I’m going to preface this by coming out as a lover of big dumb action. I do this because critics get a lot of crap for coming down on “fun” movies where we’re supposed to go in with our expectations low and just enjoy the “fun.” I like those movies. Check out my review history; it’s full of me liking those movies. So when I say that San Andreas is a bad movie do not misconstrue it as a critic just not liking “fun.”
With that out of the way: San Andreas is a bad movie.
Director: Brad Peyton
Release Date: May 29, 2015
At some point in the last 20 years or so CGI and ever more impressive special effects have allowed a new genre to crop up. The destruction genre is a subset of action that, as the name suggests, revels in the destruction of a place or the entire world. This destruction is usually caused by some natural disaster, but the end result is always the same: buildings tumble, millions of people die, and one group of people makes it out alive. It’s always the same and by now the shine of seeing a city fall apart has worn off. We’ve seen it 100 times before in 100 different ways so if you’re making some destruction porn you better have something more than just stunning visuals of a building falling over.
That is all San Andreas has. It is a destruction movie functioning on the belief that we’re still impressed by this stuff despite that fact that it is no longer impressive. Does it look good? Sure, but so does every other movie in the genre, and we literally just saw San Francisco destroyed last year in Godzilla. It just isn’t exciting anymore without something behind it and there is nothing behind San Andreas. It is, in fact, so boring and vapid that its lack of character ruins its destruction sequences because, damn it, you just want everyone to die.
Ray (Dwayne Johnson) is an LAFD helicopter rescue pilot and he and his crack team are the best of the best so when the San Andreas fault starts to cause massive earthquakes stretching from Hoover Dam to San Francisco he hops into action… by ditching his team, hi-jacking a government helicopter and saving his wife, Emma (Carla Gugino) in L.A. then flying to San Francisco to rescue his daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario). Meanwhile Lawrence (Paul Giamatti), a scientist at Cal Tech has, figured out a way to predict earthquakes and has warned all of San Francisco that an even worse one is coming. Prolific destruction ensues as millions die and Blake loses layer after layer of clothing in order to show her breasts off.
It’s dumb to expect too much depth in a destruction movie, and you really shouldn’t, but the lazy nature of San Andreas is particularly insulting. The plot is so paint-by-numbers that I expected the screenplay credits to be attributed to a coloring book. The “estranged couple pulled back together by disaster” trope is so old and so poorly executed that not even Johnson’s charm can salvage how ineptly it is handled. Meanwhile you’ve got Blake falling in love with a guy she just happened to meet ten seconds before the world started shaking and his little brother following them around for comic relief.
It is surprising then, considering just how little creativity went into the screenplay, that they could screw it up so badly. You’d think with most of the characters and plot already developed a million times over in tons of other movies they could have pieced together something coherent, but instead the movie can’t even hold onto its own basic plot threads. We’re introduced to Ray’s crack team of rescuers, but they disappear once the destruction starts. The film can’t even give it’s villain a proper farewell as Emma’s new boyfriend, who is routinely made more unbelievably douchey, plot line consists of him being a douche and then (spoilers) dying.
But, you say,who cars about plot when you’ve got the Golden Gate bridge being crushed by a tsunami (after it miraculously survives a 9.6 earthquake). Suspend your disbelief and just enjoy the ride. It’s just hard to enjoy a ride that you’ve been on 20 times and isn’t executed very well in the first place. Brad Peyton brings almost no creativity to the job, content to let his CGI department make some pretty pictures and then piece them together into a “story.” Tension barely builds in action sequences thanks to the fact that he can barely hold a scene together. Near the end, when Ray must rescue Blake from drowning at one point, the sequence falls apart about like the building the two are trapped in.
Maybe if San Andreas felt even slightly aware of just how cliche and unoriginal it was then it could be fun, but instead it takes itself deadly seriously. At one point Paul Giamatti looks directly into the camera and says, “Pray for the people of San Francisco.” It’s a line so campy it should have been played up as such. Instead it only highlights the film’s inability to capture either the true emotion of massive destruction and death or the awe that these kinds of films use to be able to pull out of us simply from visual splendor.
One more note. The timing of this film could not be worse given the situation in Nepal. While Warner Bros. has provided information on how people can contribute to relief efforts in marketing campaigns and agreed to match dollar for dollar every contribution their employees make to Nepal what they didn’t do was make a movie that inspires any of the emotions that this tragedy deserves. San Andreas just wants to show destruction and it wants you to revel in it.That’s nearly impossible given the timing of the release and the fact that reveling in nothing but glorified destruction got old at least five years ago.