Disaster movies always test our suspension of disbelief, but San Andreas tests the threshold of which our eyes can roll in the back of our heads. If, by the end, you are still able to stare directly at the screen, you pass… or fail. You can choose the result based on your tolerance for the on-screen material. For me it was an uneasy cross between a trainwreck and a hoot, if for no other reason than – Hyperbole Alert! – San Andreas may be the single most unbelievable movie ever made. And this is coming from someone who has seen a gazillion disaster movies, including the Roland Emmerich ones.
Speaking of Emmerich, you might be surprised to read that he actually is not responsible for San Andreas. Another surprise: It may have been a more successful film if he had been. This is the kind of Level One, flag-waving, human-spirit-as-superhero spectacle that was right in Emmerich’s wheelhouse in the late-‘90s and early-‘00s, and most of the time its screenplay – by former Lost scribe Carlton Cuse – does indeed feel as if it was recycled from the 1997 reject bin. Massive catastrophe destroys iconic landmarks, obliterates a wide swath of population, and threatens to destroy the entire world until a recognizable cast of broad caricatures all band together to save humanity.
But wait… does that actually happen in San Andreas? There is surely destruction writ large – hell, Emmerich blew up the White House real good in Independence Day and it feels small-scale compared to the wreckage on display here, with what seems like the entire west coast imploding in the wake of The Largest Earthquakes in Recorded History. Not even Transformers could destroy this much on-screen acreage (though I shouldn’t go unintentionally daring Michael Bay to be a topper). But that whole “banding together to save the world” nugget? Not really part of this movie’s DNA. If anything, San Andreas is a sort of myopic disaster movie, with the members of one fractured family gearing up to save one another from destruction and basically leave everyone else to fend for themselves.
That one-note screenplay construction is made all the more curious by its own setup: Ray (Dwayne Johnson) is a celebrated LAFD rescue pilot, who as the film opens navigates his helicopter into the jagged mountains of the San Fernando Valley to rescue a completely undeserving teenage Barbie (she was, after all, texting friends and listening to Taylor Swift when a tremor sent her sports car into the tailspin to end all tailspins) with remarkable precision and awe-inspiring strength. But when a series of Richter Scale-busting quakes rattle the entire West Coast, shift the planet’s tectonic plates, and crack the San Andreas Fault wide open, Ray is not tapped as the leader of a coalition to rescue hapless citizens from certain destruction. No, he just wants to grab his wife and daughter (played, respectively, by Carla Gugino and Alexandra Daddario, otherwise known as the two best casting decisions in the movie) and get the hell out of Dodge. Not that I blame him. I’d most certainly be just as selfish in a similar scenario. However, the relatively narrow focus of this grand-scale disaster epic is curious at best and blind at worst.
Paul Giamatti is cast, thanklessly, as The Scientist – a required fixture in the Natural Disaster Movie template. In a role that literally bears no connection to the central plot, Giamatti at least can walk off as the only character to attempt widespread warning, since he commandeers a CalTech TV crew to seize the airwaves and send a global doomsday message and remind citizens to, when all else fails, duck and cover. It’s the closest the film ever comes to portraying grand-scale heroism, since the remainder of its running time is dedicated to showcasing “The Rock” as a cardboard superhero, Daddario as the token woman of action in her B-story, and Gugino as the unfortunate damsel who can only save the day when her motherly instincts spur her on. All of their superior talents are sacrificed for sub-par green-screen architectural carnage that clings tightly to standard tropes – the camera pans smoothly as cityscapes crumble to the ground, innocents run helplessly, heroes can survive the most severe catastrophes, and villains get summarily crushed by large pieces of debris while we are encouraged to cheer at every turn, particularly at the last bit. I’d say the end is worth cheering for, except that’s when the flag drops and the film attempts jingoism that is completely trite, yet still totally unearned. So basically, the whole movie collapses in a deluge of imitations of other clichéd disasters.