When attempting to make a successful disaster movie, certain things are expected: up to the special effects, a massive budget to pay for them, and the choicest of landmarks to obliterate with both. It’s so implicitly understood by audiences that the excitement is often derived only in celebrity casting.
But occasionally, some destruction porn will come along that actually aims to entertain (as opposed to nauseate) with its dopey knowingness. And if nothing else, this weekend’s San Andreas has entertainment value in muddy cascades for every time Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson raises an eyebrow—and for good reason. He’s as incredulous as we are that an earthquake has stepped into his trashy blockbuster ring. Poor, poor Mother Nature hopelessly imagined this was a fair fight?
Hardly reinventing the wheel, San Andreas realizes an eternal truth about its genre’s 1970s roots: the more absurd the cityscape demolitions, and the more broadly sketched the onscreen caricatures, the better the mass annihilation goes down with our popcorn. And to be sure, San Andreas is amusingly broad: like the length of its namesake fault line.
Beginning with a questionable action sequence about a day in the life of a fire and rescue helicopter pilot (and the texting-and-driving teens they save), San Andreas quickly rights itself as the story of a dad, his adult daughter, an estranged wife, and the slice of ham they all likely share at family dinners. Papa Ray (Johnson), the aforementioned helicopter pilot, is six and a half feet of stoic, badass masculinity. Indeed, he’s the perfect head of his perfect nuclear family until a personal tragedy put him and dear wife Emma (Carla Gugino) on a break.
During their time apart, Emma has moved in with Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd), the kind of smugly successful businessman you just smile at knowing won’t make it to the film’s third act. Finally, there’s Blake (Alexandra Daddario), their beloved daughter who is headed to her first year of college in San Francisco….unfortunately her first day by the Golden Gate is also the same as when a 9.6 earthquake rocks the state from Frisco to Beverly Hills.
Exactly what a disaster movie starring Dwayne Johnson promises, San Andreas uses the narrative framework of a lovable family on the outs as an excuse for the mayhem that comes quickly and relentlessly by the picture’s 30-minute mark. Still generally just a narrative alibi for the earthquake spectacle to come, the inclusion of this divorce subplot and the eventual family reconciliation also plays as an amusingly goofy justification to not mind that we’re also witnessing hundreds of thousands of people crushed, drowned, or otherwise devastated by California’s fabled “Big One.” With the thematic through-line of a Walt Disney movie, San Andreas essentially turns the disaster formula into a celebration of family.
In short, the movie makes us feel good about the widespread devastation since it brings these three people closer together. And that small distinction—really the thin line between Irwin Allen’s camp 1970s disaster classics (which always lived a hair’s breadth away from self-parody) and Roland Emmerich’s more dour snoozefests in the late ‘90s and 2000s—makes a world of difference. San Andreas even shamelessly steals the set-up from Emmerich’s dull The Day After Tomorrow with the dad on a quest to save a child in another city. But since Gugino’s mama is also coming along for the helicopter ride in San Andreas (as opposed to sitting at home grieving), and daughter Blake has also met a cute British boy and his little brother (Hugo Johnstone-Burt and Art Parkinson) to bring home to the parents, this is nothing more than a wacky family adventure.
Thus forgiven by the film for cheering on the disaster, we can sit back and enjoy the encore of civic carnage.
And that is where director Brad Peyton and his special effects team really shines. Despite having a relatively modest $100 million to play around with, the variety of set-pieces they come up with for the two-hour running time actually impresses. Mostly the right kind of cheese (other than that aforementioned moldy prologue rescue), Peyton’s team saves all their firepower to destroy the Hoover Dam, the Los Angeles skyline, and then just about every nook and cranny of the Bay City. Indeed, the earthquake hits San Francisco with the kind of wrath that televangelists dare only dream of. Streets collapse, fires consume tourist attractions, and (best of all) a tsunami that Johnson and Gugino must drive a speedboat over crests on the Golden Gate Bridge.
While most of the film has the flatness and banal lighting of television, there’s some tender love and care spared for how that water rushes into even the highest floors of the city’s skyscrapers.
Of course, the trade off for this gleeful, childlike nihilism is that Paul Giamatti is sparsely integrated into the film as a Caltech scientist who saw it coming but we didn’t listen. Easily the best actor in the movie, Giamatti adds a sprinkling of gravitas when he says (in so many words) that after today, there isn’t going to be a San Francisco. However, the aforementioned zippiness of the drama trades off any sense of genuine despair or fear, and Giamatti’s sequences ultimately amount to a wonderful promotional video for the Caltech faculty and student body.
The rest of the cast is asked to do much when it comes to diving into back lot studio pools or run from fires and falling debris, but at the end of the day, do not expect any great insights into Ray, Emma, or Blake. In Johnson’s first scene, he jumps out of a moving helicopter, and Daddario spends her introduction in a poolside bikini—and that’s all you really need to know about these characters.
In the end, San Andreas is a lot like the film’s tsunami. It’s big, loud, and washes right over you. Intermittingly, the film plods (generally when Johnson is not on screen), and you’ll be shaking off any memory of it by the time you reach the parking lot. But if you must see yet another movie where California gets rolled, at least Johnson is on hand to keep it rock solid in its inanity.