Starring: Dwayne Johnson (Fast and Furious 7), Carla Gugino (Spy Kids), Alexandra Daddario (True Detective), Ioan Gruffudd (Forever), Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson (Game of Thrones), Paul Giamatti (Sideways)
Director: Brady Peyton (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island)
Writer: Carlton Cuse (Bates Motel)
Runtime: 1 hour 54 minutes
Release Date: 28 May (UK), 29 May (US)
Disaster movies are a bit of a conundrum. They present devastation on massive scales, events where the world we know is destroyed in the most jaw-dropping of ways, but rarely do we care about the people inside these disasters; it becomes all about the spectacle rather than character. It’s a problem that’s plagued the genre since its inception, and that same exact problem is why San Andreas, as much as it tries and as large as it is, can’t muster anything more than a mildly above average response.
San Andreas often feels like a throwback to the disaster movies of the 1990s like Volcano or Armageddon (which in themselves were throwbacks to the disaster movies of the 1970s like The Towering Inferno and, oddly enough, Earthquake). In that sense, the movie can be enjoyed on the same level as those previous works: mindless popcorn entertainment with loud noises and spectacular special effects. The level of carnage on display here could place San Andreas among the most destruction-heavy films in film history; just when you think it can’t top itself, the film finds a way to get that much more ridiculous. However, in the decades since this genre began, no one has seemed to be able to come up with a different story for a disaster movie. This is where San Andreas mainly stumbles: as spectacular as the set pieces are, the plot connecting them is bland and clichéd. Tropes like the estranged wife, the jerky new boyfriend, a tragic back-story involving the loss of a family member, the scientist who saw it all coming, and countless others litter the film and are all played straight with no attempt to subvert or change them. This makes the plot beats incredibly easy to predict and removes a lot of the tension, which is especially bad when our characters are in a constant state of extreme peril. The sheer spectacle of the film and its intense but brisk pace do help keep the story moving forward, and I can’t say I was ever bored, but in the end the banality of the script is too much even with the audacious amounts of desolation erupting on screen.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Dwayne Johnson isn’t the greatest of actors, but he’s got more charm than almost all of them. The role of Ray Gaines doesn’t have too much meat on the page, but Johnson injects enough of his own personality into the role to remain a likeable lead. However, that same charisma does backfire on him occasionally, as I found it hard to believe he was a sad and tormented figure trying to get over the loss of his youngest daughter when he’s constantly cracking wry one-liners. Carla Gugino doesn’t add much to the proceedings as Johnson’s ex-wife; other than one moment at the end, she doesn’t do anything major to effect the plot and is essentially just a tenuous tag-along for the ride; you could replace her with a lamp and it wouldn’t change much. On the other hand, Alexandra Daddario’s Blake is self-sufficient, proactive, and is constantly willing to make sacrifices for others; sure, she does need saving herself a few times and most of her skills come down to “my dad taught me about this”, but it’s nice to see a damsel who fights distress rather than succumb to it whilst waiting for rescue. Hugo Johnstone-Burt (or, as I shall refer to him from now on, Baby Hugh Grant) and Art Parkinson could easily have been annoying side characters too, but they also get their moments to shine and Parkinson especially has several cute moments of comic relief sprinkled throughout. Ioan Gruffudd gets the real short end of the stick as the typical asshole boyfriend character, especially since the early scenes painted him with more sympathy that suggested he may avoid this stereotype, but eventually they take the lazy route and then don’t do much with him afterwards; at least he gets a satisfying comeuppance. Paul Giamatti plays the Jeff Goldblum-esque scientist role, but he ultimately feels superfluous other than to add some expository mumbo-jumbo to set up the next evolution of the destruction. The rest of the cast is pretty forgettable other than some odd cameos: Arrow’s Colton Haynes shows up during the opening sequence before being promptly forgotten about, and then Kylie Minogue shows up for about a minute before being promptly booted out; seriously, why was she even in this movie?
As I’ve said, San Andreas is clearly a film where all effort has gone into showing the disaster itself, and on this level it doesn’t disappoint. The visual effects aren’t jaw dropping, but they are certainly convincing enough to suck you into the near-constant obliteration of buildings and streets. It’s not all just watching people hide under tables and jump over cracks: there’s a helicopter rescue in a canyon, several narrow escapes through collapsing buildings, aerial crashes, parachuting and even a massive tidal wave to mix up the action. All of it is filmed and edited simply but coherently; there is a fair bit of shaky-cam to augment the earthquakes, but it never becomes a crutch to cover up bad filmmaking. The sound design is just as vital to the experience as the visuals are here, with thunderous crashes and booms layered on top of the annihilation, and the film’s score is unremarkable but serviceable in keeping the action pumping.
San Andreas is entertaining on a simplest of levels but doesn’t make much effort beyond that. There is certainly fun to be had watching California get wrecked on a scale that even Roland Emmerich would blush at but, much like the state itself, it’s built on unstable ground that could crack at any moment. The pure size of it may make it just barely worth seeing in a theatre, but only if you don’t have access to a halfway decent TV and sound system. It’s more of a Saturday night, stay-in-and-eat-pizza type of movie, and even then you might end up watching one of its many contemporaries instead and not notice the difference.
FINAL VERDICT: 6/10