San Andreas

by Steve Pulaski

Brad Peyton’s San Andreas opens with a young girl driving on a winding road alongside a mountaintop. At one point, she looks down to get a drink of water as a sharp turn and another car approaches. Following that, she approaches another sharp turn and another oncoming vehicle and proceeds to read a text message. Both circumstances leave her unharmed. Suddenly, rocks begin to slide down the mountain, eventually knocking her down the mountainside, with her vehicle hitting every cliff on the way down before finally getting lodged vertically alongside the mountain. She winds up remaining unharmed in the vehicle as she waits for a helicopter rescue team led by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to rescue her.

Yes, dear reader, the weather is warming and incredulous disaster films are among us once again. If we’re going to kick off the year with a breathless amount of gusto and action-packed scenarios, especially following the classy and wickedly entertaining Mad Max: Fury Road, we might as well follow that pleasant taste with another adequate entree. San Andreas is a film that sits so comfortably in its genre that its charm began to grow on me, and, despite a great deal of downright awful dialog and a contrived, emotional punch, there’s still enough fun in this film to warrant a recommendation (firmly accompanied with a wink, as well).

We focus on a variety of characters during the film, one of whom is Ray Gaines (Johnson), the aforementioned head of the Los Angeles Fire Department helicopter rescue squad. Ray is about to be divorced from his wife Emma (Carla Guino) and plans on taking their college-aged daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) on one last vacation. Meanwhile, Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) and Dr. Kim Park (Will Yun Lee), two Caltech seismologists, head to Las Vegas to track several small earthquakes when they witness the collapse of the Hoover Dam following an earthquake.

San Andreas
Directed by
Brad Peyton
Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario
Release Date
29 May 2015
Steve’s Grade: B-

As a result, Ray heads to the Hoover Dam, leaving his daughter with her stepfather (Ioan Gruffudd), but not before witnessing the San Andreas Fault shifting. This, again, causes a catastrophic 9.1 earthquake, with skyscrapers collapsing, overpasses crumbling before the eyes, and a fury of unpredictable hell. Ray winds up finding his wife in the chaos early on, but now has the responsibility of finding his daughter, who is with two tourists from England she met before the earthquake hit. In addition, Hayes must alert the people of California that the catastrophe isn’t over and that a larger earthquake is on its way.

The camaraderie in San Andreas is captured on a grandscale, and it’s also shockingly brutal for a PG-13 film. Shots of buildings crushing people, people being engulfed by a tsunami, and every kind of disastrous circumstance find their way in San Andreas, with director Brad Peyton impressively handling all the action. The two biggest turn offs of disaster movies is when the action becomes so murky and indistinct that it’s impossible to tell what is occurring and the frequently appalling lack of human interest plaguing these films. Peyton, surprisingly enough, handles the action element crisply, with editor Bob Ducsay (who has edited a variety of action films, all the way from the latest Godzilla to Tremors 2: Aftershocks) effectively capturing the mayhem without having the audience lose their sense of placement.

The downside to San Andreas is how obsessed it is with finding the most convenient quips, similar to Avengers: Age of Ultron where it’s constantly trying to be cheeky with its humor. There is a sequence that has Ray and Emma parachuting down onto second base in a Major League ballpark, with Ray, upon landing, remarking to Emma, “It’s been a while since I’ve gotten you to second base.” While that particular line is humorous, the remainder of the film always seems to be in search of that one perfect line that it subsequently squanders a lot of potential human interest.

Human interest and believable dialog have been exercised in disaster films before. San Andreas, while covering solid ground on its own, still doesn’t manage to match the artistic merits and sheer elegance of Steve Quale’s Into the Storm, which managed to tag the human interest and dialog bases more effectively. It also doesn’t manage to evoke the kind of suspense necessary to this genre, for it’s always seeking the easiest, most celebratory way out of seemingly doomed situations for its characters that the outcome for certain perilous incidents becomes rather predictable. However, the realism of the chaos in San Andreas is what held my interest. Watching natural disasters play out in films, whilst not being in any danger yourself, is a wonderful trait that really exercises the very principles that cinema was founded upon; being immersed in an environment or being in the middle of action without ever leaving your seat or being in any conceivable danger. There are fine elements of chaotic filmmaking being explored here that will undoubtedly leave the average moviegoer wowed at what’s placed before them.

San Andreas is the film for those who already completed their third rewatch of Mad Max: Fury Road and feel Ex Machina looks a bit “too talky” for them. On that note, and several others, it works just fine.