A film review by Craig J. Koban June 5, 2015


2015, PG-13, 114 mins.


Dwayne Johnson as Ray  /  Alexandra Daddario as Blake  /  Carla Gugino as Emma  /  Ioan Gruffudd as Daniel Riddick  /  Archie Panjabi as Serena  /  Paul Giamatti as Lawrence  /  Kylie Minogue as Beth Riddick  /  Will Yun Lee as Dr Kim Park

Directed by Brad Peyton  /  Written by by Carlton Cuse




SAN ANDREAS is the kind of disaster film that AIRPLANE mocked with remarkable glee 35 years ago.  

That’s not a ringing endorsement of SAN ANDREAS' quality.  

Hollywood disaster films are hardly anything new, especially ones involving gigantic earthquakes swallowing up Californian whole (see 1974’s Charlton Heston schlockfest EARTHQUAKE).  What is new, though, is the unlimited scale and scope of these films, and SAN ANDREAS just may be the finest looking genre film of its kind ever conceived.  There’s no denying that cutting edge and costly visual effects were employed here and no expense was spared to make the natural disasters in SAN ANDREAS feel eerily real.  The problem, alas, with the film is that it contains million-dollar eye candy with one cent plotting and character dynamics, which makes the film increasingly hard to endure as its story progresses. 

I like films that lean heavily of pure spectacle and terror.  I really do.  I also appreciate the level of visual effects artistry that goes into many of these types of films.  Yet, many past disaster genre pictures that I have relished in had a level of self-aware campiness; they never took themselves too seriously.  One of SAN ANDREAS’ main foibles is that amidst all of its building crumbling and tectonic plate shifting mayhem it truly forgets to have fun at its own expense.  The whole tone of the film awkwardly straddles between being overtly solemn and hysterically campy, never really finding a true and satisfying middle ground.  That, and SAN ANDREAS is filled with many decent actors (some Oscar nominated) that play characters so wooden, so cliché riddled, and so lacking in genuine interest that you have to pinch and remind yourself to give a damn about them.  More often than not, SAN ANDREAS feels like a near-two-hour VFX demo reel populated by characters that are essentially puppets to the film’s orgy of cataclysmic events.  



The cookie cutter plot (amazingly written by the typically assured Carlton Cuse of LOST fame) concerns multiple characters and multiple character arcs, the first being that of Ray Graines (the beefy beyond recognition Dwayne Johnson), a remarkably resourceful rescue pilot that has a sterling reputation for being able to get into hostile and dangerous areas with relative ease.  Unfortunately, and based on the sad and overused clichés of disaster films, he’s a proverbial good man that’s been dealt with personal past tragedy that still haunts him.  That, and he’s also facing divorce from his wife Emma (Carla Gugino) and struggles to find a way to maintain a relationship with his teenage daughter (Alexandra Daddario).  Hmmmm…I wonder if a natural disaster will hit the city, leaving Ray going on a one-man mission to save his family? 

Well…hold the phone!  A disaster does indeed strike, which is essentially predicted by Lawrence Hayes (a slumming it Paul Giamatti), an incredibly brilliant scientist that’s able to use fancy computer equipment and remarkable ingenuity to discover when earthquakes will hit.  His recent crop of data all but forecasts that the “Big One” is about to hit California, but only just before it actually happens.  He postulates that major earthquakes will hit northern and southern parts of the state, ones that will be so devastatingly powerful that the eastern US will be able to feel them.  Predictably, hell does indeed break loose, leaving Ray separated from his family and feeling personally responsible for using his resources to find them (while, I guess, completely neglecting his larger responsibilities as a rescue pilot, but never mind).  Even when Ray miraculously finds his wife, the two still desperately search for their stranded daughter that was abandoned by her SOB stepfather-to-be (Ioan Gruffudd), but she is thankfully befriended by two British tourists while looking for a safe haven.  Man, these Brits picked the wrong day to visit America. 

Okay, let me be fair: SAN ANDREAS, as mentioned, looks jaw-droppingly sensational.  We get to see obligatory landmarks like the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge (will the movies just leave this one alone already!) get demolished and reduced to cinders in completely authentic looking computer generated effects.  Hell, there’s even a bravura aerial shot of massive section of the L.A. landmass bobbing up and down like vast pendulum due to the incalculably large seismic activity.  Director Brad Peyton (whom previously made JOURNEY 2: THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND with Johnson) clearly knows his ways around crafting epically staged sequences combining practical elements with fake ones as good as any film I’ve seen lately.  When the Golden State cities get demolished to smithereens and are torn to shreds in SAN ANDREAS it all comes off as shockingly believable.  This film is a titanic achievement in visual effects ingenuity. 

Less credible, alas, are the characters and overall plot mechanizations here.  SAN ANDREAS is more or less filled with lame brained and lazily written character types and not flesh and blood personas that bare some modest dramatic weight.  Giamatti is thanklessly good at delivering scientific gobblegook dialogue and make it seem like Hayes is a genuine presence in the film, but the acclaimed actor deserves better than the paint-by-numbers scientist role he plays here.  Johnson, the film's main headliner, may not have range as an actor, but he certainly makes up for it in terms of screen presence and charisma, which all on ample display in SAN ANDREAS (even though – c'mon! – he seems far too insanely bulked out and chiseled to come off plausibly as an ordinary Joe/rescue pilot).  For as good as "The Rock" is in the film giving his all with what has been written for him on the page his character is saddled with preordained character arcs that you can see from a mile away, which has the negative effect of generating next to zero tension in the story.  

You just know that Ray and Emma will heal their marital differences aboard their aircraft as they search for their daughter.  You also just know that Gruffudd’s stepfather is predestined to be an unsympathetic a-hole that will be dispatched by the earthquake based solely on the necessities of the script and not on logic.  You also just know that the city of San Francisco – essentially destroyed – will have all-too-convenient paths delineated through the rubble for Ray and Emma to navigate through via motorboats to make it to their daughter.  You also just know that Ray’s daughter will be able to use survival skills learned from her father to stay alive when needed...that is until she’s about to die, leaving Ray required to unavoidably make a last ditch effort to save her life.  And you don't have to have the forecasting powers of the Hayes character to know whether or not the Grimes family will live happily ever after before the film's end credits roll by.

All of this leaves me to ask one simple (but frustratingly obvious) question: Why can’t Hollywood spend as much time on richly designed characters and a workable plot worthy of our interest for these types of films?  Really?  Why?  Few films beyond SAN ANDREAS have labored so hard to reach would-be emotional dramatic payoffs based on paper-thin plotting.  Even when the film concludes with an unintentionally hysterical shot of a perfectly descending American flag over some random wreckage I found myself less moved by the film's jingoistic spirit and more moved to rolling my eyes with complete incredulity.  There are no narrative or thematic surprises to be had in SAN ANDREAS.  The film is just an unrelenting engine designed to deliver destruction porn.  I think that I’ve just grown increasingly numb to these types of genre films.  Considering our post-9/11 climate and the fact that the recent news over the years has been punctuated by numerous accounts of natural disasters causing unfathomable destruction…are movies like SAN ANDREAS even…dare I say it…fun or entertaining anymore?  Hollywood spends an ungodly amount of money to make films like this showcasing people by the thousands dying.  I would rather see more weighty films about how people live.  

Now that would be novel. .

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