman hero. A regular guy. Well, as regular as he can get with a smile that makes it impossible to hate him and pecs the size of my grandfather’s Buick. Even as Ray plays his own live-action version of Grand Theft Auto, jacking every vehicle he can find, he remains a guy whose plight is worth rooting for. Johnson admirably manages to put his bigger-than-life persona aside for this film, and simply plays a man desperate to save his family. He even cries. That’s right. This is a disaster movie where the most manly-man in movies today sheds tears. Now that I think about it, someone should bottle those tears up quick, they could sell like unicorns on Ebay.
Gugino gets a meatier role than she has had in some time, and it is refreshing to see such a journeyman actor as she has been finally get top-billing in a tent-pole film like this. Gugino’s Emma is not meant to be tough-as-nails, she is portrayed as a determined mother with a rough marriage, and the character comes shining through in her back-and-forth with Johnson. Daddario, after you peel yourself away from her hypnotic gaze, proves herself to be more than just another pretty face. After initially appearing to be a typical damsel-in-distress when two Brits save her from an impacted car, Blake takes charge and proves she’s worthy to be The Rock’s daughter, dragging these boys into manhood as she leads them to safety. Everyone else in the film basically serve as debris-catchers, but the three leads each carry their respective sections of the film with flair.
Look, this is not going to win any awards for acting or writing. Nor should it. But “San Andreas” should be judged exactly for what it is: A fast-paced disaster film with engaging performances and exhilarating set-pieces of destruction. Disaster films have seemingly always hinged on how exciting they can make epic levels of chaos feel on celluloid, and this one had me biting the tips off of my nails. If the world has to end, this is how I want to go.
Written by Carlton Cuse
Directed by Brad Peyton
The Hollywood Outsider