As I was watching San Andreas, I couldn't help but reflect upon some of the classic 70s disaster flicks like The Towering Inferno, Airport, Poseidon Adventure and, yes, Earthquake. Filled with star-studded casts, these films were action-packed, technologically advanced (for the time), and filled with histrionic relationships and impossibly manufactured conflicts.
Welcome to San Andreas, a film that can't seem to decide what it wants to be and subsequently fails at everything. Dwayne Johnson is Ray, whom we learn very early on in the film is an acclaimed war vet and one of the absolute best at search-and-rescue missions now working for the L.A. Fire Department with such a fierce devotion to his job that he's a mere signature away from divorcing Emma (Carla Gugino) and struggling to maintain a semblance of his paternal relationship with college-bound Blake (Alexandra Daddario). When a Las Vegas earthquake cancels his planned vacation to spend some time with Blake before college starts, Blake heads off to campus alongside Emma's new boyfriend, real estate mogul Daniel (Ioan Gruffud), whose idea of raising children is building another high-rise.
If you can't see where this is all going, you've likely never been in a movie theater before.
With award-winning television scribe Carlton Cuse getting primary credit, or maybe that should be blame, for San Andreas's script, this is a film with so many freakishly funny "aw shucks" moments that it feels like we're smack dab back in that towering inferno waiting for the sucker to burn down.
I mean, seriously. At one point, I became aware that buildings were falling and people were unquestionably dying and I was sitting there laughing because it was all just so unbelievably cheesy and the Razzie-worthy dialogue creates an almost stunning apathy considering the mass carnage unfolding.
Dwayne Johnson tries. Johnson is practically tailor-made for this type of role, a likable guy who gets to flex his muscles heroically while giving off glimpses of genuine emotion. It's simply not enough to rescue a film that is filled to the brim with cliche's and so bogged down by its horrid script and the unsurprisingly inept direction of the guy who also gave us Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, Brad Peyton.
On the off chance that you're still wondering, in San Andreas the big earthquake that is kind of always in the back of the mind of anyone who lives near the San Andreas Fault finally arrives just in time for a Caltech Seismologist (Paul Giamatti) to have finally discovered a technique for predicting such quakes. Unexpectedly, but not inexplicably, the quake begins to erupt just outside Vegas before increasing in intensity as it travels like a Slinky all the way up the San Andreas Fault and wreaks havoc on everything and everyone in its path.
Of course, heroic Ray springs into action.
Well, kind of.
Actually, heroic Ray sort of abandons the idea of being heroic in favor of finally paying attention to his family. First, he commandeers his rescue helicopter over to some fancy schmantzy high-rise building where his soon to be ex-wife is dining on the penthouse floor. I'm fairly sure this violated some L.A. Fire Department code but, hey, it's family. Ya know? Before long, he and the aforementioned soon to be ex are both hauling butt to get to Blake, who has been abandoned by chicken-shit Daniel (In case you didn't realize that billionaire moguls are narcissistic and self-absorbed) but is semi-rescued by a make cute English boy named Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his younger brother, Ollie (Art Parkinson), the latter being the film's most compelling and convincing character.
San Andreas is neither a good film nor a film so bad that it's good. It's simply a film that manages a few decent scenes with its advanced CGI and converted 3-D imagery but, for the most part, fails miserably to create anything resembling an involving story or even a disaster about which you can actually feel something.
I have a feeling that most of you who see San Andreas will mostly find yourself thinking about Roland Emmerich's 2012, which is, almost unfathomably, a vastly superior film.
San Andreas at times feels like Planes, Trains, & Automobiles as Ray and Emma do whatever it takes to rescue their daughter, an effort that should have some emotional resonance given a traumatic experience from which the family has obviously never moved on. Yet, strangely enough, there is no emotional resonance in San Andreas. There are only buildings falling, earth fracturing, the ocean swelling, and people dying.
That's all. No biggie.
The closest thing the film has to a villain is Daniel, who is also involved in one of the film's few genuinely funny scenes when Emma realizes that he left Blake in the basement of his high-rise office building.
As noted, Johnson is decent here but he's also saddled with the film's most insipid dialogue. Carla Gugino manifests enough maternal instinct to at least make Emma appealing, while Daddario pulls off the "I'm sexy AND intelligent" routine quite nicely while wearing clothing clearly designed to keep us abreast of things. Paul Giamatti, a darn fine actor, is reduced to emphatic exclamations of "You need to get out now if you can. If you can't (long pause. Really long pause.) God be with you."
Let's face it. This is the type of natural disaster for which Westboro Baptist Church and Pat Robertson would surely blame those silly Californian liberals.
Steve Yedlin's lensing is stunningly lacking in imagination and clarity, and I have no hesitation in saying the 3-D is a complete and utter waste of time, while Andrew Lockington's original score may have you joining many members of the cast, both digital and real, in jumping off the nearest high-rise building.
Okay, that's an exaggeration and unfair. My apologies to Andrew Lockington, whom I'm sure is a fine chap. How about "The original score made me want to go back and listen to the score from The Smurfs again?"
Is that better?
If you have a goal in life of seeing every natural disaster movie ever made, then perhaps San Andreas is for you. However, if you have a miserable time (and you will) it's not my fault.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic