Film Review: “San Andreas”

If there’s a playbook out there for screenwriters in Hollywood for creating the modern disaster movie, San Andreas runs every single play from it without deviation. It’s spectacular to look at, as well it should be thanks to today’s top-dollar special effects and a budget big enough to bring them all to bear, but it’s so predictable that even particular lines of dialogue can be heard coming by even the most casual of movie goer, and the lack of anything really new robs the film of any real impact aside from the visual.

Before everything starts shaking and crumbling, of course, the film takes a few minutes at the outset to introduce its principals. Your stalwart “everyman” hero this time is Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson), a veteran LAFD search and rescue helicopter pilot, who’s also “Dad” to college-bound daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario, HBO’s “True Detective”) and soon-to-be ex-husband to Emma (Carla Gugino). Ray is very, very good at his job and he’s a good father, too, but a tragic loss to the family years before drove a wedge between him and Emma, and thus he’s on the outside looking in as Blake gets ready to leave the nest and Emma tries to move on with new boyfriend Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd).

Meanwhile, at nearby Caltech, seismology experts Drs. Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) and Kim Park (Will Yun Lee) think they may have a lead on a final piece of evidence to prove their model for predicting earthquakes works: a series of tremors and a spike in magnetic pulses in the vicinity of Hoover Dam in Nevada. Their “lead” turns out to be much more than either of them anticipate, however, as while they are on site the dam is struck by a devastating quake. The data collected at the site during and after the event leads Dr. Hayes to a terrifying conclusion: that the quake at the dam was only a precursor event signifying an earthquake the likes of which North America has never seen or even thought possible.

However, before he can get the word out, the quake hits, starting at the southern end of the San Andreas Fault near Los Angeles, then making its way northward along the fault line all the way to San Francisco. Ray, who was about to head to Hoover Dam to assist with the recovery there, suddenly finds himself flying through and around collapsing L.A. landmarks to rescue Emma from a rooftop restaurant. The parents together then head north to reach Blake in San Francisco, who uses everything she ever learned about what to do in emergencies from her dad to keep herself and new friends Ben and Ollie (Hugo Johnstone-Burt and Art Parkinson, respectively) alive as things get progressively worse in Shaky Town. As Ray and Emma travel via air, land, and even water to reach their daughter, the distance proves to be the least of their obstacles, as the massive quake that they witnessed level L.A. isn’t the end of the danger to what’s left of California, but the beginning …

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Somewhere, Roland Emmerich, the film maker who along with partner-in-crime Dean Devlin in 1996 famously reinvigorated the disaster thriller genre with Independence Day and later went on refine his film formula with 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow and 2009’s 2012, must be smiling as he sees the promotion for San Andreas. After all, it might as well be one of his films, as closely as it adheres to the basic approach that each of his apocalyptic epics followed on their way to box office millions. Specifically, it most resembles The Day After Tomorrow, with its third act primarily comprised of the perilous journey a brave parent undertakes to reach their imperiled child as Nature’s fury is unleashed on an unimaginable scale. But the casting, the plot beats, the various tropes used to ratchet up the intensity as the world crumbles on screen, and the sort-of-science Emmerich used to bring his end-of-the-world yarns to life and profitability are meticulously recycled here with state-of-the-art special effects and “The Rock”, Dwayne Johnson, arguably Hollywood’s most versatile action figure, right smack in the middle of it to make it even more of a summer movie draw. How could any studio exec refuse such a winning formula? Indeed, if Emmerich himself wasn’t working on Independence Day 2 (yes, that’s really happening, in case you didn’t know), he probably would be kicking himself that he didn’t make this movie for Warner Bros.

Speaking of “The Rock”, the man is due a great deal of credit for his approach to this material, as he does his best to avoid camp and bring gravitas to the proceedings. Unlike his over-the-top and constantly flexed appearances in the “Fast and the Furious” films of late, there isn’t a hint of bravado here, not a single appearance of “The People’s Eyebrow” or any action movie one-liners. He, along with his castmates, reacts to the green-screen manufactured chaos with believable terror, awe, and finally grim determination to survive in a way meant to inspire audiences, not make them giggle, at least not intentionally. His on-screen chemistry with Gugino is nonimal, but it doesn’t detract from the film, at all. He seems to understand that although his name is above the title here, he’s not the real star of the film: all those expensive special effects are.

If only director Brad Peyton (Journey to the Center of the Earth 2: The Mysterious Island, also with Johnson) and screenwriter Carlton Cuse (TV’s “Lost”) had allowed themselves to deviate just a tiny bit from what’s expected in these films and thus given themselves an opportunity to bring something new to the table, something to separate their film from all the schlocky, cash-grab disaster flicks that have come before it, rather than simply rely on all those FX shots and the presence of Johnson to make San Andreas memorable in any meaningful way. But no, it all goes more or less the way you expect it to, so much so that it might surprise you just how much you can see it all coming, and thus the film simply becomes this year’s “let’s watch San Francisco get crushed” film.

At least last year it was the “King of Monsters”, Godzilla, doing all that demolition work in the heart of the Golden City — that, in comparison to the faceless tremors and tidal waves in San Andreas, had its moments of guilty pleasure fun.

San Andreas
Starring Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, and Paul Giamatti. Directed by Brad Peyton.
Running Time: 114 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense disaster action and mayhem throughout, and brief strong language.

Felix Albuerne
Felix Albuerne
One-time Blockbuster Video manager, textbook editor, trivia host, and community college English/Humanities teacher. Now a digital media producer, part-time film critic, amateur foodie, semi-retired beer snob, unabashed geek, and still very much a work in progress.

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