“This is not a normal day!”
Certain movies are meant for summer. To cool off from the sweltering heatwaves in an air-conditioned theater, to sip a sweating soda and embrace the assembly of your local community for a night of entertainment. San Andreas is a perfect dog days movie. You’ll hear the seat to seat chatter, the crunch of popcorn, and the crinkling of wrappers in your crowd. Normally I hate that, but here, with a movie this loud and brash and big, it just feels right. Make fun of the disaster movie all you want. Try to diminish it as empty-headed fluff with no sense of art. You’ll be wrong and you’ll be alone in that thought. Like that person at a wedding reception miserably watching the masses jump and twist to “Shout,” San Andreas inspires as much noise and roar as that Isley Brother’s classic. This is diversion to be had and fun to be experienced so long as you join in.
Dwayne Johnson stars as Ray, a rescue-chopper pilot with over 600 successful missions. He’s stoic, brawny, and as big as the buildings eventually crumbling around him. Ray’s all business, and it takes its toll on his personal life. He’s separated from his wife Emma (Carla Gugino), who’s moving in with her new uppity boyfriend Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd). And his planned trip with their daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) is postponed after an earthquake destroys the Hoover Dam. The cataclysmic event could have been avoided had people only listened to Lawrence (Paul Giamatti), the head of Cal Tech’s seismology department. The Dam was only the beginning, as the San Andreas fault wrecks havoc all the way from Los Angeles to San Francisco, collapsing buildings and destroying every imaginable landmark in and out of sight.
There’s really no need to go further into the story than that. This is a disaster movie…we know how it goes at this point. What sets San Andreas apart is the execution of its individual set pieces, although there’s so much constant action you could probably get away with collectively calling the entire movie that. They are intense, suspenseful, and climatic without ever being too derivative or finite. It’s a testament to director Brad Peyton. Each event builds towards the next and ups the scale, and somehow he doesn’t lose the human element established in the film’s few intimate moments of respite. In that regard alone, San Andreas is a step above other doomsday features. This isn’t an end of the world threat like most disaster movies or the crux of every comic book adaptation either. It’s contained to its refined geographic area, and we grip our seats waiting to see if the characters can survive the ordeal. It’s definitely formulaic (I correctly guessed 10 entire lines said by Johnson), but also feels refreshingly new with an inventive tone.
The graphics, unlike frequenter of the genre Roland Emmerich’s disaster features, are very well done. It’s a world of concrete and rebar, and it was nice to see practical effects woven into the extensively heavy use of CGI. The performances are good too. It was a massive gamble to confine Johnson, an actor so dependent on his physicality, to a helicopter for so long and actually let him act. He has explosive moments, but most of his time is spent cruising the skies, assessing the situation, and developing a plan. Johnson is a tireless worker devoted not only to his craft, but even more to his worldwide fanbase, and I’m happy to see his passion finally translate into a deserving final product. Giamatti is great in the type of role he’s accustomed himself to playing recently, even if his character does get lost a little bit towards the end. Gugino and Daddario are splendid as well. Both women bring such levity and dramatic talent, and although the picture definitely accentuates their figures, it never reduces them to objects. These are people in crisis and the three leads give the epic film a familial touch.
San Andreas doesn’t have the kind of staying power that will help it translate to Independence Day or Armageddon’s constant airtime on TV. The rewatchability factor is pretty low. Yet this is a movie you should see, and see in theaters (I saw it in the standard viewing format, but I imagine the 3D is worth the surcharge.) Aside from the thrills of mass demolition, the movie’s best aspect is its disinterest with a singular heroic figure. Sure, Johnson saves the day multiple times, but he’s also often helpless and in need of aid. Even characters who barely grace the screen are given the opportunity to save lives, to make a difference, to energize and cause change. San Andreas presents us with a world where even the smallest and weakest can be the strongest and the bravest so long as they are willing to take the initiative. Most audiences will know exactly where this is taking them, and it speaks volumes of the film’s skillful mix of surprising depth and face-value entertainment that we’re able to revel in the ruination and still appreciate the hearts at its center.
“I’m going to get you out.”
Rating: 3 out of 5