Remember when disaster movies were really in vogue during the 90’s? This was when filmmakers were just starting to be able to take advantage of CGI in movies, and this resulted in a bit of an audience gold rush, with people simply eager to see the new age of special effects that was about to unfold on the big screen. The best way to show off these effects? Mass, widespread destruction, of course! In this same decade, we got dubious disaster flicks like Twister, Independence Day, the 1998 Godzilla movie, Volcano, Deep Impact, Dante’s Peak, Armageddon, Hard Rain, and of course, one of the top-grossing movies of all time, Titanic, among many others.
It seems ironic now, given how much avid moviegoers like to complain about excessive CGI in movies these days, but the reality is, this issue is far less prevalent now, compared to when CGI was first pioneered. Sure enough, many of these once-beloved disaster flicks have also aged pretty badly too. They’re not even about actual characters after all. They’re about special effects. That’s why they don’t hold up in the long term, because effects date, and this leaves disaster movies feeling like inherent B-movies that you were never supposed to take seriously. Unfortunately, this also often means that their lack of emphasis on characters involves checking off every tired disaster movie cliche in the book, over, and over, and over, and over, again.
Amazingly though, out of all of the high-profile disaster flicks that came out in the 90’s, one particular commonplace natural disaster, earthquakes, was somehow absent as a focal point. Well, for what it’s worth, we have a new Dwayne Johnson vehicle, San Andreas, coming to us now from Warner Bros., in 3D no less. It’s about a big-ass earthquake… And not much else.
On the one hand, San Andreas is reasonable dumb fun, if you don’t take it seriously. On the other though, San Andreas, despite its well-realized special effects and destruction, and the always-welcome presence of Dwayne Johnson in a lead role, feels tired, and almost two decades late to the party. It’s an interesting throwback to the age of the disaster flick, but it’s yet another disaster movie blockbuster that makes everything about the effects, and aims surprisingly low with its narrative, yet again checking off every cliche in the disaster movie playbook, and leaving its wooden, tedious personalities without a leg to stand on.
If you just want to watch California get seriously messed up, then San Andreas accomplishes that. It doesn’t accomplish much else though, sadly.
Dwayne Johnson leads proceedings as our hero, Ray, a rescue chopper pilot. Already, the cliches start rolling in. Ray is getting divorced. Check. His ex-wife is now dating a douche. Check. His kid loves him anyway. Check. Ray will become an unlikely survivor and hero over the course of the movie not just to strangers, but to his own family that he redeems himself to, after suffering a family tragedy that initially made him distant. Checkity-check-check!
In fairness, at least the movie tries to make Carla Gugino’s ex-wife, Emma a more sympathetic character. She doesn’t hate Ray, and in most cases, she’s actually pretty amicable toward him. This helps to explain why Emma suddenly rediscovers her love for Ray later on (this isn’t a spoiler, because almost every disaster movie seems to feature this in some form), even if it begs the question of why exactly she initially saw fit to divorce him, and then run off with some other guy who is clearly a dick.
Said dick is Daniel, played by Ioan Gruffudd. He’s yet another cliched character, who mostly serves as the cockroach that just won’t die. Initially, Daniel is also portrayed to be a little more outwardly agreeable, though the earthquake quickly starts to bring out the worst in him.
Likewise, the best is brought out in Ray’s daughter, Blake, played by Alexandra Daddario, who also gets saddled with the hilariously contrived love interest, and even his little brother. Said double act is Ollie and Ben, two British tourists who obviously picked the wrong time to start wandering San Francisco. These characters literally have no definable personalities whatsoever, ranging from independent and strong to helpless and scared to charming to self-serving to… Almost anything that the script may demand simply to keep the wafer-thin plot afloat. It’s small wonder then that these three turn in some of the movie’s worst performances, in a movie that’s already packed with disinterested, lousy performances.
Even worse off than these cardboard young adult and child characters however is Paul Giamatti, playing yet another walking cliche for the disaster movie as Lawrence, the scientist that nobody listened to… Or so the movie claims. That’s not well-established in the slightest. Anyhow, Lawrence’s character arc is so laughably impotent. The movie tries so hard to make him a tragic, misunderstood genius, but it spectacularly fails to make Giamatti anything more than a non-presence. Even when he’s supposed to have a big heroic turn in his big warning to California about the San Andreas fault, it doesn’t even affect the story at all. Why is this character here?! He literally serves no other purpose than to keep checking off the disaster movie cliche checklist.
