The disaster movie, which flourished under the aegis of Irwin Allen and other like-minded schlockmeisters in the seventies, was always a hopeless genre, but there was a time when the special-effects that made buildings tumble, volcanoes burp, avalanches roar, ships sink and tidal waves swamp coastlines proved entirely sufficient for destruction-hungry audiences; the sub-soap-opera plots that ordinarily went along with the scenes of wanton destruction, complete with characters that remained resolutely cardboard even when played by “all-star” casts, were pretty much beside the point.
More recently, such sequences of mayhem on a massive scale are pretty ubiquitous, being the virtual wallpaper in today’s endless stream of superhero movies. Watching a city get trashed in CGI splendor is now a humdrum affair. Only occasionally does a filmmaker manage a spin that reinvigorates what’s become a tired, familiar cinematic trope. Juan Antonio Bayona did so in “The Impossible,” for example, simply by managing to invest the family faced with survival with authentic human dimensions. More recently “Force majeure” employed a single extraordinary scene of such a disaster as the basis for a rumination on weighty familial issues. And of course many viewers thought that James Cameron had done the trick with “Titanic” by adding a swooning romance to the mix—“Romeo and Juliet” meets “The Poseidon Adventure.”
Against such a backdrop, “San Andreas” proves a daring picture—not so much because it’s being released so soon after the horrendous events in Nepal (though one might certainly raise the question of tastelessness on that basis), but because it’s such an unabashed throwback to the simple-minded disaster movies of decades ago, particularly Mark Robson’s 1974 “Earthquake,” which Pauline Kael memorably described as “swill,” adding “but it isn’t a cheat”—because it delivered the destruction that was its sole purpose. Her assessment applies equally well to Brad Peyon’s effort. The effects are for the most part fine—a few chintzy moments apart. And viewers certainly get their money’s worth in that department—the picture starts with an avalanche, proceeds to a dam collapse caused by a rupture in the fault line, then offers up not one but two earthquakes, the second followed by a tsunami. For those who eat up such stuff, “San Andreas” is an invitation to gluttony, besting all those old disaster movies by a mile in terms of quantity.
But that’s about all it has to offer. The human dimension is utterly flat. Disaster pictures used to provide a small army of potential victims, and part of the supposed fun was in guessing who would be plucked off next, and what might be the imaginative method of their demise. (In a way the genre was the precursor of the slasher movie.) Here, while literally millions are in jeopardy, and thousands are disposed of within our field of vision, the focus is on a very small group whose personal problems are treated, absurdly enough, as at least of equal importance as the devastation going on around them. Foremost among them is the hero, Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson), an ex-military man turned top man in the L.A. Fire and Rescue Department, as we see in the landslide-related prologue. He’s morose, though, because his wife Emma (Carla Gugino) has left him and taken up with Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffudd), a famous architect; their teen daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) has gone off with her, and Daniel will be flying her up to college in the Northwest in his private jet after they make a brief business stop in San Francisco. (Ray was scheduled to drive her, but the first earthquake—which destroys the Hoover Dam—calls him away on duty.)
It’s not long before Los Angeles and San Francisco get hit too, however—there are repeated cutaways to seismology expert Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti), who barely escaped the dam destruction, explaining what’s happening and why in semi-scientific gobbledegook from his CalTech lab. And Ray must spring into action. First he saves Emma from the roof of a disintegrating L.A. skyscraper in his helicopter; then they join forces to get to San Francisco to rescue Blake. She’s been abandoned in a collapsed basement garage by cowardly Daniel, but thankfully is extricated by cute Brit Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his precocious little brother Ollie (Art Parkinson). These three then try to make their way to high ground, where Blake is sure her father will come for her. Meanwhile Ray and Emma—who reunite when they realize that their separation was caused by the emotional stress arising from the accidental death of their second daughter in a kayaking accident, for which Ray has blamed himself—will resort to commandeering any form of transport (helicopter, pickup, plane, boat) to get to her and her newfound friends. In the process Ray performs feat after feat of remarkable derring-do without even getting his hair mussed (though, to be fair, Johnson doesn’t have much). Meanwhile other people are dying by the droves in the background—a fact that the filmmakers pretty much ignore, save for Hayes’ monitory broadcasts to the public (CalTech is apparently immune from the quakes’ worst effects—perhaps the school allowed use of its name to assure parents of its invulnerability as a recruitment device) and the inevitable moment when Riddick finally gets his comeuppance, to the audience’s smug satisfaction.
All this “human” material is on the crudest level of manipulative melodrama, and grows progressively more preposterous as the action unfolds. And despite all the rumblings of earth, grandiose shots of skyscrapers collapsing and impressive inserts of tidal waves approaching, transport ships careening wildly, freeways buckling and bridges (most notably the Golden Gate) collapsing, there’s little sense of real danger to the characters in the forefront of the action. This is one of those comic-book level pictures in which, however dire the circumstances, the people we’re meant to care about simply must emerge only slightly scathed. That’s the reason why the implausible reunion of parents with child, presented in a fashion that’s supposed to be emotionally wrenching, has no impact whatsoever—not just because the script construction sets it up in the most calculated possible fashion (making it a virtual replay of the family’s tragic past) but because you’ve seen this scene play out so many times before that you can practically count the beats before it resolves itself.
Acting, of course, is pretty much inconsequential in this sort of picture; even greats like Paul Newman couldn’t do anything with material of similar kind, and the performers here might be likable enough, but nobody in his right mind would call them great actors. Johnson does his usual he-man strut, with less opportunity for humorous asides than his roles ordinarily afford him; Gugino and Daddario do what’s expected of them decently enough; and Gruffudd is certainly sufficiently smarmy. Johnstone-Burt, an Australian playing a Brit, goes a mite too far in the Hugh Grant flustered department, while whether Parkinson strikes you as charmingly precocious or merely obnoxious will be a matter of taste. As for Giamatti, he lets his harried shtick carry the day for him.
One really can’t blame the actors, though: when they signed on for a movie like “San Andreas,” they surely knew full well that they’d be upstaged by the CGI hubbub occurring around them. The effects team have managed the disaster footage well enough, but one hopes we’re reaching the point of wretched excess with such stuff. How many cities do we really want to see reduced to rubble? How many times do we want to watch famous structures collapse? When the White House blew up in “Independence Day” it was something new. Now seeing the Golden Gate buckle and fall is a ho-hum affair.
And so is “San Andreas.” And the fault lies not in our stars, or even in the California ground, as in ourselves—the audience’s willingness to pay for such mindless destruction and Hollywood’s willingness to serve it up repeatedly, even if it means (as it does here) sacrificing the Hollywood sign itself in the process, just another landmark biting the dust.