Shamelessly formulaic, San Andreas is a familiar disaster movie. It wants us to gawk as California is hit by the Biggest Earthquake Ever Recorded, but only care if one man can save his wife and daughter. Two major cities are flattened and drowned, but at least we can hope our movie’s stars are okay. The final scene includes a wide shot taking in a big sweep of the film’s devastation, then a close up of TV news with a chyron reading: “Thousands Saved.” Isn’t that the disaster movie way? It’s not the presumably millions of unknown victims who have been crushed by the upheaval we should care about. It’s the ones who’ve made it through. “We’ll rebuild,” one man says, before we see a tattered American flag billowing in the breeze off a crumpled landmark.
But we’re not supposed to be thinking about any broader consequences in the moment. It’s a non-stop button-pushing effects reel, disaster imagery conjured by talented animators, cascading catastrophes made to slam around our main characters with frightening intensity, and ripple across metropolises’ skylines with eerie fluidity. Debris clouds the sky as pedestrians run, fires erupt, asphalt ruptures, skyscrapers sway, and the ground roils like a wave. It’s all very impressively visualized, scary at first, then numbing as it goes on. After helming a surprisingly charming kids’ B-movie adventure (Journey 2 The Mysterious Island), director Brad Peyton seems ready to grab the disaster movie mantle in the tradition of Irwin Allen and Roland Emmerich. He shares with them a sort of industrial strength spectacle, even if he can’t quite match their sense of fun. Mayhem taken to the max, it is eye-boggling noise, good for a simple distraction.
The movie is stocked with the usual types of its genre, like an anxious scientist (Paul Giamatti) and his colleague (Will Yun Lee) who warn that this is “the big one,” and a TV reporter (Archie Panjabi) who provides access to broadcasting equipment to spread the warning. They’re minor figures in the plot. Unlike ensemble spectacles with cross-sections of reactions to a cataclysmic event, this movie narrows in on one family as they try to survive and reunite once the earth starts quaking. Our lead (Dwayne Johnson) pilots rescue helicopters. His twenty-something daughter (Alexandra Daddario) is away at college, while his wife (Carla Gugino) has served divorce papers and is moving in with her new man (Ioan Gruffudd). Then the San Andreas Fault cracks open, unleashing a swarm of earthquakes, blowing apart tepid little dramas and allowing a natural disaster to serve as matchmaker, couples’ therapist, and a test of character.
Johnson is mid-air when the quake hits, so he immediately points his helicopter towards the danger and heads off to save his family. Gugino is on the top of a teetering high-rise, while Daddario is helping two British tourists, relatively helpless brothers (Hugo Johnstone-Burt and Art Parkinson). The small cast keeps the immediate emotional stakes small, but also a tad callous. Should a rescue pilot really be absconding with government property to save his own family first? Still, it’s insanely comfortable to want Johnson to succeed. He’s a likeable, rock solid presence in the middle of chaos. With a strong determination and relaxed take-charge expression, it’s easy to believe him when he looks out across a flattened San Francisco and says of his missing daughter, “she’ll be alright.” If you can block out the scope of the tragedy around this family, it’s easy to enjoy it as the roller coaster it was intended to be.
Carlton Cuse’s screenplay is essentially a Mad Libs construction built out of story elements that wouldn’t have been out of place back when Charlton Heston confronted Earthquake in Sensurround. There are some howlingly terrible lines and preposterous coincidences. But it’s all wrapped in effectively over-the-top, hectic and tense, fine empty spectacle. Every rescue is last minute. Helicopters swing between collapsing skyscrapers, characters run up and down crumbling stairwells in unbroken takes, and boats push over the top of cresting tsunamis dodging flailing freighters. Rian Johnson’s cinematographer Steve Yedlin shoots beautiful broad daylight, the better to see absurdly detailed flotsam and jetsam spraying out from crumbling, colliding, and collapsing bits of everything. Every character is shot for picturesque peril, sent through the wringer as anonymous victims perish all around them. Of course it’s a relief when characters tearfully reunite after surviving an onslaught of terrifying events. But the movie’s only alive when they’re in peril.
Because the cast is so likable it’s almost excusable they’re hardly characters. In fact, the movie’s at it’s worst when it pauses mid-quake for light quips or tearful moments of interpersonal drama. No, this is a motion picture, emphasis on motion. The only emotion is survival. Performers are scrubbed clean and only lightly damaged, the better to use as bodies in motion, not to ogle (even Daddario’s brief bikini scene is tasteful), but to careen through carnage. San Andreas says being smart enough about what to do in an emergency will save you, while showing characters escaping certain death through CGI luck. It provides preparedness URLs in the end credits, after we’ve sat through two hours of millions wiped out while confident characters guide a few dozen to safety. At one point our hero saves a crowd of people by yelling, “Get near something steady!” while a skyscraper vomits glass and a stadium heaves slightly off its foundation. What’s steady? In a crisis, I’d follow The Rock. It works out well enough this time.