I had a similar reaction to the latest slice of disaster porn, San Andreas. Starring the former "Rock," Dwayne Johnson, and directed by Brad Peyton (He directed Johnson in Journey 2.), San Andreas tells the story of what happens when The Big One finally hits Southern California. And, Northern California. And, Nevada. And, Bakersfield. According to the film, the west coast is overdue for a huge quake by about 150 years, but San Andreas is to earthquake preparedness as The Day After Tomorrow was to climate science. If something like this hits, I’m not sure that a backpack with bottled water is going to do a lot of good.
Johnson stars as Ray Gaines, a rescue pilot of the LA Fire Department. As the film opens, Ray and his helicopter crew are en route to save a girl who has driven her car over a ridge in the Valley. (Don’t text and drive, kids!) The scene is designed to introduce us to The Rock’s character, but it winds up being oddly stupid. For starters, Ray’s crew is hosting a TV news crew who only exists to provide exposition opportunities and character background. Why are these people invited on a fairly dangerous rescue mission in the first place? And, why is their helicopter about to run out of fuel? Didn’t they gas it up before taking off?
The helicopter proves to be handy later, when a series of quakes in Nevada (So long, Hoover Dam!) activates the entire San Andreas fault. Ray has a bird’s eye view as Downtown Los Angeles evaporates. It happens that Ray’s ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino) is having lunch in a DTLA high rise and Ray must swoop in to extract her from a rooftop. Their daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario, who looks like she could never be the offspring of Johnson and Gugino is a million years) is stranded in San Francisco, so estranged husband and wife must head north to make the rescue. Just like The Abyss and Twister, “signing the divorce papers” is a major plot point. And, come to think about it, San Andreas pretty much has the exact same storyline as The Day After Tomorrow: parents traveling to rescue child from natural disaster.
Reading back over the preceding paragraphs, it sound like I’m really dumping on San Andreas. There are a lot of things about this movie that need to praised. First of all, the movie is never, ever dull and always completely watchable. That’s something. Johnson continues to be a fine anchor for movies like this, but he’s very somber here, and I prefer him when he’s able to utilize his innate comic gilts — he’s genuinely funny. The movie also never uses him in any action, which is odd. Johnson spends the entire movie flying something or driving something. He throws just one punch. The Rock is a guy with a very particular set of skills, but he doesn’t really put them to much use. The cast is uniformly fine, and Paul Giamatti especially classes things up as a Cal Tech seismologist whose scientific findings are always slightly ahead of the curve.
And, hats off to visual effects supervisor Colin Strause and all the effects houses that contributed to the final film. There’s no denying that the destruction sequences are pretty staggering in their detail. The camera glides in and around collapsing buildings, at one point splitting the middle as one structure is ripped in half. Usually, these sequences are staged as if they were being watched from a distance, but Peyton and his team really drop the audience into the midst of the mayhem and it’s very impressive work.
But, that leads me to my main problem with the film: How is any of this supposed to be entertaining? And, make no mistake, it is supposed to be entertaining. It’s a summer movie that’s billed as an action film. One nutty sequence involves boaters trying to top a giant wave before it crests, dodging huge containers as a cargo ship is flung at them. But, this is a movie in which literally tens of millions of people are killed. As impressive as the carnage is, how is it fun? Anybody who recoiled at the wanton destruction of Metropolis during the Superman/Zod fight in Man of Steel is going to be gobsmacked by what happens to San Francisco here. First, the city gets leveled by the largest earthquake in recorded history, and then (Then!) they are hit by a tsunami so large it’s flinging cruise ships and battleships into skyscrapers. How many times are we going to see the Golden Gate Bridge get annihilated onscreen before it gets old? (Hint: it’s already old.) There’s a major fault that runs through the midwest, why can’t St. Louis buy the farm for a change?
Maybe it’s living in a post 9/11 world, but watching the destruction of major cities isn’t much fun.
In the third act, Ray and Emma have commandeered a boat and are traversing a flooded San Francisco. Debris fills the water, but not bodies of the dead. It’s as if the film wants to give us pandemonium as if it were the fireworks show at Disneyland and meanwhile ignore the human toll.
Maybe it’s just me, maybe other people won’t care and will be able to enjoy San Andreas as the dumb fun it’s clearly intended to be. I just felt numb by the time it was over, despite the rock-solid craft that’s on display.