Even though San Andreas attempts to be an ensemble movie, one should make no mistake; This is a Dwayne Johnson vehicle, through and through. Johnson’s charisma is the only thing keeping the entire cast from completely failing to resonate, and even Johnson only has so much to work with in this barely-existent storyline. Johnson is given his best material when he’s simply allowed to have fun and let loose as an action man, and when San Andreas operates under the delusion that it’s anything other than a dumb disaster flick, that’s when its characters suffer the most.
That’s relative however, seeing as this movie barely has discernable character arcs to begin with, when it so often settles for convenient script events and nothing else. Given the movie’s annoyingly consistent lack of personality, and startling lack of self-awareness at times, not a single person in San Andreas ends up feeling all that memorable.
San Andreas tries to convince you that it’s about the redemption of a failing marriage, or the move past a family’s grief, or whatever else… But it’s not about any of that. It’s about a big-ass earthquake in California. That’s the entire plot.
Indeed, San Andreas has the kind of script that feels like it could be scribbled out on a cocktail napkin. It feels like it’s simply existing to fill in the void of a surprising lack of a big earthquake movie from the 90’s… Two decades too late. San Andreas’ barely-existent storyline does absolutely nothing to separate itself from other disaster movies. Worse still is that the movie’s story takes itself far too seriously in too many instances. This could have been a cool, self-aware throwback to 90’s disaster flicks, which are now often looked at with cheeky mockery, but instead, San Andreas makes the woeful mistake of playing everything straight.
That’s not to say that the story is completely un-entertaining. There are some cool moments, usually courtesy of Dwayne Johnson, and the story at least starts off effectively with a cool, albeit largely pointless cliffside rescue sequence, again, courtesy of Dwayne Johnson. From there though, San Andreas becomes a mess of half-baked disaster melodrama cliches, which are only mercifully interrupted by widespread sequences of wanton destruction.
Like so many dumb disaster flicks before it, San Andreas’ ‘plot’ is at its best when it simply sticks to its strengths, and shows off its vengeful hand of carnage. It fumbles everything else, meaning that it pretty much ends up like almost any other high-profile disaster flick in Hollywood history.
Director, Brad Peyton reunites with Dwayne Johnson for San Andreas, after he directed Johnson in family-friendly adventure movie, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. Peyton’s only other major film credit is Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore. Yikes… That’s not the best thing to have on your resume.
Still, to Peyton’s credit, even though his feature film experience was formerly limited to dopey family flicks, he doesn’t do bad a job with the more dramatic PG-13 exploits of San Andreas. Sure, Peyton isn’t able to wring anything interesting from the wooden, disinterested performances that inevitably come from the wooden, uninteresting script, but he does have a decent hand for framing disaster movie mayhem.
San Andreas’ framing and pacing is pretty relentless. The centerpieces of the movie’s destructive edge are actually filmed with remarkable, blood-pumping excitement. The collapsing of the terrain and raining of deadly chunks of earth is actually very nicely unpredictable and intense. In the 3D cut of the movie especially, people truly will feel like they’re sucked into the earthquake, making San Andreas effectively immersive, even if it still doesn’t have a brain in its head.
Despite the movie’s myriad narrative issues, San Andreas at least feels polished and well-directed, at least in terms of the presentation, so it certainly could be worse.
Andrew Lockington composes the score of San Andreas, reuniting with director, Brad Peyton after also composing the music for Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. Unfortunately though, there isn’t much to say about Lockington’s score. It’s a pretty by-the-numbers disaster movie soundtrack, which doesn’t really stand out in any way. Serving up phoned-in Hollywood orchestra, the music of San Andreas doesn’t seem to care any more than most of the actors do.
The rest of the audio fares better at least. San Andreas benefits a lot from being viewed on the big screen, where audiences can really appreciate the true wrath and fury of the earthquake. Feeling the powerful rupturing of the earth, collapsing of buildings and snapping of wires is something that contributes immensely to the destructive immersion, with the sound work coming together very effectively to produce a disaster movie that certainly brings the pain to California.
