San Andreas is a catastrophe. It is a lamentable skill when a disaster film, a piece of entertainment that is routinely met with the lowest of expectations, fails to even meet the basic requirements of simply being “dumb summer entertainment”. This is a genre in which universally panned movies like Dante’s Peak, Poseidon or 2012 can still manage to earn big bucks at the box office. However the popular opinion of which inevitably deteriorates over time in the mind of the American public. Oh there are high minded exceptions. The Birds, The Towering Inferno, Titanic, Contagion. But what makes those productions great is the blending of mass destruction with characters that captivate our attention.
San Andreas on the other hand eschews originality in favor of series of tropes uncreatively strung together by CGI effects. The plot can be summarized in a sentence: When the San Andreas fault triggers a 9 plus magnitude quake up the West coast, a search and rescue helicopter pilot (Dwayne Johnson) and his estranged wife Emma (Carla Gugino) make their way from Los Angeles to San Francisco to rescue their daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario). A plot so simple it might be refreshing. But oh the cliches! Most disaster films rely on a few timeworn shortcuts to tell a story but that’s all San Andreas is – literally a checklist of hackneyed tropes and nothing more. How does San Andreas conventionalize? Let me count the ways…
Brad Peyton is the brains behind such movies as Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. Kid friendly doesn’t have to mean intellectually vacant, but I’ll let his filmography speak for itself. Ray and Emma are a divorced couple that are still amicable toward each other. This gives them the awkward sexual tension when they band together to save their daughter trapped in San Francisco. Clearly the narrative wants you to think Ray is a stand-up guy. Clumsily inserted amongst the CGI mayhem we get the occasional “quiet dramatic scene”. In flashback, Ray reflects on his greatest failure: he wasn’t able to save his younger daughter when she tragically drowned in a rafting accident. He obsesses over the daughter he couldn’t save while the living daughter suffers in need. His behavior gets more egregious. Here we have an active-duty LAFD pilot who ignores orders by abandoning his job in the middle of the greatest natural emergency in American history. Instead he goes AWOL on a personal mission with one of the department’s helicopters. He intends to save his wife and daughter but no none else – leaving thousands to die as a result. To emphasize the point further, he drives past an elderly couple on the side of the road leaving them in the dust. The only reason he ultimately turns around is because they were trying to warn HIM before he drove into a chasm. Ray’s dereliction of duty is disgusting.
However according to the script, the truly reprehensible human is Emma’s rich boyfriend (Ioan Gruffudd). Naturally he is revealed to be an unctuous jerk who cowardly abandons Blake in her hour of need. This an obvious setup to make his inevitable death by a falling building all the more gratifying. Daniel’s sister Susan (Kylie Minogue) dies too but that’s OK because she made an insensitive comment. Death karma to people who are rude. But good people die as well. You almost have to admire a film with the audacity to kill millions but then conveniently neglects to show a single dead body. Buildings will fall, tides will raise, but there’s nary a casualty in sight. The death and trauma that follow a major earthquake are nonexistent here. That would interrupt the viewer’s enjoyment of the pristine beauty of CGI served up for visual consumption.
There are some impressive effects. Behold the brilliant shards of glass raining down upon people as they narrowly make their escape. Narrowly is the operative words here. Nobody escapes a discernible threat unless it is barely by the skin of their teeth. Time and again the audience is led to believe that every major character is just within a hair’s breadth of losing their life only to escape within an inch of life. This includes a scenario where the pilot of a helicopter tempts fate by saying “we’re only 90 minutes away” and then seconds later, the engine fails. Meanwhile Ray’s daughter Blake is trapped in a San Francisco parking garage. There she encounters Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his younger brother Ollie (Art Parkinson). The meet-cute allows her to rescue him. Girl Power! They’re all such a bore though. The one lone individual that is mildly interesting is Dr. Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) a seismology professor at Caltech who detects the quake and warns everybody about their impending doom. He’s the “I told you so!”
San Andreas has a lot of faults. A narrative disaster that falls apart under the weight of a thousand cliches. In a few years this DVD should find a permanent home in the 99 cent bin at your local Walmart. Until then crowds will flock to see pretty CGI . The chronicle’s lazy reliance on tropes from other disaster pictures is pretty shameful. Did the real script get destroyed in the quake? LA and San Francisco are decimated and millions have died. But a happy ending rests on whether our “hero” Ray and his family are reunited. The countless souls that have their lives extinguished is presented as a mild inconvenience. The final minutes lovingly feature the courageous efforts of FEMA, the National Guard, and the UN. Please note the giant American flag draped from the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. As Emma ponders, “What now?” Ray looks up to the heavens and says without irony “We rebuild.” I wouldn’t say the picture was forgettable because that would have been a blessing. San Andreas is so hopelessly bad, I just can’t stop thinking about its miserableness.