The majority of disaster movies are a lot like your favorite processed snack food — consuming too much of them may be bad for your health, but you consume them anyway because they’re just so darn enjoyable. And like any good comfort food, similar ingredients across all different types make them rich with delightful gratification. So it is with San Andreas, which doesn’t deviate at all from the tried-and-true, genre-specific formula that has made disaster movies of the past so successful. Let’s break it down point-for-point and see how it all shakes out.
An estranged family and/or separated married couple must work together for a similar goal that will more than likely rekindle their broken relationships.
The separated couple in question is Ray and Emma, reuniting Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino, respectively, after their flirtatious affair in the remake of Race To Witch Mountain, which sort of makes it feel as if those characters eventually got married, had a couple of kids and are now separated. Ray is an ex-military chopper rescue pilot who now works for the Los Angeles Fire and Rescue unit. I like how they humanized Ray right from the jump by clearly stating that he has saved hundreds of lives, but has done so under the shadow of the one life he wasn’t able to save — that of his younger daughter, the incident of which caused Ray and Emma to grow apart. He is so grief-stricken over her loss that he continues to save people in an effort to save himself from his anguish. Gugino, on the other hand, isn’t at the top of her game here, but she is able to add a bit of depth to an otherwise stock disaster heroines.
A new boyfriend/girlfriend that is the complete opposite of the main character’s other half will somehow cause more problems than they’re worth.
As Ray does what he does best to mourn his daughter, Emma has attempted to leave her grief in the past by getting engaged to Daniel (an underutilized Ioan Gruffudd), an architect who doesn’t have one ounce of bravery in his body. As Ray is risking his life to rescue everyone he cares for, Daniel does nothing but protect himself, which includes ditching Ray and Emma’s daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario), and throwing a stranger into harm’s way.
Someone is going back to school, transferring to another job, or is on a vacation so that our heroes must do everything in their power to find them after the disaster strikes.
Speaking of Blake, in perfectly executed disaster fashion, her plans to have Ray escort her back to school are thwarted when an earthquake hits a section of Nevada that destroys the Hoover Dam. It’s douchebag to the rescue as Daniel makes an attempt to bond with her by replacing her father and taking her to school on his private jet. The thing is, he has to land in San Francisco for a quick meeting, which ends up being the worst decision possible. Lucky for her, while she waits for her soon-to-be stepfather to finish his meeting, she just happens to sit next to Hottie McHotpants (aka, Ben, played remarkably well by Hugo Johnstone-Burt), whose socially awkward banter will eventiually be her saving grace when she’s left for dead in the aforementioned car.
A precocious kid or a dim-bulb stoner of a character will always get all the best lines.
Daddario and Johnstone-Burt are very adorable together, but it’s no match for the chemistry between Blake and Ben’s little brother, Ollie (Art Parkinson). Parkinson brings the movie to life in a way the other characters can’t quite muster. His quick wit and ability to capture the perfect reactions to what is going on around him make him the highlight of the film.
An off-the-wall scientist or crazy nut-job who knows the disaster is coming will be ignored until it’s too late.
Meanwhile, in a related, yet entirely disconnected story, Paul Giamatti plays Lawrence, a professor at Cal-Tech who just happens to be on the verge of finding a way to actually predict earthquakes when the San Andreas fault decides to finally end its relative slumber. Giamatti does a terrific job as the stressed-out scientist and has one of the better scenes in the film when he scrambles to seek out a student to hack into the television feeds so he can deliver his dire warning. But as far as the film goes, it seems as if he’s in a completely different disaster movie. For one, his character (and those he works with) has no relation to Ray and his family. Secondly, when he is able to deliver the news that San Francsico, though hit hard with the inital quake that rocked Los Angeles, is about to have a second, bigger quake, none of our main characters are aware of this news. Basically, if you were to excise this portion of the film, It would have all played out exactly the same, which is a big mistake on the part of screenwriter Carlton Cuse — if you’re going to have a character like this, they have to somehow connect to the rest of the main characters or else they end up absolutely worthless.
The plot, along with all of its manufactured coincidences, takes a backseat to the visual effects, which whether breathtaking or disastrous, are essential for optimum calamity.
I must admit, I was a bit frightened that the effects were going to be on the horrible side of the spectrum when, within the first ten minutes, we’re subjected to some of the worst effects this side of Sharknado as we watch a car tumble down the side of a mountain. The cleverness leading up to the fall is terrific — a young girl does everything in her power to cause a crash only for nothing to happen until the unexpected strikes. And when it does — cringe! Even the effects regarding the chopper rescue are a bit subject to ridicule. Suffice it to say, it did not bode well for the rest of the film… that is until the shaking started. I was relieved to know there was going to be some good stuff here, especially when we get to see the quake literally rolling across the land — absolutely mesmerizing.
Disasters immediately stop at the most convenient times.
Then again, I have to say I was a little disappointed in the amount of time (or lack thereof) devoted to the shaking. At the beginning of the film, Lawrence gives a lecture about how devastating earthquakes can be, preaching about the differences in magnitudes and how long the biggest quakes have lasted — including eleven minutes of fear-inducing shaking during a 9.5 earthquake. That doesn’t happen with the quakes that our heroes encounter. Despite them being supposedly the largest quakes on record, they hardly last more than five or so minutes on screen (at least it never felt that long). To add insult to injury, not once, but thrice are we subjected to the old disaster trope of ending the quake after something falls on our main characters. When Emma is waiting for Ray to come rescue her, the roof of the highrise collapses, taking her down with it and… earthquake over. Blake and Daniel are in a parking structure when the the ceiling collapses down on top of it and… earthquake over. Ray and Emma protect themselves along the side of AT&T Park, only to have several lighting structures fall nearby, nearly killing them and a bunch of civilians and… earthquake over. I know this is one of those things that adds dramatic effect, but for once I’d like to see a major event like this happen and the earthquake or tornado or falling meteors continue to attack our heroes. It would make it so much more exciting, and in some ways, more realistic.
But I digress. This is what disaster movies are made of. They’re hokey and nowhere near realistic — and that’s what makes them so much fun. They’re made to show how we piddly humans can overcome mother nature’s wrath with faith and love and the desire to protect one another from harm. And on that level, San Andreas succeeds, delivering a film that’s pure entertainment, allowing us to escape from the truth of what could really happen one day. Will you be ready?
My Grade: A-
Next week, new movies include Spy, Insidious 3 and Entourage. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.