Remember those L.A. buildings and historic landmarks that spectacularly crashed and burned when the world was coming to an end in 2012? They crash and burn again. Unlike that earlier disaster flick that presented its earthquakes globally, as the title of the new disaster suggests, San Andreas concentrates on California. The rest of the country will feel it, plus there’s always a chance that Yuma, Arizona may suddenly possess beach front property, but the action this time is solely within state.
After an impressive opening where a young girl’s vehicle is hit by falling debris on a Californian mountain roadside – the car’s flip and plunge is particularly harrowing – we’re introduced to Chief Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson), an ex-military pilot now flying search and rescue helicopters for the L.A. Fire Department. Once he rescues the girl from her car a fraction of a second before it finally falls all the way – nobody is rescued with seconds to spare anymore; now it’s always a fraction of a second – we cut to Cal Tech seismologist Lawrence (Paul Giamatti), and he’s not happy about those quakes by the Hoover Dam, particularly as it’s an area where there are supposed to be no fault lines. With regards to the big one that he predicts will follow, he earnestly states, “It’s not a matter of if. It’s a matter of when.”
What follows is just as the trailer showed. Los Angeles is hit by a massive quake; not just your regular, earth splitting tremor with some damage here and there, but a monstrous, end-of-the-world catastrophe where skyscrapers topple, flyovers collapse and there is literally nowhere to run. As you would expect – and as the trailer that contains most of the money shots and the rescue surprises show – the CGI effects are spectacular; the bigger the screen, the better.
But despite the updated ability to present disasters in a way that the makers of The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno or even Earthquake could never imagine, the character makeup is pretty much the same. Had San Andreas appeared on screens during the seventies when disaster movies were the fashion and developed into the new style epic, you can imagine the poster. In a row, each character would have had a boxed profile shot with a brief description of their conflicts and character traits printed below. Posters no longer do that, but the style continues on screen. Even though countless millions will perish along the fault line, the film concentrates on just a small group of characters, each with a conflict or flaw that will add to the tension of their survival.
Johnson’s pilot receives his divorce papers. He’s still married to Emma (Carla Gugino), but Emma is about to marry a successful millionaire whose company builds (gulp) skyscrapers. Then there’s the gorgeous daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario) who has a special relationship with dad but is forced to fly to San Francisco with her potential step-father. There’s also the issue of another daughter who previously died in a river raft accident, an event that continues to haunt the family, particularly as dad watched her drown and was unable to save her. Will the pilot and his wife reunite? Will the daughter survive San Francisco and a tense underwater scene that echoes the fate of her departed sister? Will the potential step-father turn out to be a Richard Chamberlain type weasel in need of a come-uppance? You bet, but unlike those earlier seventies disasters where character conflicts and special effects went hand in hand, in San Andreas it’s the dazzling effects and action that matters; that other stuff about families sticking together are merely hurdles that get in the way of watching buildings crash, cars demolish, highways crack, and gigantic tidal waves wash everything away.
When Roland Emmerich made 2012, his intention was to film the disaster movie to end disaster movies. He threw everything in. He also made it intentionally funny. Knowing only too well the absurdity of it all, 2012 had its disasters presented with straight-faced humor and a cast of several way larger-than-life characters as they made their way through Emmerich’s over-the-top mayhem. San Andreas, with all of its crumbling towers, looks like 2012 but it’s just like the seventies when it comes to characters. These people are playing it straight. “What are we going to do?” asks mom after surviving another hair-raising moment. “We’re gonna get our daughter,” replies dad with steely determination, and when it’s all over, the dust has settled and fires are slowing burning out, dad surveys the scene, sees the stars and stripes flapping in the wind and states as if speaking for all mankind, “Now we rebuild.”
The important thing is, audiences who enjoy disaster movies will enjoy the surprisingly bloodless San Andreas as much as any previous adventure from this genre, perhaps even more considering how well effects now appear, and, let’s face it, that’s what they’re going for. The giant container ship raised by a tsunami and thrown at the Golden Gate Bridge is as impressively spectacular as it gets. The film nicely affirms once and for all the hulking Dwayne Johnson as a leading man movie star, and Alexandra Daddario may finally get some big screen attention, but in the end, no one’s going for the soap opera and no one will care; it’s the wide screen spectacle that matters and in that area San Andreas undeniably delivers.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 123 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)