From the introductory scenes of San Andreas I could already tell that it was going to be big and stupid. But I also hoped that it would be big and stupid popcorn excitement and fun. Call it mission half-accomplished.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is an LA Fire Department Air Rescue pilot unstoppable at rescuing people apart from himself, as he’s on the verge of divorce from his wife Emma, played by Carla Gugino. Emma’s moved on already with a mega wealthy property developer played by the original movie Mr Fantastic, Ioan Gruffuld, though fortunately for The Rock he’s still on good terms with his stunning daughter Blake, played by the stunning Alexandra Daddario.
Of course, a major disaster strikes the Bay Area and The Rock must do everything humanly possible (and let’s face it, inhumanly possible too) — including misappropriating government property for personal use at the time of a major disaster — to save his family. Cue epic action music!
The first thing I’ll say is that this movie is painfully predictable. It follows the archetypal disaster blockbuster template to a T. It’s as though director Brad Peyton (best known for, er, Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore) and screenwriter Carlton Cuse (showrunner and writer on the campy sci-fi TV series The Strain) were handed a list of standard disaster plot points and characters and had to tick them off one by one.
Consequently, if you’ve seen any disaster movie before, you’ll likely be able to guess in this movie what will happen next, which characters will live and which will die, and how the character relationships and conflicts will be resolved. It’s actually quite funny.
The second problem is that the film takes itself far too seriously. I was hopeful in the beginning because the introductory sequence had a somewhat tongue-in-cheek tone, though the remainder of the movie suffers from a serious dearth of laughs and had one too many cringeworthy “dramatic” heart-to-heart scenes. Unintentional humour aside, there are really no jokes or gags in the film. Were they trying to balance the tone since millions of people probably died? Whatever the reason, it saps a lot of fun out of the experience. I’ve always stuck with the philosophy that if a film’s going to be cheesy it might as well go all in.
The action sequences are indeed well-executed and occasionally heart-thumping. San Andreas clearly takes a page out of the Fast and Furious franchise in that everyone lives in a world where the laws of physics do not exist and humans are borderline indestructible — when the plot calls for it. They smash, they crash, they explode and get tossed all over the place, and most of the time they escape with nothing more than a scratch or two.
I later found out that the movie was shot primarily in Queensland, though it really could have been shot anywhere as it’s obvious the vast majority of action scenes were CGI. The effects were decent for a modern blockbuster, though there are times when it’s obvious we’re watching green-screen creations. There’s just something about the textures of the buildings and the landscape that doesn’t look quite realistic. There was also one shot of a photo where it was blatantly obvious that a young Daddario was photoshopped in.
Apart from the core cast, the lead supporting actor would have to be Paul Giamatti, who plays the scientist no one believes when he says the world is going to end. The weird thing is that, if we’re being honest here, he didn’t even have to be in the movie at all. I guess it was on the checklist. Aussie actor Hugo Johnstone-Burt also has a pretty big role as a Brit with a convincing accent, while Kyle Minogue (I was like WTF?! when she appeared) makes a jarring cameo to round out the local contingent cast.
The saving grace of San Andreas is The Rock, who has a magnetic charm and screen presence that instantly makes any movie more watchable. Surprisingly, he doesn’t get to do nearly as much as he has done — from a physical standpoint — in other recent action blockbusters he has been in, though just the fact that he’s on screen makes you feel like you’re in safe hands. Moreover, you’re never going to hear me complain whenever Alexandra Daddario is on screen.
Other positives include a welcome narrow focus — essentially just one family — which reduces the number of pointless characters, a manageable running-time of 114 minutes, and of course the spectacle of the whole thing. The sweeping catastrophe scenes aren’t jaw-dropping anymore because we’ve seen them so many times, but the visuals and execution are at least to be on par with other modern disaster flicks.
On the whole, San Andreas is a fairly typical disaster blockbuster in the vein of 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, Deep Impact, Into the Storm and so forth. It’s predictable, corny as hell, ridiculously unrealistic and fuelled by CGI special effects. The presence of The Rock elevates it above average, though it really could have been a lot better had they just lightened up a little and embraced the cheese.
3 stars out of 5