I get a real kick out of disaster movies. The swell of chaos and mayhem as a mass population in turmoil becomes the backdrop for our lead character, providing us with some amazing, heroic scenes. I always felt these types of movies started back in the seventies with The Poseidon Adventure and Towering Inferno. A collection of celebrities attempting to escape some enormous structure against seemingly impossible odds. We anxiously wait to see how many make it to the end.
Around the nineties this trend continued with Twister, Daylight, Independence Day, Volcano, Dante’s Peak, Titanic, Deep Impact, and Armageddon. In this past decade we saw The Day After Tomorrow, The Core, and more recently 2012, which pretty much covered every earthbound disaster imaginable. I didn’t even mention the many insect, giant monster, and other alien invasion movies. The point is, while it’s always great to see the good guy stop the impending disaster, it’s just as and, sometimes, even more exciting when the disaster is unavoidable. We then get to witness the triumph of the human spirit as it overcomes ridiculous obstacles. It’s those very obstacles that make these movies.
In San Andreas, directed by Brad Peyton, Dwayne Johnson plays Ray, a fire and rescue worker in California who pilots a helicopter with his colleagues. His daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) lives with her mom Emma (Carla Gugino) and is getting ready to go back to college in San Francisco. Ray is planning to take a vacation with his daughter Blake when he learns of a recent earthquake in another state, derailing his plans. Emma’s boyfriend Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd), who has business in San Francisco, offers to take Blake instead.
Meanwhile a seismologist at CalTech, played by Paul Giamatti, is studying earthquake patterns in and around California with his lab partner, later discovering what appears to be an impending series of earthquakes that will devastate everything from LA to San Francisco. He is basically the doomsayer in this film and every word he utters is meant to send chills through your spine, although sometimes it comes off corny. He is the voice that warns California and the rest of the world. Through his intermittent scenes, we get brief announcements of worse things to come. The biggest earthquake in recorded history. Can Dwayne Johnson escape this catastrophe and rescue his family before all hell breaks loose?
A compelling story is not really the cornerstone of a disaster film and San Andreas does not offer much of one anyway. What it does offer are compelling characters, but if we didn’t care about these characters, at least the main ones, it would still make this movie a decent ride with terrific special effects. While the script is filled with clichés, it’s the emotional moments that really grab you, particular the relationship between Ray and his daughter Blake. Ray has a huge motivation in rescuing his daughter, having lost another in an accident some time ago. Perhaps this is why his daughter is so prepared for emergency situations. Blake doesn’t spend the movie cowering in fear or waiting to be rescued, but rather looks for the safest place to go among the wrecked San Francisco landscape, bringing with her two brothers who have lucked out by meeting such a clever survivalist. Blake knows how to find supplies, communicate without electricity, and dress wounds. Her adventure is just as exciting as her father’s and provides an excellent on-screen balance to Ray’s journey.
Another film called Earthquake came out in 1974, but it was just alright. Even the special effects, that should have made the film, were effective, but they couldn’t have imagined trying to portray the effects that are available today and that puts modern disaster films at a decided advantage. Now 40 years later, we have CGI that is almost indistinguishable from the real thing. With these new advancements in cinematic technology, we can create amazing tornadoes, brilliant tidal waves, and an earthquake that can level a city with such intensity it sends your adrenaline rushing. Buildings break apart slowly, as most of them should be earthquake-proof, and collapse suddenly without notice as the earthquake crescendos. There is no hiding the fact that many people do not survive. Unlike a film like The Avengers, the odds of everyone making it out alive are unrealistic. This successfully makes us aware of the stakes and does not guarantee a happy ending. Although with a movie comprised of near-death experiences, you hope to be rewarded for your efforts.
San Andreas is a thrilling roller coaster, emotionally and visually, that only really suffers where the script is concerned. It has several funny moments that are well placed and I can’t say enough about how well the special effects work. The opening scene is just a taste and when the actual earthquakes begin, there isn’t a frame that doesn’t jump out at you. Your eyes will appreciate the ride, even if your heart doesn’t. I also recommend the 3D option if it’s available. I don’t often see the benefit of 3D, but here it enhances the tension and pulls you in to each helicopter or skyscraper shot. Dwayne Johnson is meant for roles like this. His physique isn’t a necessity for this particular character, but it comes in handy. When a guy that big tells you to run, you listen. Alexandra Daddario did a great job, as well as Carla Gugino. Paul Giamatti’s talents seemed underused and not worth his time here, but his presence did add gravitas to what could have been a forgotten element of the film.
I rated this film based on the genre in which it was created and for that it deserves to be placed among its highly regarded predecessors. I only wish the dialogue wasn’t so predictable at times. Even the last line, which I quoted right before it was uttered, could have been more memorable if they just had fun with it. You just survived an insane earthquake and your city is buried in rubble. How about a Snickers bar? Silly, but effective. I can’t gripe too much about the ending though because a disaster movie is the journey and nothing else matters after that. Maybe where you parked your car, but after that nothing else.
San Andreas:[usr 4]
About San Andreas
Synopsis: In the aftermath of a massive earthquake in California, a rescue-chopper pilot makes a dangerous journey across the state in order to rescue his estranged daughter.
Director: Brad Peyton
Writers: Carlton Cuse, story by Andre Fabrizio and Jeremy Passmore
Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Ioan Gruffudd, Paul Giamatti
Runtime: 114 Minutes