Mark Reviews Movies

San Andreas


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Brad Peyton

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson, Paul Giamatti, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, Will Yun Lee, Kylie Minogue

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense disaster action and mayhem throughout, and brief strong language)

Running Time: 1:54

Release Date: 5/29/15

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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 28, 2015

San Andreas gives us what we expect. The earth trembles and shakes in between quiet moments of characters planning an escape from the next massive tremor. There are dire warnings. There are daring rescues. Buildings collapse. Things explode. People are crushed by falling debris or fall through voids where something solid used to be. By the end, most of San Francisco is leveled and, for good measure, flooded, because, if it's not one thing in a disaster movie, it's another.

It would be unfair to the many talented people who created the special effects for the movie to say that such mayhem is easy, but with that caveat in mind, let's just admit to it anyway: Such mayhem is easy. That's not to undermine the hours, days, or weeks that computer artists spent working to animate every pixel of every shattering window on every building in a major metropolis as it crumbles toward the quaking earth. Their work here is impressive. It's just to say that, in the broader context of storytelling, the sight of a city falling apart makes for easy drama. It's the folly of human endeavor—that we build toward the sky while the earth has other plans. We try to defy the laws of nature, but nature is cruel and uncaring in its role as judge, jury, and the other guy.

Even though such imagery comes preloaded with these implications, they aren't even of secondary concern to this movie. Its primary goal is the spectacle of mass destruction. It takes up a lot of space on the short list of what the movie wants to do. As a result, somewhere way down on that list is the secondary point of providing us with characters to be affected by the devastation. That might be part of the reason that the near-constant barrage of images of violent, natural ruin starts to feel routine around the second time that our hero narrowly pilots his helicopter out of the way of a collapsing skyscraper.

Our hero is Ray (Dwayne Johnson), a veteran helicopter pilot who has a record of 300 confirmed rescues during his tours of duty in Afghanistan and his tenure with the Los Angeles Fire Department. We see him at work rescuing a young woman whose car is knocked off the side of a mountain after a landslide. He brings the helicopter through a narrow crevasse and single-handedly makes a last-second save.

Meanwhile, Ray's family life is a shambles. He receives divorce papers from his wife Emma (Carla Gugino), who is moving in with her new boyfriend Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd), the CEO of a major architecture firm. Ray's daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) is going back to college, but his plan to drive her there is cancelled when an earthquake hits Nevada.

Now we come to the more practical rationale for why the movie's destruction becomes underwhelming. It's pragmatic to lower one's expectations for what kind of characters we'll get in a disaster movie, so it's little surprise that the family melodrama and an unresolved trauma (Ray and Emma's other daughter drowned during a rafting trip) are the extent of the human elements to this story (The way it exploits that traumatic event during the climax is transparently manipulative). What is surprising is how screenwriter Carlton Cuse and director Brad Peyton offer what turns out to be the movie's most dynamic setpiece at the beginning of the disaster cycle.

Here's the setup: A seismologist (Paul Giamatti) and his team believe they have discovered a way to accurately predict earthquakes. He and an obviously doomed assistant travel to the Hoover Dam to test the theory. It turns out to be correct, and suddenly, the scientists are trying to evacuate the dam as it collapses under their feet in a dreadful explosion and collision of concrete and gushing water.

In the aftermath, we think this sequence is going to be tough for the movie to top, and that suspicion turns out to be correct. The scale of the rest of the movie's destruction is obviously bigger as an entire city and, as it turns out, region of California is threatened by a series of increasingly severe earthquakes (Giamatti's role is reduced to solemnly noting Richter scale measurements in between pointing out how no one cares about preparing for earthquakes until one is happening). Ray tries to save his family, as Blake teams up with a pair of vacationing British brothers (Hugo Johnstone-Burt and Art Parkinson).

Something is lost in the larger-scale destruction. It's not necessarily intimacy, since the main characters are too broadly defined for sympathy and the anonymous victims are just there to suffer death by sudden explosion, holes, or, most frequently, falling rubble. We can follow the progression of the Hoover Dam's downfall, and that sequence works because of its immediacy. The widespread ruin seems to exist for its own sake. There's a sense that what happens is only happening because it looks intimidating. It never feels that way, though. It's repetitive, although a scene in which a pair of characters in a boat tries to outrace a cresting tsunami is an amusing shift.

San Andreas fulfills its promise of providing massive quantities of disaster. Ultimately, though, we're left wondering if that alone is a promise worth keeping.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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