By Michael Arruda
SAN ANDREAS has more faults than— well, you know.
Yep, SAN ANDREAS is a new disaster film about a powerful earthquake that erupts along the San Andreas Fault— get that opening joke now?— and rocks California, specifically San Francisco. It has more in common with recent disaster movies like THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW (2004) and 2012 (2009) than with the disaster pics from the 1970s, like EARTHQUAKE (1974). Of course, the truth is most of these movies were not very good, as the scripts were often pretty bad, as was the case with EARTHQUAKE. To that end, SAN ANDREAS fits right in.
In SAN ANDREAS, Lawrence (Paul Giamatti) is a scientist who has discovered a way to predict earthquakes. Unfortunately for him, the largest earthquake ever recorded decides to occur on the same day he makes this discovery, and so while he scrambles to get the word out, it’s not exactly, “hey, there’s going to be an earthquake next week.” It’s more like “There’s going to be an earthquake in the next 60 seconds. RUN!!!!!!”
Meanwhile, Ray (Dwayne Johnson) is a firefighter/rescue worker/helicopter pilot in Los Angeles who leads a crack team of rescuers who perform amazing feats of bravery. The film opens with one of these feats, as Ray and his team rescue a young woman whose car zipped off the road and is hanging precariously from a cliff. Of course, this young woman is seen texting while driving and paying no attention whatsoever to the road, and so I was actually hoping that Ray’s rescue would fail. But alas, it’s Dwayne Johnson, he’s the hero, and he saves the girl. What a surprise.
While Ray’s career is thriving, his home life is not. His wife Emma (Carla Gugino) is divorcing him, leaving him for an ultra-rich new boyfriend Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffud). Ray does enjoy a good relationship with his twenty-something daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario), but his scars run deep as his other daughter drowned years earlier, and Ray was unable to save her, a fact that has haunted him since and strained his marriage to Emma.
Once the earthquake hits, Blake finds herself amidst the rubble in San Francisco, and Ray decides to fly his chopper from L.A. to San Francisco to rescue his daughter, and of course, his estranged wife Emma joins him as well. The rest of the film follows their efforts to save Blake. So, if you’re interested in what happens to the rest of the folks in San Francisco, you’ve come to the wrong movie, since SAN ANDREAS isn’t interested in anyone else but Ray and his family. It’s as if they’re the only victims of the earthquake.
That’s my first problem with SAN ANDREAS. By focusing only on Ray and his family, the film loses any grand scope it may have had, and it simply doesn’t work as a disaster movie. It’s about a massive earthquake, the biggest ever recorded, and yet we never see the results of this destruction. Oh, thanks to the CGI special effects, we do see buildings collapsing, a humongous Tsunami crashing through San Francisco, and the destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge, but we don’t feel the extent of the destruction because there’s one key element missing: the human element. We don’t have any other characters to follow in this movie. It’s about Ray and his family and that’s pretty much it.
For this kind of story to work, these main characters need to be compelling and interesting in order to hold our attention throughout the movie, but they are neither. Instead, they are dull and boring.
The film does give us a few scenes with Paul Giamatti’s character, but he’s away from the action, and he’s even more boring than Ray’s family.
In the opening sequence, we meet Ray and his rescue team. I thought perhaps this film would be about this team doing their thing to rescue folks during the earthquake. Not so. Once the earthquake happens, and Ray learns that his daughter is in danger, he basically highjacks the helicopter and decides on his own without checking with anyone in authority that he’s flying to San Francisco. Nice going, buddy. What about the people in Los Angeles who need rescuing?
The characters here are cliché and dull. I like Dwayne Johnson a lot, but this role is about as cliché as you can get. Ray is a good guy, don’t get me wrong, a guy who doesn’t deserve to have his wife leave him, and in this movie, because he’s such a nice guy, his wife won’t leave him. Instead, she joins him in the helicopter and together they set out to rescue their daughter in yet another unrealistic story where the estranged couple realizes they shouldn’t have separated, and everything’s better if they stick together. Ugh. I enjoyed Johnson much, much more in last year’s HERCULES (2014).
Carla Gugino is OK as Ray’s wife Emma, even though I found the character terribly annoying. Alexandra Daddario is also just okay as their daughter Blake. Neither character was all that interesting.
Blake is befriended and rescued by a young British man Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his little brother Ollie (Art Parkinson), two characters and performances that are also average.
Paul Giamatti’s scientist character is hopelessly boring, and Giamatti overacts to compensate, and Ioan Gruffod’s rich boyfriend Daniel is probably the most clichéd of all the characters. The wealthy “other man” who conveniently turns out to be a wimp and a weasel, making it oh-so-easy for wifey Emma to go back to her hero hubby Ray. Gag.
The worst culprit though in what makes SAN ANDREAS a bad movie is the screenplay by Carlton Cuse, a man with some decent writing credits, as he’s written episodes for the TV series LOST and BATES MOTEL. Here, the story is way too limited, focusing only on Ray and his family. Without other characters, and more importantly, other casualties, the earthquake never seems as deadly as it’s supposed to be.
The dialogue is flat out awful and so sappy you’ll cringe. When Ray speaks to Blake on the phone and tells her he’s on his way to rescue her, and she hears her mother’s voice in the background, she asks, “Dad? How is it that you and mom are together?” Which of course prompts Ray and Emma to gaze warmly into each other’s eyes.
While the film is slick and polished, and there are special effects galore, director Brad Peyton doesn’t really craft any scenes that are dramatically chilling or awe inspiring. The closest he comes to pulling this off is the tsunami scene, where the great wave crashes down on San Francisco, but even this could have been more frightening and spectacular.
The whole film just lacks that sense of awe-inspiring dread. Part of the problem is I thought the special effects looked rather cartoonish. Now, I admit, I saw this film in 2D, and it is available in 3D and IMAX prints. Perhaps those look better. It was all rather average looking in 2D.
SAN ANDREAS is a weak entry in the disaster movie canon. It lacks scope and vision, its earthquake isn’t depicted as anything earth shattering (heh heh), and its characters are cliché and dull. What could have been a rousing film adventure, a story about humanity trying to survive a horrible disaster, is reduced to a predictable plot, a tale of one family’s will to stay together, amidst a powerful earthquake.
How the rest of the west coast fares is anyone’s guess.