“As one of the people at my screening said as the end credits rolled, ‘I enjoyed it, but it was absurd’.”
by Ken B.
There’s a specific type of disaster movie that’s admirable on the grounds of it being so ridiculous that it becomes entertaining, and not always on the merits that it intended to be. San Andreas is that kind of film. Or more specifically, it’s that kind of film. It’s that kind of film, where it’s at home on giant screens in over-air conditioned multiplexes on hazy summer days with varied crowds. It’s that kind of film, where watching it on your TV months later is a diminishing of the experience by factorial powers. It’s that kind of film, where the dialogue is eye rolling, it doesn’t matter too much whether or not the acting is great, and the real star is the combined efforts of the visual and special effects teams. It’s that kind of film, exactly what you think it is.
In a way, the title San Andreas is really all of the plot description you need to know. That famous fault line which extends through the state of California goes off in this movie, of course. Seismologists say that a major earthquake from the San Andreas Fault is particularly overdue, but I’m not sure that what goes on here is what they have in mind. Such are the rules of blockbusters. There are characters, sometimes there purely because of requirement. Dwayne Johnson gets top billing as Ray. He’s a rescue helicopter pilot, working for the LAPD, where he excels at his job. His personal life requires a bit more maintenance – at the start of the movie, he’s on the verge of finalizing a divorce with his wife Emma (Carla Gugino). Ray and Emma had two daughters, but only one of them, college student Blake (Alexandra Daddario) is alive – her sister drowned in a white water rafting accident a few years ago. Blake takes a trip to San Francisco with her mother and her potentially future stepfather, wealthy architect Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd).
Ray stays in Los Angeles, where Caltech seismologist Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) is headlining a breakthrough – earthquake prediction. The system is put through a rigorous test when, as you would expect from the title of this movie, the San Andreas fault roars to life. The phrase “slowly, and then all at once” might aptly describe the ensuing turn of events, which goes from small tremors, to a 7.1 magnitude quake wrecking the Hoover Dam, and then inevitably to a quick series of Richter Scale-busting record setters ravaging the West Coast of the United States, with cities falling in jawdropping displays of disastrous carnage.
A weaker review of this movie might state that it’s fun “if you don’t think about it”. That’s a horrible argument – you don’t want to think? Of course you do! But it’s important to know what to think, and during something like San Andreas, the critical question is whether or not the film succeeds in comparison to other disaster movies. Many things that befall other entries in the genre are refreshingly absent. The casual chauvinism and female objectification of Michael Bay films are nowhere to be found – in fact, throughout the course of the film, Alexandra Daddario’s Blake is almost single-handedly responsible for the survival of two male supporting characters. Roland Emmerich’s tendency in something like The Day After Tomorrow to shove in agreeable but poorly conceived political calls-to-action is also a feature thankfully missing. San Andreas also succeeds when many others fail in the department of runtime – it’s a relatively slick 114 minutes, whereas many disaster blockbusters seem content on stretching to the breaking point, unaware of the fact that you can’t go on for too long on comparatively underdeveloped plot.
But make no mistake, San Andreas is not perfect. For one, the dialogue is clunky. A key example comes to mind, after it is revealed that the titular faultline is due to go off. When a journalist asks Paul Giamatti’s character who they should notify about this shocking development, the response comes after a brief pause, and uttered with a moody squintiness: “Everybody.” There are indeed times where Giamatti feels like he’s in on the act, a cast member who has come to a full awareness of just how ridiculous Carlton Cuse’s screenplay can be at times, which led to me wishing that his character was the primary protagonist. Another thing that may ring alarm bells, in our post-9/11 environment, is how nonchalantly director Brad Peyton plays off widespread urban destruction, complete with innumerable falling skyscrapers and the implied deaths of tens of millions of people. When somebody says towards the end of the film that after this, the next step is to “rebuild”, it drives home how quickly the idea of the actual details of what happened is brushed by.
However, San Andreas delivers exactly what the doctor ordered, if for some reason your health care professional believes you have a medical condition which can be cured by watching an over-the-top disaster movie. Entertainment value still manages to run high, and its very, very, very questionable sense of physics and human endurance is played off with a kind of embraceable whatever-ness. I’m kind of surprised by just how much I ended up liking it. Seemingly tailor-made for a way to spend a lazy weekend afternoon at the movies, the film works with its top-notch visual effects (well, in forty years they may look like the vaguely hokey miniatures in Earthquake, but never mind), generously loud sound mix, breezy pace, and revolving gaggle of protagonists. As one of the people at my screening said as the end credits rolled, “I enjoyed it, but it was absurd”.