In the world of movies there is a place for almost everything. Whether that is a teen-flick, a thriller or an action film, someone out there will love it, even while they admit it’s not particularly good. I’ve always thought that disaster movies fall into that category. That said I thoroughly enjoyed the 1974 The Towering Inferno with its A-list cast of actors and pretty terrible script (actually it freaked me the hell out for years, my mind running back to the many ways people perished every time I entered a skyscraper). We’ve more recently had The Day After Tomorrow and 2012; movies that play on our fears of a global catastrophe that either culls a large part of the population or wipes us out altogether.
With director Brad “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” Peyton’s San Andreas I expected that sort of thrilling-fun, that “OMG imagine if that were me!” excitement and dread. Instead we get stunning visuals and a story so clichéd and painful I would rather be in one of its thousand crumbling buildings than watch it again.
Let’s just have a quick look at the “main” plot in the film. We start with Ray (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson) proving his mettle by saving a young girl who has accidentally driven off a mountain road. He’s accompanied by a group of machismo helicopter rescue guards and we watch as they risk life and limb to pull the poor lass out of the slipping vehicle. Badassness proven. The scene then moves on to a couple of seismologists who have figured out a way of predicting earthquakes. Stereotypical Professor Lawrence (Paul Giamatti), who will accompany us through the movie as a sort of disaster/seismic alarm clock, witnesses a huge quake at the Hoover Dam and realises he has to warn everybody before it’s too late. Sadly not before his assistant valiantly goes back for the “fallen-over waif” and sacrifices his life saving her. ‘Merica!
Meanwhile back at Camp Family, Ray is having a bad day. You see his soon-to-be ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino) is doing the unthinkable by moving in with her boyfriend Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffudd), and hasn’t had the damn decency to ask Ray for his permission. Making matters worse, because Ray is called in to help clean up the mess at the Hoover Dam it means he cannot go on a road trip with his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario). Luckily Daniel “I’ll never replace your dad” Riddick steps in. So Ray goes in one direction, and his daughter and her potential stepfather (who turns out to be a sniveling coward because he isn’t Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’) another. After round-two earthquake strikes, Ray swoops in to save his estranged-for-the-moment wife Emma from the top of a building and we watch as it crumbles beneath her feet along with any hope of a solid story. The rest of the movie is essentially just trying to get mother and father back together with their daughter.
Sadly this is San Andreas’s biggest let-down: the story is pretty much terrible. I get that almost every story contains elements from another, but to have endless clichés rammed down your throat in practically EVERY scene gets in the way of, well, the beautiful scenes. We watch as buildings collapse, people fall out of them, into them, onto them, catch fire, get squished, drown and it’s awesome, then the characters appear and you groan as the one liners and seen-before moments cascade into each other like the fault lines of California.
Screenwriter Carlton Cuse (Lost, Nash Bridges) really pulled out the stops when he put this together. Estranged husband and wife find their love again because of external disaster? Check. Daughter falls for her saviour? Check. Child element in the form of saviour’s brother? Check. Traumatic experience from character’s life that they will have to relive and this time overcome? Check, check, and more like cheque please?! It’s all there.
If San Andreas was a tongue-in-cheek post-modern spin on American disaster movies I think it would be up there with Tropic Thunder, but it isn’t. It takes itself a little too seriously and that gets in the way of enjoying the wanton destruction many will go and see it for. I wish I could say that the acting helps support it but again all we get is archetypes and not very good ones at that (though Johnson does try his hardest with the material on offer “I didn’t blame you, I blamed… Myself!”). But it’s not all bad, right? Actually, right!
CGI-wise you won’t find another disaster movie in its caliber. The visuals are stunning and smooth, even when the camera is panning and spinning around like a hyperactive 80’s break-dancer performing on molten lava. The camera whips and whirls through buildings as they crumble around you and the world truly feels like it’s being pulled from beneath your feet. Even in its much advertised “better” 3D experience it doesn’t blur, get too dark or make you feel nauseous (that’s the script’s role). In fact Peyton does a ton of stuff right in San Andreas. I was reminded of a Call of Duty game by the number of transport modes Ray and soon-to-be-wife-again Emma use. Car, airplane, helicopter, boat, parachute, it’s almost all there. From ramping up the side (vertically mind you) of a tsunami to landing in a baseball field leading to the line “it’s been a while since we got to second base” (yes, really), many will have a load of fun with the madness of the movie.
But while San Andreas tries very hard to be a popcorn-flick and goes a long way in visually stimulating people who are keen for the overtly absurd and downright silly, it fails to clinch the deal because it isn’t in anyway grounded. There are no characters we care for, no situations that we can associate with unless you spend 24 hours a day watching When Disasters Strike and some of the situations are just, well, really DUMB. I mean how can anyone use the line “We need to broadcast this, does anyone know how to hack social media” and not laugh? If you are looking to escape the trials of this world and allow your mind to slide into an abyss full of stupid then I think you may find something in San Andreas. However, if you are looking for crazy fun that has meaning, much like Mad Max: Fury Road, I think you’ll find you’ve… hit rock bottom.
Last Updated: June 25, 2015