The big event disaster movie is a hallmark of Hollywood filmmaking at its most banal. No other genre is as translucent nor as self serving as the big Hollywood disaster film, yet we still go see them every single time. Whether it is the allure of seeing the latest special effects wizardry, big name talent versus the elements or curtailing our own fears of such an event ever occurring, there is no doubt that we crave the kind of big screen spectacle that only a disaster movie can provide. The new California centric disaster flick San Andreas is another in a long line of films that despite utilizing a real world threat as its catalyst, is as far removed from reality and just plain dumb as any film of the same ilk can be. Read the full review after the break.
Review Vital Stats:
Projector Type: Digital 2D
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime: 1 hr 54 min
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Release Date: May 29, 2015
Likes: Dwayne Johnson, some disaster movies
Neutral: Disaster movies based on boring disasters
Hates: The characters, the script, the special effects, the time I wasted, etc.
Want a better disaster movie set in California?: Check out the cheese-tastic 1997 movie Volcano.
Disaster movies are made to play out in specific predictable patterns. We meet out characters briefly, who are usually your everyday blue collar workers and are usually dealing with some sort of domestic issues, the most common of which are parents going through a rough patch and the child (or children) traveling abroad to some landmark far away that will likely be wiped off the face of the Earth. Then there are conflicts and reconciliations that happen along the way as problems are solved, unspoken concerns are voiced and a general sense of acceptance occurs all thanks to being forced to work together towards the common goal which usually entails a parent or two braving insurmountable odds to bring their loved one to safety.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with staying fairly close to those guidelines, San Andreas doesn't so much follow it as it does trace a line directly over them. We get the obligatory rescue scene with our main character Chief Ray Gaines (played by a fairly toned down Dwayne Johnson) leading his search and rescue team into one of the most ridiculous accident sequences in recent memory which is then only topped by the even more ridiculous aerial tactics employed by Ray with his helicopter in order to reach the victim. There is even a news team on board to ask a handful of erroneous questions to get some much needed exposition out of the way in the mean time.
Fast forward to Ray returning to an empty home where he calls his daughter Blake (Alexandria Daddario), who is living with her mother Emma (Carla Gugino) as well as her rich and entitled boyfriend (Ioan Gruffudd) who will surely turn out to be a selfish prick (ya know, cause he's rich and entitled) so that Ray and Emma have a shot at getting back together. He calls her to make sure she is ready for their road trip (hmmm...I wonder if they will actually get to go on this trip before the big quake hits?) and then the scene is punctuated by dreadfully sentimental moment as we see Ray sifting through some hidden family photos which not so much hints at but blatantly throws in our faces that a tragedy has befallen their family as we see a second daughter that we have not heard about yet.
In the meantime we are constantly intercutting with a seismologist expert working in Cal Tech (I wonder how much money they paid to be put under such an impossibly positive light?) played with neurotic perfection by Paul Giamatti. He and his team have been trying to perfect a technology to predict Earthquakes for some time now (gee...I wonder if they will discover how to do it just in time for the big quake?) and head up to Hoover Dam to perform some tests after Disposable Guy #1 informs him that there are some unusual readings coming from there. Hmmm...the movie is called San Andreas, a seismologist heads to a national landmark to check readings...any guesses as to what will happen?
Anyway, switching back to Ray and his so unpredictable trajectory we find him at the house to pick up his daughter just when, you guessed it, he gets called in because a massive quake has just hit Hoover Dam...Shock, Gasp!. Then just when you think things couldn't get any more predictable, they all part ways with both Emma and Blake proceeding to places that will put each of them in immediate danger (Emma goes to a high rise in downtown L.A. and Blake flies with the soon-to-be asshole boyfriend to a high rise in San Francisco). What this means of course is that Ray, the guy trained to save people, will have to put his skills to the test as he rushes to each of them to save their lives all the while still haunted by the tragedy that split them up in the first place that you know he will have to revisit due to a certain family member being placed in a shockingly similar situation.
If this is all sounding a bit cynical, that's because this is...very cynical. San Andreas is about as inept a film as I have ever seen, even for a big summer blockbuster disaster movie. From the minute the first frame hits the screen you will know how everything will play out and worse yet, it doesn't even have the usual big budget usually associated with this sort of lame attempt at a screenplay. While the actual production budget is still under lock and key, it is easy to deduce that the budget was somewhere well under the usual triple digit million dollar figure these types of films require. For any film featuring explosions and mass destruction on an epic scale, having a low budget would be noticeable, but for San Andreas it is downright detrimental to the entire experience.
Beginning with a car crash that looks like a Hot Wheel being rolled down the hill by a 5 year old playing in their backyard to a climatic Tsunami hitting the San Francisco bay that looks like the same 5 year old making waves in their bath tub, there isn't one inch of San Andreas that looks like a modern day action/adventure film, especially one backed by a large studio with deep pockets. This isn't what kills the film though, as even films with horrid effects can be saved by a good script. Sadly, that is one of the two areas that sink San Andreas faster than any budgeting problems could ever do, the other being poorly written characters. Both areas are utterly dismal in how they fail to provide even one plausible scenario to stick its characters in and then proceeds to fail to provide the audience with characters we want to see in those scenarios, let alone an actual character where we must care whether they live or die, which we don't.
