Here is the thing about the new movie San Andreas, expected to be the box office winner this weekend: it’s kind of gross. Sure, there’s talent behind the scenes and the effects are often impressive (but not entirely). The characters aren’t much to write home about, but they are generally fine. It’s just that disaster movies like this, and especially this one, feel so insensitive to actual natural disasters, and the pleasure of the viewing experience is so focused on “watch stuff get destroyed” that it is hard to think anything besides “why am I watching this,” then leaving the theater feeling kind of guilty.
The movie–if the plot is important–is about The Rock aka Dwayne Johnson aka Ray, a fire and safety rescue pilot. He has a daughter going to college named Blake (Alexandra Daddario), who lives with her mom Emma (Carla Gugino), who is dating a billionaire real estate builder named Daniel (a very smarmy Ioan Gruffudd). Then there is Paul Giamatti playing a scientist, who has discovered a way to predict earthquakes. He goes to the Hoover Damn to test his machine, which is subsequently destroyed, but not before a character saves a stranger (which happens exactly twice in this movie).
Ray cancels his trip to take his daughter to college and is sent to help with search and rescue. But on his way, the earthquake hits California, and he begins rescuing his wife and daughter… and only them. And that is when I started feeling really bad about this movie. Because aside from Blake’s love interest English Ben (Australian actor Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his little brother (Art Parkinson), none of these characters are heroes, or even decent people. Ray, the movie’s hero who works in emergency and rescue, saves his wife, and then makes no attempt to help anyone else in the building that just collapsed (or even consider it).
He drives past an elderly couple waving for help on the side of the road, and only offers them help after realizing they were trying to save them. And when Blake realizes they are going in the wrong direction to be safe from the aftermath of the quakes, she says nothing to any of the people marching to their death. If this movie were about survival and human nature, this might make for an interesting and impactful part of the story. But is is abundantly clear that no, they are the heroes, we should root for them, and root against EVERYONE else.
This is pretty hard to forgive, especially when you watch extended disaster sequences which relish showing death and distraction like they’re something to be held in awe. Buildings crumble in slow motion like waterfalls, and you are expected to watch in awe of a tsunami that takes out a major city. But you aren’t supposed to feel for anyone but our main characters… despite just watching tens of thousands of people get killed.
It was clear that as Ray and Emma drove a motorboat through the streets of San Francisco, littered with clothing and debris, we shouldn’t think about the fact that there could be survivors that they are just passing over. The only way this movie can have a “happy ending” is if Blake survives, shutting out all the other distraction.
As you might guess, I did not like the performances in this film. The Rock aka Johnson is awesome and usually can improve projects. But here, he doesn’t just fail in the role, personality wise, he is incredibly unlikable. Gugino is fine (although she could have done more in the film) and Daddario is pretty good as a resourceful, confident Blake. Johnstone-Burt and Parkinson are a bit to precious and grating. Giamatti has clearly watched and studied Richard Dreyfuss’s performance in Jaws a few too many times, but thankfully, whatever actorly choice he was making, he gives up midway through.
It’s great to see Archie Panjabi since leaving The Good Wife, but I question why she wanted to do the thankless role of the reporter which seems to be in EVERY one of these roles. It’s not like she gets hit with a flying sign like Tim Bagley in the Day After Tomorrow or loses it like Philip Seymour Hoffman in Twister, so I ask you… what is the point?
As I said, the effects are often impressive, but a lot of them aren’t as “realistic” as they seem to want to be, so the movie esthetically feels uneven. And using real footage of recent Earthquakes to introduce the subject felt like an offensive way to provide unnecessary exposition. The script by Carlton Cruse is lame, but never corny enough to make this feel big and dumb, just joyless.
Director Brad Peyton’s last film also starred Johnson in Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. And while I’ll never say that movie is good, it is way more enjoyable than San Andreas. Because while both are action films, the fantasy elements allow for one things this film tries and fails at: levity. When you are in a magical island and experiencing things that aren’t real, you can quip and react differently than when what you are witnessing is shown on the news, and real people are still suffering because of these events.
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.
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