Scott F. Evans
If there’s a worse big budget movie this summer than San Andreas, I’d be surprised. It’s a disaster movie, and in the grand tradition of disaster movies, one must temper their expectations.
I get it.
But Titanic was essentially a disaster film and it was able to craft a story and compelling characters around that historical event. Even as problematic as Roland Emmerich’s 2012 and Day After Tomorrow were, they work on a level beyond CG destruction porn. San Andreas puts the absolute minimum effort into story and character and tries to coast on its lead’s charisma while distracting you with digital carnage.
To be fair, the FX work is fine. It’s mostly seamless and works hard to dazzle you. But we’ve seen it all before. Buildings collapsing. Explosions. Massive tidal waves. Everything San Andreas has to offer is hilariously derivative. And that would all be fine if we actually cared about the characters. We don’t.
Directed by Brad Peyton and written by Carlton Cuse, San Andreas wants you to care. It wants you to get emotionally invested in the Gaines family as they struggle to survive the massive earthquake that destroys much of the west coast. Unfortunately, it also wants you to ignore the other hundreds of thousands of people affected by the disaster because the Gaines family certainly does. In and of itself, maybe that’s not that big a deal. Films focused solely on a small, core cast can work fine. But San Andreas makes the mistake of making its lead a first responder. Ray Gaines, played by Dwayne Johnson, is a Los Angeles Fire Department helicopter-rescue pilot. So fittingly, you would think that the script would craft scene after scene of Gaines and his team heroically flying around pulling off daring, last minute rescues of victims all over the greater Los Angeles area. Nope. When the initial quake strikes, Gaines detours off to downtown to save his estranged wife (just his wife) from a crumbling high rise and the two of them immediately fly hundreds of miles away to San Francisco to save their daughter (just their daughter). And they do this with an essential piece of rescue equipment right in the middle of a major catastrophe. These are the people that Peyton and Cuse want you to sympathize with.
The cast all put in decent work even though the film seems determined to mute Johnson’s natural charisma. Johnson’s fine here as the Gaines patriarch. But he’s drained of his charm, so the role is painfully generic. Carla Gugino co-stars as his wife Emma. She’s solid, but doesn’t have much more to do beyond simply look scared or determined. Alexandra Daddario plays their daughter Blake. She’s good, but distracting, because she looks nothing like either parent. Hugo Johnstone-Burt, as Blake’s love interest Ben Taylor, and Art Parkinson as little brother Ollie are both likable enough in a pair of thankless roles.
There’s also a secondary story that features Paul Giamatti as Caltech seismologist Lawrence Hayes. He and his team of students, along with a journalist and cameraman, basically provide San Andreas with exposition and techno-babble. As none of these characters ever interact with the core cast and are never in any real danger, these scenes feel tacked on (like they were just added to give the film some scientific credibility). We don’t care and it doesn’t work.
Ioan Gruffudd plays Daniel Riddick, Emma’s millionaire real estate mogul boyfriend. I’m singling him out to further illustrate San Andreas’ poor writing. Cuse’s script introduces him as a likable character and seems to be actively avoiding the clichéd asshole boyfriend archetype. He actually gets a couple of scenes that manage to give him a bit of depth. But as soon as the quake hits, he quickly turns into a sniveling homicidal coward. It’s a turn that’s so unearned and artificial, it feels like the result of a rewrite after the filmmakers realized that San Andreas had no real villain… because a 9.1 earthquake is somehow insufficient.
Disaster films as a genre can be traced back to the early 1970’s. Filmmakers of that era gathered all-star casts and subjected them to harrowing natural events. Were they any good? Well, that’s subjective. I enjoyed most of them despite the many flaws, but the one thing they all did fairly well was create sympathetic characters. You wept when your favorite old star died and cheered when your other favorite old star triumphed. The Towering Inferno, Earthquake, The Poseidon Adventure and the rest of those old films included heart amongst the chaos. Even Emmerich’s modern iterations took the time to create relatively sympathetic characters. San Andreas does none of that. It pretends to try. The Gaines’ lost a younger daughter in a boating accident and this is supposed to serve as the motivation behind Ray and Emma’s near comical single-minded focus of saving the surviving daughter. This is acceptable (if rudimentary) writing, but you probably shouldn’t make your lead a first responder.
So basically, San Andreas is a film where the hero doesn’t save anyone, California sustains enough damage to bankrupt the entire country, hundreds of thousands of people die, and no one really bats an eye. But Peyton does include the obligatory flag unfurling at the end because… AMERICA.