California is to destructive, natural disasters what New York is to monster attacks. Both cause large scale destruction and the annihilation of thousands. Of the two, natural disasters are typically the most terrifying because they are the most likely to happen with little or no warning. The keyword being “typically”. In San Andreas, you will be lucky to feel anything (emotionally) besides the thunderous booms of the sound system vibrating the floor.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson versus the elements is something we have seen before. We’ve seen him take on wrestlers, mummies, spies, international crime rings with a car fetish, and even tooth fairies. Now he takes on his easiest challenge yet: Mother Nature. He plays Ray, a soon to be divorced father who is part of California’s emergency rescue services. After rescuing a girl whose car was knocked off the road by a small avalanche, he returns home to pick up his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) from his soon to be ex-wife’s, Emma (Carla Gugino), fiance’s, Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd), home. Meanwhile, at the Hoover Dam, scientists Lawrence (Paul Giamatti) and Kim (Will Yun Lee) try to predict earthquakes (we’ll pretend that’s a real thing) and end up being there when one hits, destroying the entire dam and taking Kim with it. Ray must go help the Hoover Dam survivors, and Daniel is taking Blake to school instead of Ray, but first they have to stop by his office building.
Lawrence returns to Cal Tech, but has no time to mourn his friend because he is predicting a catastrophic event to happen along the San Andreas fault line. The entire California coast line is facing the worst earthquakes and aftershocks in recorded history, and Ray’s wife and daughter are right in the center of it. He turns his helicopter around and saves his wife from the top of a crumbling building because he is just that good. With the situation worsening, and his daughter still trapped in the epicenter, it is a race against time and the elements as Ray attempts to unite what is left of his family.
The visual carnage is something out a biblical doomsayer’s wet dream. All of the destruction porn is something people usually flock to, and I am no exception. There is something so satisfying about seeing a cataclysmic event unfold on screen where thousands of people are murdered by mother nature that just makes you reevaluate your life and think, “Things could be worse.” San Andreas didn’t offer this catharsis, or much of anything else. Even as a popcorn flick, this film feels more like a disaster of a movie than a movie about a disaster.
The worst thing that can happen in a film like this, is when the characters stop for a period of time so they can have a forced tender moment in between quakes, aftershocks and tsunamis. The emotional parts wouldn’t feel so cheap if there had been as much effort put into character development as there was in making Dwayne Johnson the impossible hero of every scenario. The performances were fine, but what I enjoyed the most was how semi-equally balanced the damsel in distress trope was counterbalanced with the don in distress, making Johnson’s and Daddario’s both heroes.
The sound design was great if you actually wanted to be put into their deafening scenario. The concussion cacophony was so harsh, that after sitting through two hours of it, you’ll more than likely be going home with a disappointing headache. Not to be confused with the happy headache you go home with after standing at the front of the stage, next to the speakers, of your favorite rock band. Even the hardest Rock groupie might find this film very trying on the nerves/ear drums.
Brad Peyton’s direction feels like he is channeling the great destruction artist Roland Emmerich, but unfortunately Peyton is lacking in some key areas. Emmerich typically gives us both the “pop” and “corn” in his apocalyptic popcorn flicks. He fully commits to his films by making sure the popping visual elements are offset by the often corny dialogue and sappy drama, giving the heavy subject matter accents of light humor. It’s a proven method that has even been adopted in the multitudes of B-movies the Syfy channel churns out. Peyton’s film succeeds on the visual front, but is catastrophically crippled in every other area.
San Andreas is a blue ruin of borrowed elements that even The Rock was unable to save. To say this film was not ground-breaking is an understatement because even as an escapist treat, this film has no traction. Any friction or tension you feel from the film is less the effect of the story and the characters, and more than likely from the shifting of the tectonic plates.
RATING: ★★★★ (4/10 stars)