Silver Screen: San Andreas **1/2
In San Andreas, the Rock fights an earthquake.
Actually, The Rock Fights an Earthquake would be a superior title and a more accurate description of this disaster flick in the mode of 1990s-style catastrophe carnivals like Twister, Deep Impact, and Volcano.
The Rock, also known as Dwayne Johnson, stars as Ray, an emergency-rescue helicopter pilot with a troubled family history. His youngest daughter drowned in an accident— “on my watch,” as he describes it in militaryspeak— and the emotional fallout caused the end of his marriage. Now his soon-to-be ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino) is planning to take his remaining daughter, college-aged Blake (Alexandra Daddario), and move into a luxury Los Angeles estate with highfalutin architect Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd).
Meanwhile, seismologist/expository-dialogue fountain Lawrence (Paul Giamatti) uses new technology to predict a potential series of massive earthquakes along the West Coast. No one listens, of course, so when the first in a chain-reaction series of quakes rumbles Nevada and destroys the Hoover Dam, civilians are caught unaware. Ray is in the air en route to help in the rescue effort when the Big One hits sunny California and begins the violent process of jolting the state into a new geologic era. His ex-wife is stranded atop a highrise in Los Angeles while his daughter is trapped in rubble with Daniel in San Francisco, where the real shaking has yet to begin. To save his family, Ray will battle looters, dodge collapsing skyscrapers, and commandeer (in order) a chopper, a truck, a plane, and a boat.
San Andreas has the queasy morality familiar to these disaster movies, with their bloodless images and staggering body counts. We’re asked to invest all our concern into one tiny group of people’s well-being while literally millions of others perish in the background. Those killed are reduced to computer-generated specks tumbling into newly opened gorges or washed away en masse in bridge collapses. Worse still, the emotionally manipulative script quickly establishes who should die and who should not, implying that everyone— or at least everyone we see— gets what they deserve. Ray is sad but hard-working, and because he cares his family will get back together. Daniel, on the other hand, is a jerk who early on tells Blake, pointing to his latest skyscraper design, “I guess I never had kids because I was too busy raising these.” See, he doesn’t care enough about family, and thus deserves to die.
If our group is taken as a representative sample, and only those characters who espouse conventional American family values are deemed worthy of survival, what does that say about the tens of millions of other people killed? Does it count as a happy ending if two major cities are completely destroyed but the Rock doesn’t have to get a divorce?
But you can’t make a disaster-movie omelet without breaking several-million eggs, and as a thoughtless spectacle, San Andreas excels. Screenwriters Andre Fabrizio, Jeremy Passmore, and Carlton Cuse do an ace job of fixing the typical disaster movie’s greatest structural flaw, which is that the big setpiece usually occurs early in the second act, and once that thrill is gone, the movie still has a story to wrap up with some ginned-up second-rate conflict to serve as a climax. (The Day After Tomorrow, with its interminable race against a pack of wolves, is the perfect example.)
As over-explained by Giamatti’s obligatory nerd character, the first big earthquake we witness is only a harbinger of more hellish calamities to come. This allows director Brad Peyton to tease us with some carnage while delaying the main event.
Of course, Peyton’s most special effect is his brawny, charismatic lead. The Rock is the greatest action star of his generation. He’s the Marlon Brando of meatheads, the Daniel Day-Lewis of former professional wrestlers. He already looks like a cartoon superhero, which lends a weird plausibility to the cartoonish action all around him. He can infuse some humanity into his would-be two-dimensional characters, but most importantly he can sell the cheesy lines and groan-worthy quips as though they were real dialogue. Being a great action star, like being a great slapstick comedian, requires a truly impressive skill set that is rarely appreciated because it’s in service of what’s deemed an inferior genre of film.
Pruriently thrilling as it is, San Andreas doesn’t make a great case that disaster movies should be taken more seriously. But it’s yet another example of why Dwayne Johnson is a hulking, smirking, eyebrow cocking national treasure.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.