We haven’t had a good disaster movie in quite a while which is odd considering that a couple of years ago, it seemed like director Roland Emmerich gave us a movie about some part of America getting completely destroyed each year. Be it The Day After Tomorrow or 2012, audiences love to see the world crumble before the might of Mother Nature. This year, we got another such film, San Andreas, and the disaster du jour is a series of massive earthquakes that plague California.
San Andreas stars Dwayne Johnson as rescue pilot Ray Gaines, an ex-military man haunted by the death of his youngest daughter. Ray blames himself for her death, an event that led to his divorce from his wife Emma (Carla Gugino). Ray’s main goal in life is to protect the only daughter he has left, Blake (Alexandra Daddario). Things get complicated when the famed San Andreas fault causes massive earthquakes across California, putting Ray and his family in imminent danger. Separated from his wife and daughter, Ray must use his skills to find and safeguard those he loves from the brutal onslaught of the earth’s tectonic plates. Meanwhile, Cal Tech seismologist Dr. Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) is doing everything in his power to predict where the earthquakes will hit and how destructive they will be in an effort to warn the public and prevent further casualties.
Visually, this is a breathtaking movie and is pretty much everything you would want from a disaster film. Buildings crumble in heaps of dust and rubble, hundreds of citizens run the streets trying to evade falling debris and there’s even a really thrilling giant tidal wave towards the film’s end that causes all kinds of destruction. It’s beautiful chaos pure and simple, and full credit to director Brad Peyton for bringing it all to life. Watching San Andreas, I realized that we have come to a point in cinema where actors are almost irrelevant to the movie compared to the visuals. I felt like the movie could have almost been just as good if it had just been destruction, without any central characters to focus on. The way things are going, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see that in the future in cinema. The earthquakes and tidal waves that destroy California are the clear stars of San Andreas, despite the trailers and posters claiming it’s Dwayne Johnson which is a real shame considering this might very well be one of his best performances.
Now that we’ve established the film’s excellent visuals, we can move on to what doesn’t work about San Andreas which is pretty much everything else. This movie is a classic case of great actors being shackled to a poorly written script, filled with one-dimensional characters and cheesy dialog. I appreciate that Dwayne Johnson is trying to show some range here as this is one of his more serious roles, demanding a lot more emotion out of him than his usual high-octane action movie parts. It’s unfortunate that all of his efforts are being put towards such a lackluster story and character. As good as Johnson is, his on-screen daughter is just as engaging. Alexandra Daddario manages to act beyond the poor material she is given, clearly showing that she is an actress to watch out for in the future. She’s charming, gorgeous and has all the attributes we look for in an actress. Some of the best character moments in the film are when both she and Johnson are on screen together. It’s Paul Giamatti’s character that felt the most unnecessary. While he is important in the movie’s first act, acting as the character who first predicts the oncoming threat, he’s useless later on as all he does is sit in a room and track the destruction caused by the earthquake. His scenes just distracted from the more interesting stuff happening with Johnson and Daddario in their separate stories.
San Andreas has the same plot you’ve seen from every other disaster movie in existence like The Day After Tomorrow to 2012. It still amazes me that this isn’t a Roland Emmerich film. It’s the classic story of a father trying to save his family in the midst of a natural catastrophe and plays on every single moment you’d expect from such a tale. By the time the movie came to its climax, I felt no real concern because I already knew how a movie like this would end, and it did not surprise me in the slightest. But what’s most frustrating about the movie is that it takes itself way to seriously, only occasionally offering some moments of levity and comedy. But these moments are so few and far between that they feel out of place. There is a moment where a certain villainous character gets crushed by a giant piece of ruble, and I could not tell if I was supposed to laugh at that, even if some people in the theater were.
San Andreas is the very definition of a bland summer blockbuster. It’s got great special effects, a top notch cast and provides some good thrills, but ultimately it’s a hollow experience, all sound and no fury. The script offers absolutely no surprises, tired characters and cringe-worthy dialog so uninspired that I was able to complete characters’ sentences on multiple occasions. I hope this movie marks the last time Dwayne Johnson and Alexandra Daddario will have wasted good performances on a movie that honestly doesn’t care about its actors. The thing is, the visuals and sheer magnitude of the destruction in San Andreas warrant that anybody who wants to get the full experience should see it in the theater; unfortunately it’s not worth that high of an entry price.
Final Grade: 4/10