by Philip Price
Given the texture of the special effects and the scope of the aerial shots one would not be wrong in thinking Roland Emmerich was at the helm of this latest, big disaster flick. Emmerich, who has directed the likes of “Independence Day,” “The Day After Tomorrow” and “2012,” has somewhat monopolized the genre as of late, but “San Andreas” is not the unrelated sequel to “Day After Tomorrow” where Emmerich follows another group of people as they deal with another cataclysmic event. Instead, “San Andreas” is more the love child of something Emmerich would make and the pure, star-driven action adventures of the 80's and early 90's. While you might say those could easily be one in the same Emmerich's films are typically more of an ensemble whereas “San Andreas” is Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's film through and through. So, if not Emmerich, then who? Well, that honor would go to Brad Peyton who has previously only directed two features, one of which was “Journey 2” with Johnson who likely vouched for him here. Being compared to the likes of Emmerich certainly isn't a jab though and if Peyton was going to take notes from anyone when making a disaster flick on this scale he would be the obvious choice. To bring this little precursor of a thought full circle and segue into my overall impression of the film though would be to say that Emmerich would no doubt be proud. Now, what Peyton, his actors and his screenwriter (which, oddly enough, is power producer Carlton Cuse of “Lost” and “Bates Motel” fame) have done best with “San Andreas” is to have fun with the kind of movie it is. Naturally, you get what you expect from a movie like this and little more, but the movie is knowing without being completely self-aware as it seems to intentionally lay on the one-liners the audience already knows are coming and has a fair amount of fun with them. The fact I could hear the people behind me mouthing certain lines before they were even spoke speaks to how ingrained in our subconscious these types of films and their beats are. For “San Andreas” to be able to include and overcome the clichés and archetypes of the genre to deliver a genuinely fun thrill ride is not necessarily something to celebrate, but it's certainly nothing worth complaining about either.
“San Andreas” opens with one of the many standards of the genre in that we see an isolated incident threaten the life of a character we will never see again, but sets up what is to come and the fact no one else sees it coming. The more glaring archetypes are more in the forms of characters, but we'll get to that a little later. First, let me introduce you to our core line-up of humans we're intended to care about more than the rest of humanity. There is Ray (Johnson) who is a Los Angeles Fire & Rescue officer who is retired military and working with his same crew to save the day, every day in Hollywood. He is emotionally preparing himself to send his daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario) off to college, but at the same time is having to deal with a pending divorce from her mother, Emma (Carla Gugino), and her new boyfriend Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd) who, to make matters worse, is a wealthy architect. Meanwhile, there is Professor Lawrence (Paul Giamatti) of Caltech who is a seismologist and has been searching for a pattern in the earths seismic waves for some time. When he and partner Dr. Kim Park (Will Yun Lee) think they've finally stumbled upon something significant at the Hoover Dam it turns out to be more than they could have ever imagined and little more than a preview of the devastation to come. Once the quake at the Hoover hits, Ray and his team are immediately requested to assist in the rescue efforts dashing his plans to drive Blake up to San Francisco and drop her off at college. Much to Ray's dismay, Daniel steps in and sets up the separation that will define the course of the narrative. On her trip to San Francisco with Daniel, Blake meets brothers Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and Ollie (Art Parkinson) whom she teams-up with after Daniel bails on her in a parking garage. As the quakes begin to move up the fault line and continue to get bigger and more devastating Ray takes advantage of his occupation and turns around to make the dangerous journey across the state in order to rescue his soon to be ex-wife and daughter.
Like I said, this is Johnson's film and he pulls the necessary weight to make every scene count. While there are the factors including Professor Lawrence as well as Blake and the brothers we realize Lawrence mainly exists in this film so as to feed the audience information while, even without being in many scenes together, it still feels as if Johnson is leading Daddario's arc as well. As is to be expected, Giamatti brings a level of credibility to his portions and while he is largely relegated to the background after an opening scene that actually requires him to move there is a profundity to his words that strike the right chord between being downright sincere and absolutely ridiculous. I enjoyed that there was an earnest religious aspect to Lawrence as well despite him being a scientist that could have instead been hugely cynical about the whole situation. Speaking of absurd, in a movie about California essentially separating from the rest of the United States the most unrealistic thing in the film is that Gugino's Emma would leave Ray for Gruffudd's Daniel. Referring back to the more glaring archetypes the film capitalizes on and the characters that represent them, Daniel is certainly one in terms of how horrible the bad (potential) step-father can be. The film pretty much forgets about him after his cowardly exit, only to return to him at the end of the second act to give us (and him) an intentionally hilarious bit of closure meant to lift our spirits amidst the destruction. The other glaring cliché comes in the form of Ollie who consistently feels like the token child that also serves as the voice of reason. Daddario is more than capable in her role as the alpha of her group, taking the skills her father taught her over the years and applying them to ensure their survival, but it is this that also keeps Ray's presence looming strong. As Ray, Johnson plays things more the "normal guy" route than that of the indestructible and heroic presence his imposing physique would have you think he'd rely on. Sometimes this can be difficult to buy in to given his hulking exterior, but there is the obligatory heavy moment in the middle of the film that has the right insight and is handled well enough by Johnson that it lands and brings an unexpected poignancy to the proceedings.
Going into a film like “San Andreas” though, you pay for the ticket in order to see the spectacle on the big screen (this one is definitely worth catching on the IMAX at Chenal 9 if you're local) and in that regard the film delivers 10 times over. There were more than a few times where my fists couldn't have been clenched any tighter. Due to the fact the actual San Andreas fault line is splitting there are large-scale earthquakes, there are the aftershocks and then there are the numerous repercussions of the event, such as tsunami's, that present the film ample opportunity to depict large scale havoc that also moves the story forward. While it might have been more interesting to see Cuse's script deal in secondary complications of large natural events that aren't initially thought of such as what we might do were there harmful chemicals spilling out with the flooding or radioactive and nuclear power plants being destroyed, but such things are not taken into consideration here. More, they are lumped in with the large portions of pure structural damage that is shown, but that seems nitpicky considering Peyton is clearly attempting to deliver both a large-scale as well as intimate portrait of the devastation the earthquakes are causing. As structural damage is the leading cause of casualties in earthquakes it makes sense to focus on the impact these skyscrapers can have on our population while keeping the main narrative focus not on anything as extraneous as second-hand issues to be dealt with later, but more on preserving as much human life as possible. This is the throughline of “San Andreas” and while, in retrospect, that unexpected poignancy is present from the opening credit sequence we aren't just led to care about the main cast of characters the film focuses on. When Peyton goes to random shots of ruin, of people running down the streets and clouds of ash and rubble chasing them there is a sense of real care, of the loss that is occurring. The tsunami scene in particular is truly an insane and terribly brilliant spectacle to watch. It is this scene, accompanied by the overpowering and very 90's-esque score from Andrew Lockington, that shows that even the biggest man in the world is minuscule in the wake of Mother Nature.