Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Paul Giamatti, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson, Kylie Minogue
Director: Brad Peyton
Rating: 2 stars
Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson) is a rescue pilot in the middle of a divorce from his wife (Carla Gugino) who seeks to maintain his warm relationship with his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario). Meanwhile, the scientist, Dr Lawrence (Paul Giamatti), comes up with a machine that can detect earthquakes. He eventually stumbles on a massive change in the plates of the San Andreas Fault which triggers the greatest earthquake in history. All of California is torn apart in apocalyptic disasters as the state splits apart from the North American mainland. Dr Lawrence tries his best to warn people while Ray Gaines sets out to rescue his family in San Francisco.
San Andreas is much the same as films like Dante’s Peak, Deep Impact, Volcano, The Poseidon Adventure and Earthquake. It’s got voodoo disguised as science and disaster that is prettified beyond all reason. After all, even an actress as lovely as Alexandra Daddario can’t remain so photogenic after moving and dodging through asphalt, glass shards and ash from falling buildings. Shots of buildings, rubble and broken steel would not look so clean and stately as they do here, if they weren’t mingled with bones and flesh as real disaster areas often are.
It has always been a cause of confusion for me that there is no really good disaster movie. By that I mean a movie that actually depicts disasters with the attention of visual detail and psychological conviction of a good war movie. The nearest that I can think of is Clint Eastwood’s underrated Hereafter and Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. The Hollywood disaster movie has never quite managed this since many of their disasters are closer to dark fantasies than anything recognisable.
Rather than an earthquake of 7.8 on the richter scale (the one that affected Nepal this year), we have several earthquakes one after the other in the 9.0 range. Rather than the still considerable loss of 8,000s plus, we have a death toll that kills millions of lives. Rather than the destruction of several Unesco heritage sites, we have complete redrawing of the map of the United States West Coast. The result is that these disasters, with their impossible melodramas, their privileging of a few main characters over the numberless and voiceless extras who reside in the buildings that shatter, never quite feel as real as even the most sensationalist news coverage on TV.
If San Andreas has redeeming moments it’s mainly thanks to the performances. Dwayne Johnson (famous for being the wrestling star The Rock) despite his unlikely origins has proven to be a good actor in action movies, with a gift for comic timing and in the case of San Andreas, he handles the dramatic scenes in an understated manner. Carla Gugino, playing a fairly weak role, does very well with the material she is given as do the other actors. Paul Giamatti is wasted and I would not be surprised to learn that a good chunk of his role was cut in the editing room; he is awkwardly placed in the main story. We also have an awkward cameo from Kylie Minogue that draws unnecessary attention to what turns out to be a very minor part.
Solidly forgettable as it is, San Andreas is not too long. For all its melodramatic flaws, it manages to avoid a few of the expected and dreaded clichés and the finale is satisfying. Thanks to the actors the film is not unwatchable and a few scenes work well, namely the suspenseful rescue of Blake from a trapped car and the later boat scene is one of the big “wow” moments that really work. Otherwise, this is a movie that is too trapped in the conventions of genre to effectively break free.
The writer is programmer, Lightcube Film Society