Like any disaster blockbuster worth its salt, San Andreas helps to compensate for its bland story and characters by at least having a huge helping of high-quality special effects. The realization of the earthquake feels harrowing and impressive, with massive wide shots doing a great job of showcasing exactly how powerful the earthquake is.
It’s up close however when you’ll really appreciate how much effort has gone into the movie’s visuals. The sparing use of CGI is pretty commendable in a lot of places, and even when CGI is used, it’s used to incredible effect. Otherwise, director, Brad Peyton is impressively committed to what appears to be lots of handmade stunts and real sets, which contributes to the movie’s all-important earthquake feeling very destructive and chillingly real, particularly with the increased commitment of San Andreas to following actual scientific evidence… Even if there’s still a good handful of scenes that actively spit in the face of science, but, whatever. That’s par for the course with these kinds of movies.
San Andreas is also available in 3D, and I did see the movie in that format. The 3D cut is pretty good for the most part as well. It heightens the immersion nicely, and makes the volatile earth-shaking and destruction appear to buckle and blast around the audience, which feels awesome to see! With that said however, the 3D cut also features a lot of awkward camera-swinging and blurred shooting, which seems strange, since you’d think Brad Peyton has already demonstrated an aptitude for 3D filmmaking with Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. It’s not too big of a deal for most 3D movie enthusiasts, but if you’re suspectible to motion sickness, you might want to steer clear of the 3D cut of San Andreas, and just watch it in 2D, where it’s no less of a visual marvel.
Either way though, San Andreas will certainly give effects enthusiasts what they want. The earthquake itself definitely doesn’t disappoint, both from a distance and up close, and the movie achieves a very strong sense of scale in its presentation, even when its writing leaves a lot to be desired.
San Andreas tries to make the disaster flick genre feel more grounded and modern, but in the process, it also kind of sucks the fun out of itself. Say what you will about the rampant stupidity in 90’s disaster flicks, but at least movies like Independence Day and Dante’s Peak and such, are entertaining in all of their vapidness. San Andreas however feels like it has some sort of superiority complex, which is very ill-advised, since it still completely fails to inject any real degree of personality into its character writing and performances, and any sense of creativity into its tired, heavily cliched storyline.
Still, even if its writing and acting are a real bust, with only Dwayne Johnson able to occasionally give the movie a shot in the arm, San Andreas still succeeds as a visual piece. Its effects and destruction are excellent, and its direction in both the action scenes and general chaos is actually quite good for the most part. The polish is certainly there, even if the depth isn’t.
So, if you’re seeing the earthquake movie for the earthquake, then San Andreas is decent, brainless fun. Even Dwayne Johnson fans might be let down by how little there is of anything else though. That’s before one considers the rest of the movie’s surprisingly great cast, with Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Ioan Gruffudd, and especially Paul Giamatti, all feeling wasted, and likely slumming it for a paycheque. This is especially evident when you frequently see how bored most of them are, even if Giamatti is at least trying to have fun with his thankless part, and Johnson at least appears to be giving it his all, despite the lousy script he’s been saddled with.
Still, the fact remains that San Andreas amounts to being a typical disaster movie, for better or for worse. It’s acceptable, albeit disposable blockbuster entertainment, though more high-profile and ambitious upcoming blockbusters of this Summer are bound to quickly bury it, namely the likes of Jurassic World, Terminator: Genisys and Ant-Man to come, which will all challenge the scale that it’s entirely leaning on. Even now, the impressive Avengers: Age of Ultron, stellar Mad Max: Fury Road, and even the more imaginative, well-intentioned Tomorrowland that are already in theatres, are noticeably superior to San Andreas. Hell, Avengers: Age of Ultron even feels like a better and far more entertaining disaster movie for the most part!
Still, if it’s a big-ass earthquake you want, it’s a big-ass earthquake you’ll get… Though hopefully, you aren’t holding out for anything else.
- Dwayne Johnson can be fun
- Well-directed action and destruction
- Earthquake effects are great, and not too dependent on CGI
- Wasted cast, full of listless performances
- Aggressively cliched, dull and brainless storyline
- Takes itself way too seriously