Run, Duck, And Cover
Context is important in a disaster movie. You need to know how much to invest in its ridiculousness or how much to just laugh along with it. San Andreas solves that problem in its first scene. A girl drives her SUV haphazardly around a cliff, rummaging through her bag on the passenger’s seat, then texting a friend, as a large van approaches around a curve. Each time she takes her eyes off the wheel you’re expecting disaster. The cutting and the van’s growing engine set up that expectation. It’s all just a muse. The van passes, she turns the corner unharmed, and then an earthquake shoves her vehicle off the cliff. It tumbles down and then dangles off the canyon, a sudden movement from falling into the abyss. It’s the funniest, scariest, most ludicrous PSA about safe driving, but you know the movie’s stakes.
Thus portends the calamity that rears its factually impossible, utterly outrageous head upon the state of California, with ripple effects across the entire country. None of what this movie tells you about its destruction is accurate, but none of that matters anyway. Like most movies in this genre, San Andreas brushes over the massive amounts of casualties – the majority of them occur in San Francisco – and focuses on the plight of a family’s reunion. Death on a large scale is a front-page headline, but, in movies that boast the same exclamatory scale, it mainly becomes a sidebar, an editor’s note. Movies like this don’t sell tragedy in terms of death. They sell tragedy as it unfolds – “Look at that tsunami swallowing the Golden Gate Bridge!” – and then find a way to make sure the American flag flaps from its remaining beams, avoiding the mess in between.
You need to know the people to care about before the disaster hits, of course, so we’re introduced to them at the top of their craft. First is Chief Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson), who improbably helicopters and rescues that texting driver from peril. He’s a firefighter who handles crisis in the cockpit better than in his recent marriage, which has now become a signature away from divorce. His wife Emma (Carla Gugino) has a new boyfriend named Dan (Ioan Gruffudd), a real estate mogul who has just announced she will be moving into his pricy new home. That doesn’t particularly concern Ray and Emma’s (improbable) teenage daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario), who is headed to college soon and needs a ride to a volleyball tournament in northern California. Ray volunteers to drive her up the coast from Los Angeles, where they live, until he’s radioed into a crisis unfolding at the Hoover Dam.
That’s where scientist Paul Giamatti and his partner have stationed to test a revolutionary earthquake pulse-tracking device, helping forecast when one might actually occur. As he tells his students, a big one, as in San Andreas-large-bucket-popcorn-size, is “not a matter of if, but when.” And so it starts with a “seismic surge event,” which cracks open the dam and forces the first massive fleeing before a wall of water engulfs those unfortunate enough to have missed their exit, including Giamatti’s partner. This invokes a frantic return to the Cal-Tech lab, where Giamatti pours through the numbers and figures to find out the anomaly that’s just taken his friend’s life. He invites a TV crew in to help broadcast a warning to the entire state of California because his assistants have “checked, double checked, and then triple checked,” and the entire San Andreas fault really is cracking.
This isn’t a viable threat to Blake, aboard Dan’s private jet, which he’s offered to fly her in so as to not miss her tournament. She asks him if he ever thought about having kids of his own, and he points to a brochure of his properties. “Those are my kids,” he says, setting the foundation and prediction for a series of moral choices he will eventually have to make. He has some business to finish in San Francisco so Blake waits for him in his office lobby where she meets a pair of British brothers, one, Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt), waiting for a job interview, the other, Ollie (Art Parkinson), his flirtatious younger brother. When buildings start swaying and streets start cracking, you realize the movie will be spending more time with this trio’s struggle to stay alive.
It’s Los Angeles that’s hit first, however, and nothing saves a marriage better than a miraculous rescue. Emma is in the middle of lunch with an icy business client (Kyie Minogue) when the mega-quake rumbles and sends the top floor of their hotel restaurant into peril. There are some gruesome injuries and comical deaths, including a door that leads to free-falling punchline. Emma calls Ray, who tells her to climb to the roof where he’ll swoop his chopper, and amid the plummeting skyline, both manage to escape the disorienting rubble. Once Ray realizes Blake is in danger, any sense of professional duty to his firefighting team is abandoned. Ray swerves north and Emma questions his motives. “We’re going to get our daughter,” he says, as though it were the only rational decision to make.
When the movie isn’t busy with crumbling concrete and making LA’s grid look like a blanket being spread out, rippling to its edges, it settles for some backstory that functions as emotional cheese. Pretty quickly, it smells. Ray and Emma had another daughter who drowned on a boating trip. It’s haunted Ray and it led to the separation. Rescuing Blake isn’t just about her; it’s about saving Ray and Emma a potential lifetime of depression and regret. So their impending actions may feel morally reprehensible – stealing a truck, scoffing at an elderly couple on the side of the road, never radioing into the fire department – but a potential family collapse is foreseeable, just like the many of others happening below them.
Blake, in a somewhat refreshing turn, has become resourceful thanks to her father’s expertise. She drags around the Brits, who repeatedly question her survival tactics, reflect on their ability to maneuver death, and then quickly agree that she knows what she’s doing. They are dopes, and likeable, so their questioning doesn’t appear as condescending as it might if their accents were American. Daddario doesn’t really provide a rooting interest. She never really feels as worried as she should be considering her father is aiming to find her amidst the millions scampering downtown. It’s like she’s read the entire script and knows her fate, so why bother?
The director, Brad Peyton, doesn’t linger with the plot. A movie like this needs to keep moving because too many scenes of reconciliation, even with actors like Gugino and Johnson, becomes stale quickly. Sometimes he rushes at the wrong moments, like when a tsunami, triggered by the fault, starts developing and Ray must climb the rising wave on a speedboat before it crests. What’s waiting for him and Emma as they near the top is another hysterical moment, but it all happens so fast. With an entire plot based on CGI, you’d want this to be your movie poster moment. Every disaster movie has at least one. Think the rising sea levels engulfing the Statue of Liberty in “The Day After Tomorrow” or the ship splitting in half in “Titanic.” For all of the digital magic splashed into this, wouldn’t you want to see it last a bit longer?
The scene is at least long enough to give Johnson some more silly lines that stretch just a sentence or two. This is a good actor who has spent the majority of his movies in front of a green screen. He’s mastered it to the point of comedy. For all of the amazing, heroic things he does – believe me, he’s the Hercules of all trades – his heroics have become mundane, when they aren’t funny. You’re trading in surprise for comfort at this point. But for a movie that hinges on family and redemption, and one that embraces the genre’s tropes and offers levity, there’s nothing beyond it. Shouldn’t making a mess mean something more than knowing it will just inevitably get cleaned up?