By Matthew McKibben | June 1, 2015
Director: Brad Peyton (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island and Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore)
Written by: Carlton Cuse, Andre Fabrizio, Jeremy Passmore
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, Paul Giamatti, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson, Will Yun Lee, Kylie Minogue
If you’ve seen enough disaster movies, nothing in San Andreas should surprise you. If there’s one formula that Hollywood has as memorized as a parent has the instructions written on the side of a box of Kraft Mac & Cheese, it’s the disaster movie formula. And San Andreas follows this formula point by point:
- Pick a calamity (in this case: earthquakes!)
- Make it the worst possible variation of said calamity (in this case: the San Andreas fault line is as brittle as the elastic in your favorite pair of underwear!)
- Hire an actor whose talents are above the material but probably has gambling debts to pay off to be the scientific voice of reason (in this case: Paul Giamatti!)
- Hire an A-list movie star (in this case: Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson!) to punch said calamity in the face while struggling to overcome some kind of family turmoil (in this case: the grief of losing a child and divorce!)
- Hire impossibly attractive actors to be family members and supporting cast members, regardless of acting talents (in this case: Carla Gugino! Hugo Johnstone-Burt! Alexandra Daddario!)
- Pick a large metropolitan area and destroy everything in sight (in this case: the entirety of both of San Francisco and Los Angeles!)
- Show the obligatory social unrest and people going ape-shit crazy (in this case: in Bakersfield! [Sorry, Buck Owens]).
- Add margarine, milk and cheese sauce mix; mix well.
Kraft Mac & Cheese is about as nourishing for your body as is for this movie is for your soul. That’s fine, I totally get it. Sometimes you just want a movie where you don’t really need to think all that much. The bar is set and that’s the bar it clears. But if watching the entire population of San Francisco and Los Angeles fall out of buildings or have buildings fall onto them, then have other buildings fall on top of those buildings, is wrong, I really don’t want to be right.
Yeah, I’m a fan of this kind of movies. It doesn’t matter the city or disaster. Earthquakes in California? Fine. Asteroids raining down on people in Taiwan? Sure, why not? Huge ass monsters using San Francisco as their own personal Fight Club? Sign me up! Perhaps I’m just jealous of everyone who lives in the weather paradise that is San Francisco, so I secretly enjoy watching movies where their city is leveled. Does that make me a monster? Maybe. But I ask, have you ever experienced a Texas summer? Let he who is without sin cast the first stone — or Rock, as the case may be.
And I’m certainly not alone in my enjoyment of these movies. If there’s one thing Hollywood enjoys doing, it’s using natural disaster movies as a way to literally shake the change out of our pockets. These movies are like ATMs for the studios and if buying a ticket to watch Paul Giamatti study Richter Scale data means that we eventually get to see more low budget movies where Giamatti isn’t yelling all the time, sign me up!
In a movie where people only have first names, Dwayne Johnson stars as Ray, a hotshot chopper rescue pilot recently separated from his wife Emma (Carla Gugino) and his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario). Ray has a rocky family life after his massive, vein-bulging biceps can’t pull his 65 pound youngest daughter from raging water that she fell into during a family river rafting expedition. He’s still a good man, but this tree trunk neck beast man isn’t so good at talking about his feelings, so his wife leaves him and seeks comfort in the arms of a Donald Trump style billionaire land developer (Ioan Gruffudd) — because, if you’re going to leave that sweet man meat behind, it better be for someone who has some cash in his bank. Ray is all set to take his daughter Blake up to college in Seattle, but gets called away (“again, dad?”) to fly his rescue chopper… beeeeeeeeeecause…
THE HOOVER DAM HAS BEEN DESTROYED!!! Cal Tech professor Lawrence (Paul Giamatti) and his partner Dr. Kim Park (Will Yun Lee) have discovered a way to predict earthquakes, but predicting said earthquakes is only really doable by planting monitoring devices in the Hoover Dam itself. Perhaps if you’re in the earthquake business, hanging out on dams is just something you do. Who am I to argue with Hollywood? I’m not a scientist, dam[n] it.
Although the dam is gone (along with everyone and everything downstream of the Colorado River), Lawrence has all the data that he needs to predict that the San Andreas Fault Line is about to shake off Californians like a dog with fleas. Giamatti plays the concerned scientist part well; his look of concern should be all the advance warning you need if you live anywhere between San Diego and Oakland. Now’s the time to get out of dodge and move to Austin, Texas with all the other Californians living in the diaspora! But don’t worry too much if you stick around; how you die in this earthquake seems completely dependent on how good of a person you are. If you’re a good person — perhaps the wait staff at a posh Los Angeles restaurant — you’ll be given the dignity of dying off screen. But if you’re a real a-hole of a person, you’re going to die [on screen] in one of two ways: having something heavy fall on you or falling to your death.
Sometimes you just want to watch the Rock punch an earthquake in its big, dumb fault line face — on that level, San Andreas really works. With the formula firmly in place, the true creativity in a movie like this comes from the SFX department and these effects are pretty amazing. The folks at the various SFX houses that worked on this really perfected what it looks like when buildings of this magnitude fall over. That said, the fact that we know what it actually looks like when a building falls over is pretty depressing.
While all of the stuff involving the family dynamic is pretty by the book, Johnson and Carla Gugino do well with what they have. Johnson may not have an incredible range as an actor, but he’s believable as both a firefighter and family man. While he’s certainly a big, burly, man-beast of a dude, he is definitely in the vicinity of an “every-man” in ways his 80s action movie counterparts (like Stallone and Schwarzenegger) could never really fit into. Johnson has a real warmth and charisma that works well in a movie like this.
While San Andreas is exactly what you’d expect, I’ve certainly seen worse disaster movies. San Andreas is bad because of its predictability and cheesiness, but it is shot and edited well. It may be an empty thrill ride, but there’s enough on both the character and spectacle standpoint that it makes for a fairly enjoyable time at the movies. I don’t mean to shower the movie with faint praise, but there’s something to be said for one that knows exactly what it is and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. This is a big, dumb movie that hits story beats that you already know, but it clears the extremely low intelligence bar with relative ease.