Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson) is having a good day. He and his rescue team are being featured on the local news, he saves a young woman from a car dangling on the side of a mountain (and the rest of his team and the reporter and cameraman as well), and he’s about to spend some time with his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) driving her to college. But the day starts to turn when he learns his ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino) is moving in with her new, rich boyfriend, and a catastrophic earthquake has rocked Nevada, destroying Hoover Dam in the process. The disaster derails Ray’s trip with his daughter, so the new boyfriend (Ioan Gruffud) offers to fly her to Seattle, with a stop in San Francisco so he can conduct a little business, in his private jet.
On the way to Nevada, Ray gets a call from his ex just as another massive quake strikes Los Angeles so he detours to the high rise she’s in to save her. The quake then triggers another quake in San Francisco, trapping Blake in a car in an underground parking garage — abandoned by her mom’s boyfriend. She’s able to call Ray just before the signal is lost so he and Emma divert to San Francisco to try to find Blake. Luckily, a young Brit, Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt), and his younger brother Ollie (Art Parkinson), who had met Blake earlier in the lobby, are able to locate her and escape the building before it totally collapses. But when their Plan A destination, Coit Tower, is unreachable they need to find a Plan B destination that her parents — without any form of communication — can also find.
I am a sucker for big disaster movies. My love for movies was built on the disaster epics of the 1970s with The Poseidon Adventure (even though Airport was first, Poseidon really kickstarted the all-star disaster genre), Earthquake and The Towering Inferno. Those successes quickly doomed the genre with increasingly inferior productions, culminating in the truly disastrous When Time Ran Out in 1980. The disaster movie has seen some mini-revivals with duelling volcano movies, Sylvester Stallone’s under-rated but excellent throwback Daylight, and of course 2012, but none of them have had the star power of the early classics. San Andreas doesn’t rely on a cast of well-known faces to tell its story when all it needs are Dwayne Johnson and an army of special effects artists to keep things moving.
San Andreas succeeds mainly from Johnson’s winning, stoic, heroic performance. tweet
San Andreas is a mixed bag of entertainment. The film succeeds mainly from Johnson’s winning, stoic, heroic performance, never resorting to the usual eyebrow raising, camera-winking we’ve come to know. Some of the dialog may be clunky and the situations unbelievable, but Johnson is literally the foundation (or the rock!) that the film stands on. Gugino gets to play damsel in distress and warrior mom when it comes to saving her daughter, but she’s also burdened with carrying most of the film’s emotional, domestic drama moments when alone with Johnson. Daddario, however, holds her own once she’s rescued from the car, becoming Ben and Ollie’s savior on more than one occasion. It’s nice to see a strong female character in a movie like this and for all of the film’s ridiculousness, the writers should be commended for putting a woman capable of taking care of herself in extreme circumstances on the screen.
Of course, we go to a movie like this for the spectacle, not the acting, dialog or positive portrayals of women. And spectacle we get, right from the start. San Andreas wastes no time in getting things started with the Nevada quake striking probably less than 15 minutes into the movie. The movie then just piles on with the Los Angeles and San Francisco quakes followed by a massive tsunami in the Bay area. Now, while I enjoy the amazing work of the talented special effects artists, I really had a hard time accepting the total destruction up on the screen. It seems like each quake goes from 0 to 9 on the Richter Scale in a millisecond. The moment the rumbling starts (and maybe it was just the theater I was in, but the rumbling from the auditorium next door was louder than what we heard in ours) everything crumbles. Everything! Hoover Dam behaves as if it were made out of graham crackers the way it disintegrates (it didn’t even crumble that quickly in the original Superman movie, and the dam in Earthquake took its time to crack and breach before falling apart). The same with the cities of LA and San Francisco. What exactly have they used to build all of these skyscrapers? Matchsticks? I know, it’s not a documentary, but the level of destruction is just way, WAY over the top. (And while I love some good 3D, I felt the process made some of the composition of live actors and SPFX look a bit too much like actors standing in front of a rear projection screen.)
The level of destruction is just way, WAY over the top. tweet
There is a review online from a seismologist pointing out all of the film’s scientific inaccuracies — like if the tectonic plates separated at the fault line there would be no earthquakes — but it’s a movie and it’s meant to entertain. Of course, there is that nagging question that as we focus on the Gaines family, what about the millions of others who are affected by this disaster? While we assume there is an enormous body count amid the destruction, the film avoids letting us see any of that and gives us probably one of the most cliched lines of dialog at the end (and a really cliched shot that we haven’t seen since 9/11 featuring a flag miraculously unfurling on what’s left of the Golden Gate Bridge) when Ray is asked what we do next. “We rebuild,” he says. It’s all more than a little eye-rolling, but we’re not here for a message, a lesson or anything else. We go to San Andreas to be wowed by the special effects and bravado, and on that count the movie more than does its job making it the “Feel Good Disaster Movie of the Year.”
And we get an amazing cover of “California Dreamin'” by Sia over the end credits that is worth sitting through!