San Andreas is like an intimate family barbeque that suddenly breaks out the bottle rockets and boom boxes. Director Brad Peyton has a full suite of computer-generated fireworks to light off, but it’s just the same stale show that we get every year. Even the reliably-watchable Dwayne Johnson can’t save a script riddled with missteps and half-starts. Ultimately, San Andreas is less a disaster than a dud.
Long gone are the glory days of disaster films, when star-studded spectaculars made you wonder who would live and who would sink to the bottom of the sea. Now, disaster films are little more than special-effects extravaganzas anchored by one man’s drive for personal redemption. Even worse are the made-for-television monstrosities that are too busy winking at the camera to notice the cheesy action that surrounds them. Theatrical disasters are too earnest and television disasters are too silly; over-simplified formulas that get boring very quickly.
Predictably, San Andreas goes the earnest route, though there is plenty of unintentional silliness to be found, as well. The man seeking redemption is Chief Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson). As leader of the Los Angeles Fire Department’s rescue team, the fearless Ray is still haunted by the faces he couldn’t save. Years earlier, his youngest daughter drowned in a rafting accident, leaving Ray irrevocably damaged. His wife Emma (Carla Gugino) was forced to move on, taking their whip-smart daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) and moving in with a new beau (Ioan Gruffudd as ‘Daniel’). It’s one of those amicable Hollywood separations where everyone involved is just waiting for the inevitable reconciliation.
Tackling disaster from the opposite end is Lawrence (Paul Giamatti), a seismologist at Cal Tech who has developed a nebulous system for predicting earthquakes. It involves buried sensors and lots of computer graphics featuring ominous red dots. Mostly, he just makes grim pronouncements about the Earth’s crust snapping like a saltine and killing everybody. His model says that the San Andreas fault is about to pulverize LA and San Francisco, which means Ray and his rescue crew will get lots of practice in their super-cool rescue helicopter.
Only, that isn’t what happens at all. Instead of doing his damn job and rescuing people, Ray commandeers the state-of-the-art chopper to save his family. One might ask the point of having such a beefy rescuer if he never rescues anyone, but that would be unfair to Johnson, who does a surprisingly good job with the quieter dramatic moments. No, the fault lies strictly with director Brad Peyton and screenwriter Carlton Cuse, whose script takes one wrong turn after another.
After a promising opening sequence that features Ray and his crackerjack crew rescuing someone from a CGI chasm that makes the Grand Canyon look like a golf divot, we’re treated to a series of lackluster close calls and people running from shrapnel plumes. We’ve seen all of this before, obviously, and it’s painfully clear that Peyton has no intention of adding anything new to the mix. Perhaps San Andreas is unlucky to follow in the footsteps of an action masterpiece like Mad Max: Fury Road, but there’s still a serious lack of originality plaguing the production. If you’ve seen one imaginary building fall down you’ve seen them all.
We view the devastation by land, sea, and air, and it looks fuzzy and unconvincing from every angle. Oblivious to the fact that all modern and most old buildings are retro-fitted for earthquakes, Peyton and his effects crew delight in tumbling skyscrapers and shredding bridges. Since we only get to know Ray and his clan, however, we don’t care about any of the collateral damage. It’s all faceless, sanitized carnage that has no emotional bearing on anything. It’s all just a grandiose backdrop for Ray’s uninspiring melodrama, which begs the question, “Why destroy half of California for this?”
Structurally, there’s more amiss than just the collapsing skyscrapers. Cuse’s script has no idea how to mix exposition and action, so we get extended scenes of “character development” interspersed with listless CGI mayhem; like punctuating vanilla ice cream with a brain freeze. Worse still, in his desperation for a villain, Cuse demonizes one character, seemingly as an afterthought. The result is not only laughably bad, but incongruous with the rest of the story and executed to the least dramatic end. If a villain designs an indestructible building, he must be crushed by that building in the end. Everybody (except the screenwriter for San Andreas) knows this.
The one saving grace is that Peyton gets strong performances from his cast. Johnson has chiseled his massive body into the perfect action vehicle, but he also affords himself nicely in the drama department. He’s a compelling screen presence, even when the material fails him. You just want to cry for Giamatti, he brings all the sincerity and energy he can to his thankless ‘expert’ role, reminding you what a truly gifted actor he is. Alexandra Daddario also shines as the plucky heroine of the piece. She’s smart, resourceful, and unafraid to take charge over her male counterparts. Not even her exploitative attire, obviously tailored to highlight her ample… attributes… can diminish her capabilities. A smaller action/rescue film built around these three characters might have made for some compelling drama.
San Andreas tries to have its plastic-explosive cake and eat it, too, by using global catastrophe to backstop its intimated family drama. The result is a disjointed film that never builds toward anything substantial or exciting. You’re left with a prevailing sense of indifference. It’s not bad enough to be fun, or good enough to be interesting. Perhaps we should just put this little disaster behind us and move on.