The script already had an uphill battle by being both a disaster movie and having said disaster be an Earthquake, one of the single most difficult forces of nature to capture on film and make exciting. San Andreas is littered with long shots of L.A. and San Francisco as they are hit with this 9.6 quake and all its aftershocks but you really have to look hard to make out anything happening. The ground ripples a little, buildings sway back and forth and sometimes fall down and...that's it. Aside from one fun action sequence involving a helicopter rescue amidst falling buildings and a silly race to the top of a gigantic wave, the entire film feels like we are seeing the aftermath of something much more exciting that we just missed. Top that off with a long break in the middle of the film for a ridiculous road trip that sucks what little momentum the film already had and the only real excitement we get out of San Andreas is when the end credits roll and we are free to go home.
The characters though are the real shining example of laziness on the writer's part. Putting aside all the aforementioned clichés established for each character there are other more troubling character traits that need addressing. Ray is a Chief Fire and Rescue helicopter pilot whose job is to rescue those in peril, but we learn early on that he very well may be the worst possible Fire and Rescue officer to ever be commissioned. As soon as he receives a desparate phone call from his ex-wife he immediately abandons his duties, steals a Fire and Rescue helicopter and then flies into a ravaged L.A. to save one person. That's right, he flies in and saves his ex-wife and then flees the city leaving behind countless helpless and injured people to likely die.
If that weren't bad enough he never even returns to his job to help survivors and decides to fly all the way to San Francisco to save his daughter. We even get a birds eye view of fires and chaos happening below as Ray and Emma get all nostalgic and talk about their relationship as people die just below them. I'm not too sure how things work within the Fire and Rescue department, but I'm fairly certain that anyone who does that job would never abandon their crew, their job and their commitment made to save those in need to go off flying away to save two people. Then to add insult on to injury we have one of my biggest pet peeves for disaster movies which is the loved one who has a specific occupation geared towards safety and training (this time being Fire and Rescue) telling another loved one hundreds of miles away to ignore what the safety officials are telling them to do and head to the MOST dangerous location possible and wait to be picked up in a couple of hours. Why? Why not let them go to safety with everyone else?
At least Paul Giamatti's character seems halfway legitimate in his concerns and his morality. He doesn't just jump ship to fly on over to San Francisco to save his cat or some shit, he sticks to his guns and does his job by warning everyone about the impending quakes and what to expect. Giamatti's character also feels oddly disconnected from all the scenes with Johnson's character as he never actually meets Johnson's character and appears as he is the only person that seems genuinely concerned about the lives of others unlike Johnson's character who helps a few people in San Francisco just as an afterthought. Just about the only thing tying Giamatti to Johnson's character is that for some inexplicable reason the exact same camera crew who was filming and interviewing Ray at the beginning of the film are now filming and interviewing Giamatti. What kind of story are they running anyway? "Fire and Rescue and the things Seismologists want you to know"?
Probably the most laughable part of the film though is the half-assed attempt it makes to create a villain for the audience to cheer the death of. Yes, every disaster movie ever made has had the selfish prick who only looks out for himself and in San Andreas it is the boyfriend. Predictable doesn't even begin to cover just how contrived and pointless this character is as every single time we see him it is just all set up to make him look bad and make us happy when he eventually dies an ironic death. Couldn't they have done something a bit more original with the ex-wife's new boyfriend other than make him an asshole for some inexplicable reason and then kill him off? Even 2012, a far superior disaster movie in every way possible, had the insight to turn this particular stereotype on its head and made the boyfriend character actually likable and had us mourn his eventual fate instead of shrug our shoulders over it.
San Andreas is a complete mess of a movie with the only positive aspect being Dwayne Johnson's undeniable charisma as a leading man. Every single other part of the film is a bigger disaster than the Earthquake it depicts. Saying the filmmakers, writers and even the actors were on autopilot is actually giving them praise as no one in this movie seemed to care for one second that they were making a lifeless void of reject special effects sequences tied together by one cliché after another and amounting to nothing more than as a stain on the resume of every single person who was unfortunate enough to put their name to it. Even fans of the disaster movie genre will come away from this movie feeling unfulfilled and that is saying something as almost no other genre comes with as low expectations as a disaster flick.
As far as disaster movies go, San Andreas is at the bottom of the pile and will likely illicit more laughs than groans thanks to its absurd characterizations and bargain basement effects work. Dwayne Johnson and the rest of the crew will go on to make (hopefully) better movies and forget this travesty ever happened, I suggest you do the same. If I had to conjure up one positive thing to say about San Andreas it would have to be that we at least didn't get the obligatory animal-in-distress sequence which would have made a film already filled with far too many genre clichés just that much more intolerable.