Reviews

'San Andreas' Gets Caught Between the Rock and a Hokey Place

Overloaded with CG eye candy and clichéd dialogue, this is a basic B-movie with blockbuster F/X.


San Andreas

Director: Brad Peyton
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Ioan Gruffudd, Paul Giamatti
Rated: PG-13
Year: 2015
US date: 2015-05-29
UK date: 2015-05-29

Where is Sensurround when you need it?

Back nearly 41 years ago, Universal decided that Irwin Allen shouldn't get all the disaster movie hype and delivered its own star-studded look at the end of the world (more specifically, Los Angeles) in the simply titled Earthquake! With rivals studios plotting another A-list actor apocalypse (the high-rise fire thriller The Towering Inferno), the suits needed something to inspire the masses. Enter a large subwoofer in a wooden box situated at the front of the theater. Called "Sensurround", it was a William Castle like gimmick for a film in desperate need of something unusual to put butts in the seats.

It worked. The sonic stunt helped the $7 million film earn a whopping 11-plus times that amount ($79 million) in 1974 currency. It also launched a landslide of like-minded movies, both decent (Juggernaut, Black Sunday) and dopey (The Swarm, The Hindenburg). A similar dichotomy could be used to describe San Andreas, the latest CG spectacle to feature a threat to mankind measured out over a two-hour running time. In this case, the title faultline is getting ready to crack, and only Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson can save the day -- strike that -- save his family.

That's right, even though his character, Chief Ray Gaines, is an emergency rescue pilot for the greater LA area, and much in demand after a freak tremor destroys Nevada's Hoover Dam, he takes off with the county's chopper determined to save only two people: his beloved daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) and his divorce-minded, soon to be ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino). As the rest of the city (and eventually, state) die in building collapses and massive tsunamis, our one man family fix-it avoids the demands of his profession to personalize this unimaginable tragedy. It's almost as if the Gaineses are the only ones suffering through this computer generated cataclysm.

You see, Ray is a really good guy. He's still buddies with his vet pals from Afghanistan (they are now part of his chopper crew) and he's a wiz at this whole flying thing (at the beginning of the film, he manages to squeeze his whirlybird into a hillside crevice that even a mountain goat would find tricky). Where he fails, however, is in his home life. After a tragedy took their youngest daughter, the Gaineses have become divided. Dad is home alone, while Emma and Blake are planning on living with Mom's new boyfriend, rich land developer Daniel Riddick (IoanGruffudd). A daddy/daughter trip to college is thwarted by earth-moving events in Nevada, resulting in sour feelings and a private jet ride for Blake to San Francisco.

In the meantime, a Cal Tech scientist (Paul Giamatti) believes he has cracked the code for predicting possible earthquakes. The horrors at the Hoover Dam prove this out. One scan of his data and it's clear: the entire West Coast of California is in for a bad state day. As soon as he makes his findings, the Hollywood sign starts shimmying and The Rock is required to play savior as his daughter finds herself trapped in the underground garage of a San Fran office building. How does he hope to find her? With the help of his ex, whom he rescues from the remains of a crumbling hotel. How do they hope to find her? Just keep telling yourself “It’s only a Summer movie, it’s only a Summer movie, it’s only a Summer movie…”

Of course, there's a big difference between personalizing a tragedy and making it only about those involved. This is the big problem with San Andreas. While the rest of California dies under tons of building rubble and oceans of water, the Rock and his brood are all we focus on. Even the inclusion of potential love interest Ben (Hugh Johnstone-Burt) and his slick brother Ollie (Art Parkinson) takes nothing away from the story’s obsession with the Gaineses. Giamatti does most of the scientific heavy lifting here, reduced to nothing more than a seismological Basil Exposition. His only interaction with the tremors comes at the opening, when he is stuck watching the horrors of Hoover Dam unfold. The rest of the time, he's hiding under desks.

Of course, no one comes to a movie like San Andreas for character development or deep narrative complexity. They want to see stuff destroyed and in as an engaging a way as possible. In this case, those craving such eye candy may be a bit disappointed. Oh sure, the movie delivers on the tectonic plate shivers, but it can't match a superior set of sequences in Roland Emmerich's far better (and cheesier) 2012. LA and San Francisco do indeed fall, but in ways that seem a bit too CG. The rushing waters of a last act tsunami are especially false, failing to have the impact of similar scenes in The Impossible and Hereafter. Of course, any film featuring a boat rescue through a skyscraper (you read that right) deserves some credit.

You also need to give The Rock credit. During his heyday, Arnold Schwarzenegger didn't have as many high quality blockbusters as this ex-athlete. He's the only reason to endure the otherwise dumb disaster epic. Sure, the script goes overboard, giving him way too many scenes of teary-eyed reflection, but he sells them all with a sincerity that's hard to deny. Sadly, for those of you who are so inclined, Johnson does not take off his shirt. Even with all its "faults", San Andreas is a basic B-movie. You get what you expect -- nothing more, and clearly a whole lot less.

4
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