IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 114 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Chief Ray Gaines is a recently divorced, Los Angeles Fire Department rescue-helicopter pilot. He’s just rescued a girl from being trapped in a ravine, and, now on his day off, he plans to go with his daughter Blake to San Francisco for a weekend trip. Meanwhile, seismologist Lawrence Hayes, working on a system that will predict earthquakes, and his colleague Dr. Kim Chung are at Hoover Dam when an unknown fault nearby ruptures, triggering a massive earthquake which kills Chung. Ray is called upon duty, so Blake plans instead to go with her mother Emma’s new boyfriend, Daniel Riddick. Hayes discovers that the San Andreas Fault is starting to shift, causing a massive 9.1 earthquake that could be the biggest the world has ever experienced….
I’m not sure if, in the end, San Andreas can be really called a good movie, but it’s certainly a highly enjoyable one. I personally thought it was great that so many film critics appreciated Mad Max: Fury Road, something that probably wouldn’t have been the case even ten years ago, but I guess the day when reviewers will see the many pleasures an often nonsensical production like San Andreas has to offer is still far off. Director Bad Peyton’s Roland Emmerich-meets-Irwin Allen disaster spectacle is often ludicrous and there are a great many ways in which it could have been better, but after a while I just started to laugh at, then except, rather than get irritated by, the way that, for instance, the central family in the film escapes peril after peril with only the occasional wound – in fact, I don’t think Dwayne Johnson’s character ever has a scratch on him. This is the kind of film where you actually look forward to the next time a character will outrun a peril which by rights should have killed them within a second and sit there open mouthed, not because you’re always going to be on the edge of your seat, but because you admire the gall of the filmmakers. I think they know exactly how ludicrous the thing that they’ve made is, and it’s possible that on another day the film would have irritated me, but I obviously happened to be on the right wavelength on this occasion and had a fine old time.
Now I’m going to admit it. I get some strange pleasure out of witnessing mass destruction on screen – well, unless the film is Man Of Steel. San Andreas probably has more of this kind of thing than any other film, and yes, I’ve seen most major disaster picture including some of the Japanese efforts, as well as most of the giant monster movies that come from that country. Los Angeles gets levelled, so does San Francisco, and this takes up a considerable amount of screen time [one of the disappointments of watching older films of this nature is that the actual disasters are often over in a few minutes], and then, for the coup de grace, we get a tsumani, which proves that for all the CGI in the world, visual effects supremos still can’t get water right, but the scene is still exciting and goofy in the right way, partly because the widely circulated clip of the sequence didn’t show the second half of the scene and it’s really hair-raising and amusing in the best possible way. By and large the effects are fine – I reckon that those who are saying that they resemble those in a SyFy movie haven’t seen the actual movie where it seems some shots have been worked on from ones in the trailers which didn’t initially look finished. The highlight for me – well, I won’t go into detail, but it involves a ship and the Golden Gate Bridge, while all the San Francisco stuff certainly makes up for Godzilla’s very limited city wrecking in his American film last year.
We open with some action right away in one of the tensest opining scenes in some time. In fact, while it was playing my mind turned to Cliffhanger’s fantastic beginning, which should be a sign of how good it is. A girl is driving her car and pays the price for stupidly texting on her phone by plummeting down a ravine near the Southern California coast. Fortunately for her, Chief Ray Gaines is around to come and rescue her, and it’s highly amusing, in a film full of highly amusing things, how The Rock’s character seems to know how to do everything, having almost as many skills as James Bond. Some edge of seat moments and the silly bint is free, having hopefully learnt not to text whilst driving. Now I don’t think all this really has anything to do with the enormous earthquake about to strike the region, though it’s possible that maybe we’re meant to infer that the rock fall that pushed her off the road while she wasn’t looking was a foreshock of the quake to come. In any case, we now switch to Paul Giamatti’s Lawrence Hayes, who is on the verge of creating a computer system that will predict earthquakes. Giamatti seems to exist in a separate film to Johnson and everyone else, but the always decent actor plays his slightly pointless role – he ends up predicting The Big One and warns people about it with a bit of hacking [of course, there’s usually some hacking involved these days], but it doesn’t appear to save many lives – with admirable conviction, especially when he loses his colleague to a tremor at the Hoover Dam, an especially silly but somehow cheer-worthy scene where the colleague manages to pick up and throw a young girl at Hayes before he perishes.
The main human interest, so much as it is, concerns Ray and his family. His soon-to-be-ex-wife is about to move in with her boyfriend, they are both scarred by some issues concerning a dead daughter, while the surviving daughter clearly wants her parents back together but soon has a love interest of her own who is introduced in an almost cringe-inducing scene where the two of them, plus his younger brother, find themselves in the waiting room of an office, the latter trying to set the other two up. Now we all know that all disaster movies require some soap opera – it comes with the territory, even with particularly fine examples of the genre like The Towering Inferno, a film that remains a truly ‘good’ movie as opposed to a ‘good/bad’ film like this one. However, San Andreas, whose script apparently made its way through six writers before Carlton Cuse emerged with chief on-screen credit, badly lets itself down by only having one major ‘human’ storyline, a film like this really needing multiple storylines and a shed-load of stars so you can really have fun guessing who’s going to die and who isn’t. This means that the scenes where the couple talk and talk about their relationship, mostly around the middle of the film, while seemingly the entire West Coast is getting wrecked beneath them, come across as ludicrous and even in bad taste. Do we really care about these two?
Then again, aside from a few moments when crowds are menaced by shattered glass [though Earthquake managed more gore], San Andreas doesn’t seem to want you to care about anyone out of the thousands of people involved in the earthquakes except the five main folk, which might almost come across as offensive if the whole thing wasn’t so silly. The film soon settles itself into one pair of characters trying to find three others, and, God damn it, I really did want them to get to each other, a sure sign that the film was working in a way, while of course you’re never far away from a terrible event. Brad Peyton has been called a journeyman director, but I thought that his previous collaboration with Johnson Journey 2: The Mysterious Island had exactly the right tone for an old-fashioned family adventure, and he actually does a pretty good job with San Andreas, making good use of different angles and reveals which show people where they really are. One great moment takes the viewer from a bird’s eye view of Los Angeles into the floor of an office skyscraper. None of this is anything special, but Peyton does seem to be making an effort and – one odd thing – there’s hardly any shakycam. You would expect loads of this crap from a modern movie about earthquakes, and for once it would be justified, but it’s really kept to a minimum.
Johnson is a decent stoic hero though he doesn’t do very well with a few one-liners which are either the film’s only attempt at humour or the least funny bits of a film which is actually packed with laughs. San Andreas gets more and more farcical as it goes on, but it gets more and more fun too. You just have to be in the right mood. Though I doubt it’s a very bankable undertaking, I’d like to see a really serious, grim disaster movie graphically showing all the carnage and with an ‘R’ rating. In the mean time, San Andreas provided me with loads of almost laugh-out-loud spills and thrills and boy does it deliver in terms of spectacle.