Published on June 1st, 2015 | by Josh Glenn3
San Andreas Review
A devastating natural disaster eviscerates a big city, toppling the infrastructure, the famous landmarks and block after block after block. The scientist predicted this all, naturally, but did anyone listen to him? Of course not. And now legions of men, women, children and cute animals are clambering for their lives as the government slowly but surely beings to orchestrate widespread aid. Trapped within this are the vestiges of a family: a married-to-his-work dad, haunted by a past tragedy that he dare not speak of; an estranged wife, trying to move on with a new beau but mournful of the life she lost; and, adrift between the two, a plucky child sympathetic to both of their plights yet focused on carving out an identity for themselves. Maybe, just maybe, the unimaginable carnage unfolding around them will force them to address their demons once and for all. Maybe, throughout all of this, they will be rebuilt as the unit they once were.
What movie am I describing here? Given that this is a review for San Andreas, you’d be correct in assuming the obvious. Stripped of its superficial trappings, though – leading man The Rock, the Californian setting, the shifting tectonic plates – the latest offering from director Brad Peyton plays like nothing more than a flashy schematic of disaster movie components. Everything is here, present and correct, and content to bask in reheated cliche. What is there in that description, after all, to say that this isn’t The Day After Tomorrow, or 2012, or any other anodyne Emmerich knock-off?
If San Andreas ultimately boils down to an uninspiring retread, that isn’t to say there aren’t flashes of character sprinkled on top. The core protagonists are solid: Dwayne Johnson may not be all that much of a character actor, but he remains one hell of a charismatic performer; Carla Gugino is an unflappably warm screen presence, benefitting to no end from being given the movie’s most crowd-pleasing kiss-off line; and Alexandra Daddario, as unexpressive and unconvincing as a teenager as she is, partakes in a welcome reversal of gender roles. Moments like characters trying to make it over a tsunami before it breaks, or realising that the building they are seeking solace in is gradually sinking, genuinely pack a sense of something approaching awe, reaching levels of excitement that you only wish the film invested more effort in replicating.
But these moments are regrettably fleeting, lost to a sea of tension-drowning CGI, shoddy characterisation and abysmal pacing. In a sense, we’ve been spoiled by Mad Max: Fury Road. George Miller has returned a sense of pioneering experimentation to action movies: the stunts have a Buster Keaton mentality to them, the world and its inhabitants are established efficiently through effective manipulation of visual signifiers, and the two hour runtime straps you to the hood of its gas guzzler and slams its foot down. Peyton, conversely, is always looking back over his shoulder.
More damning, though, is that it’s not so much ‘schizophrenic’ in tone as simply ‘bored by itself’. Fury Road sustained an atmosphere of menace throughout, subtly but consistently returning to the ever-encroaching power chords and the vestiges on the horizon to ensure that the stakes were very real and very dangerous. San Andreas, on the other hand, can’t summon even an approximation of danger, despite the fact that millions of lives are very clearly at stake at every turn.
A large part of this upturned drama can be attributed to leaps in logic that make big demands of the audience. For the lenient viewer, suspension of disbelief can account for the fact that Johnson’s character – a vigilant member of the LA Fire Department helicopter rescue team – shirks his duty by using one of few valuable helicopters to make sure his family are safe. Objectively, it’s utterly reprehensible behaviour; in the context of the narrative, it’s a necessary evil. But the consequence of conveying the lion’s share of the disaster from their self-serving perspective squashes any sense of real-world stakes and creates tension akin to a Looney Tunes cartoon. Never once do you get the impression that they will end up anything other than fine, nor do you bat an eyelid when thousands of terrified fleeing citizens are squished by a falling building or cargo ship. It’s numbing and implicitly leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
In fairness, this isn’t a problem unique to San Andreas but one with the genre as a whole. Collateral damage is, after all, what the disaster movie is defined by, so we need to see large-scale consequence to create the requisite tension for our protagonists. Yet, time after time, these movies fumble this, rendering what should be heartbreaking death and destruction as incidental in our heroes’ journey. The survival of the dog in Independence Day, for instance, is posited as a moment of triumph, but its positioning at the end of a sequence in which an avenue packed full of cars is obliterated makes it somewhat bothersome. The implication of this is genuinely quite troubling: torture porn gets a bad rep for deriving glee from human suffering, but what of scenes where hundreds – thousands, even – of people are casually wiped out by anaemic CGI destruction? There are countless sequences like that here, sequences that should inspire celebration but which, cumulatively, make you wonder just why we should care about these particular people.
The answer, as you wade through computer-generated debris, gung-ho American back-patting and first-draft dialogue, is that you shouldn’t. Go and see Fury Road again instead.