Directed by Brad Peyton
“San Andreas” will divide audiences as effectively as the titular fault line divides gas stations. It’s the kind of big, loud, action-packed summer movie that gives big, loud, action-packed summer movies a bad name. If that’s all you want – fast, extreme eye candy, you’ll likely love it. But if you want premises, plotlines, and characters that make sense, you’ll wish the ground would open up and swallow you.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays Ray, a Los Angeles Fire Department helicopter rescue pilot who is, of course, totally awesome at his job. We’re shown this at the start of the movie with the obligatory scene that establishes his total awesomeness – just in time for him to apparently forget completely what his job is for the rest of the movie. The rest of the movie features a series of earthquakes, of ever increasing magnitude, rapidly destroying California, as Ray attempts to save his family from assorted falling buildings.
Let’s ponder the underlying premise for a moment: Probably most of us know that the San Andreas fault line runs through much of California and has caused, and will cause again, many earthquakes over time. But this is a film that needs it to be the worst event of all time, with the worst complications – including a tsunami, despite the San Andreas fault not moving in the manner that the film depicts. Oops: Mustn’t think too much.
However, setting that aside, there’s also a problem when everything has to be the biggest, the worst, the most catastrophic, etc. – there’s no buildup of tension. This is a movie that starts the action at catastrophic levels and has almost nowhere to go from there. It’s the kind of film that sets out to make classic disaster movies like “Towering Inferno” and 1972’s “The Poseidon Adventure” look like a trivial inconvenience and yet trivializes itself by never pausing for effect.
For example, it has become fashionable recently, in action movies, to have scenes in which characters run towards safety as the ground or other surface they’re running on crumbles away beneath their feet. It’s a neat visual effect for a culminating action sequence, albeit a little played out. But this is a film that starts with that and then does it over and over. Every rescue is a rescue without a second to spare, making luck seem like the leading character. It’s tiresome and at some point the entire film feels like it’s running across crumbling ground – as though the production knows it can’t risk slowing down and having us realize how little substance is supporting it.
Meanwhile, through all of this, Ray is depicted as the stalwart hero – the man you can always rely on. Unless of course you’re a taxpayer in Los Angeles who employs him and paid for the helicopter he essentially steals to save his own family. Thus, it’s either a story about a heroic husband and father rescuing his wife and daughter – or it’s a story about a selfish first responder who ignores his duty and steals an invaluable rescue helicopter in which he flies over countless thousands of people who need his help in order to rescue only those people he’s related to. It’s the kind of movie that might make little girls and boys want to be rescue helicopter pilots – but it’s also some pretty awful role-modeling and the setup for the biggest, loudest, most catastrophic dereliction of duty story ever “San Andreas 2: What About The Rest of Us!?” I think if I was a first responder, “San Andreas” would upset me greatly in this regard. (And also when he dives headfirst into debris-filled floodwater.)
There’s also something epic about the film’s multi-segmentational marketing strategy, at a time in our history when there’s an ongoing public attempt to discredit science for political advantage. Rather than trying to argue against the actual science of topics such as climate change or evolution, the new political approach, when those things don’t fit your talking points, seems to be to simply undermine the very notion of science and the role of scientists. And this often ends up being a perceived contest between science and religion. So if you’re a filmmaker and you need a character who’s a scientist trying to predict earthquakes (Paul Giamatti in “San Andreas”), but you also want him to be sympathetic to a wide audience, what do you do? Answer: You have him make multiple references to God and prayer, and you have him downplay scientific knowledge while simultaneously championing it. Not that there aren’t any religious scientists, but it still feels intentionally manipulative, like conveniently tacked on dialog after an intervention by a marketing consultant.
What few highlights there are, outside of just the impressive visual effects, are in some of the performances. Johnson is solid despite the poorly framed character he plays, Carla Gugino makes the most of a role that mostly has her reacting to the actions of others, Alexandra Daddario (perhaps most recognizable from the “Percy Jackson” movies) does well as the daughter in need of rescue, and young Art Parkinson (Rickon Stark from “Game of Thrones”) provides occasional comic relief as the younger of two English brothers she teams up with.
Still, if you like falling buildings, crumbling surfaces on which poorly developed characters are forced to run, and multiple last second rescues, this will be everything you want it to be. But if those things don’t completely trump logic and reason in your overall desired cinematic experience, you’ll likely determine that the biggest and most catastrophic fault lines are in the screenplay.
That said, “San Andreas” isn’t the worst new film this week – at least not in markets where “Aloha” is also opening. “Aloha” is a phenomenal misfire from writer/director Cameron Crowe (“Jerry Maguire,” “Almost Famous”) about a civilian contractor (Bradley Cooper) attempting to grease the wheels for development between the military, the native population in Hawaii, and his billionaire boss (Bill Murray). It has so much going for it, with an accomplished director and a cast that includes Cooper, Emma Stone, Murray, Rachel McAdams, John Krasinski, and Alex Baldwin – but none of the plot elements and few of the performances ever click. It feels almost like a movie that was made one weekend per month, by a group of people working in their spare time who couldn’t remember from one month to next what they had shot on the previous occasion or what the movie is about. Moods seem to swing, cohesion is largely absent, performances teeter on the edge of parody (the whole film is teetering there without ever quite seeming to make the commitment to cross that line), too many relationships are at stake, and the end result is a hot mess. The highlights are the scenes with McAdams, and those that involve one or both of the child actors who play her kids – Jaeden Lieberher (“St. Vincent”) and especially Danielle Rose Russell (“A Walk Among the Tombstones”) – and I’m happy to have seen it just for those three actors’ work. Russell’s performance alone, despite minimal screen time, would have made it worthwhile.