Special effects make tectonic nightmare come to life in stock exercise that combines the best of the worst disaster scenarios in one earthquake extravaganza, writes Katherine Monk
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, Paul Giamatti, Hugo Johnstone-Burt
Directed by: Brad Peyton
Running time: 114 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
By Katherine Monk
It’s easy to find fault in San Andreas. Plot instability and tectonic shifts in tone are an inherent part the disaster movie genre, and they’re all over this latest Rock formation that features Dwayne Johnson flying over a fractured California landscape.
Playing search and rescue pilot Ray Gaines, Johnson looks perfectly at home in the cockpit of his red and white chopper from the moment we meet him in the opening adrenaline rush.
Borrowing much of its structural design from the signpost of the summer action movie, Jaws, Gander-born director Brad Peyton introduces us to a pretty young woman driving into the maw of misfortune.
She’s just a gal having fun, singing tunes as she drives her car along a cliff-side highway, but every time she checks her phone, sees a text, or changes the radio station, Peyton ratchets the stress level by suggesting a head-on collision or an abrupt steering correction.
It’s like watching the opening bather in Steven Spielberg’s shark movie, so by the time the sexy bait is forced off the cliff by a spontaneous rock slide, we’re already on-board Peyton’s small boat, waiting for the jaws of death to appear beneath the surface.
He doesn’t make us wait long. After Ray saves the woman in the car in a rescue sequence that practically defies the laws of physics and most definitely violates the rules of safe aviation, we’re treated to the opening bars of the disaster symphony.
Major tremors are being reported in Nevada, a seismically silent state. The eggheads are scrambling to understand, but one professor (Paul Giamatti) believes he and his team can now predict the quakes, and his model is showing unmediated disaster along the San Andreas fault line: The entire state of California is about to cleave from the North American continent.
Okay. That sounds like a pretty good threat to keep us interested for the duration. It also gives Giamatti the Richard Dreyfus role in the drama, playing a brand of Chicken Little, flapping about the end of the world, and offering long, heartfelt gazes into the camera as he offers prayers to the people of San Francisco.
The Golden Gate city will get the worst of the seismic slap, but we get to watch Southern California shake, rattle and roll before the tsunami crests over Oakland.
We also get to watch Ray save his estranged wife (Carla Gugino) from the roof of a downtown hotel with his helicopter, because what’s a wholesale disaster movie without a loving personal relationship to give it scale?
Movies like San Andreas need to give us the very big to fill our popcorn buckets with butter-coated cataclysm, but they also need to paint detailed human miniatures to make us care. Every architect’s model needs a tiny person on the street, walking next to a tiny wire tree, in order for us to feel connected and part of the landscape.
San Andreas picks its humans so carefully, it starts to feel Calvinist in its approach to salvation as Ray Gaines becomes deus ex heli, using the taxpayers’ equipment to save his own family.
First, he saves his estranged wife from a bad lunch date in downtown Lalaland, then the two of them fly north to San Francisco to save their daughter (Alexandra Daddario) from the basement of a parking garage, where she’s been abandoned by mom’s new boyfriend (Ioan Gruffudd).
Peyton and the screenwriters are kind enough to remove any hint of moral compromise by ensuring Ray’s trip north doesn’t involve encounters with people in need of immediate help. As a first responder, he should be using the helicopter and all the tools at his disposal to serve the public good — instead of commandeering them to save his own family – but we don’t have to think about that.
In a state of 38.8 million, the only people who ask Ray for help are his own relatives, and their newfound friends.
It’s a standard conceit of the genre whether it’s Paul Newman saving his lady from a towering inferno or Charlton Heston saving Ava Gardner from a collapsing Capitol Records building. Johnson can clench his jaw and look concerned with the best of them, and because he’s so physically massive, minimal facial expression will always work in his favour – lest he become a broad-shouldered billboard for overacting.
The only thing that really pulls San Andreas down to B-grade schlock is the dialogue, a random sampling of family value catchphrases – “let’s go get our daughter” — and cheeky one-liners “it’s been a while since you let me get to second base.”
It’s untenable and goofy and never finds the serrated layers of existential malaise that made Jaws more than a gore-fest, but it doesn’t really matter because the real star of this movie is the computer-generated imagery that gives form to our collective imagination.
Disaster news footage is the equivalent of crack to our culture: More than 94 million people watched the tsunami footage from Thailand, and thousands more tuned in for the shots of a crumbling Nepal. We love rubbernecking at dramatic misery and Peyton gives his viewer all the vicarious pleasure of watching such things as a cargo ship pulling down the Golden Gate bridge, a tsunami surging up Nob Hill, and even the sensation of being inside a crumbling skyscraper. It’s gorgeously rendered mayhem that combines the best of all the natural disaster movies in one.
The only thing missing is a great white shark cruising through the Castro, but chances are they’re saving that, the alien invasion and Kevin Costner with gills for the sequel.
With the recent earthquake in Nepal reframing the boundaries between real disasters and movie fictions, Jay Stone takes a look at the top five examples of reality pre-empting the movies:
1. San Andreas: The Dwayne Johnson movie about a devastating earthquake in California opens a month after the Nepal earthquake that killed 8,800 people. Warner Bros. has announced the opening will go ahead, but it will include in its promotional materials information about how to contribute to the Nepal relief fund.
2. Hereafter: The 2011 Clint Eastwood movie — which includes a subplot about the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami — was withdrawn from movie theatres in Japan a few days after an earthquake and tsunami in that country. Warner Bros., coincidentally the distributor of that film as well, said the scenes were “not appropriate at this time.”
3. Spider-Man: The 2002 film was the most prominent of 45 movies that was affected by the 9/11 attacks. Trailers were edited to eliminate a scene showing Spider-Man capturing a helicopter between the twin towers. In the actual film, a shot of the World Trade Center was deleted and a scene was added showing of Spider-Man with a large American flag. Other films that took out scenes of the WTC include The Bourne Identity, Zoolander, and Men In Black II.
4. Dr. Strangelove: The 1963 Stanley Kubrick comedy about nuclear disaster was being edited just as President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. The film was changed to alter a line in which an actor says “a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Dallas with all that stuff” —“Dallas” became “Vegas” — and the legendary closing sequence, a pie fight, was cut because it was deemed inappropriate. There was also a line in the pie fight where the president is hit in the face and George C. Scott’s character says, “Our president has been struck down in his prime.”
5. Gone Baby Gone: Ben Affleck’s 2007 directorial debut, about a four-year-old Boston girl who disappears, came out shortly after the disappearance of British girl Madeleine McCann in Portugal. In addition, the young actress who played the role bore a striking resemblance to little Madeleine. The movie was pulled from the London film festival and its general release was delayed.
– By Jay Stone