There’s an odd perception among many film-goers that summer blockbusters and other CG-heavy entertainment should be immune from screenplay-focused criticism – that the point of these movies is pure visual escapism and thrills so who really cares if the script is problematic or dumb? I can’t speak for anyone else, but the answer to that question is I do goddammit. Of course there are certain allowances – a disaster movie need not offer much character depth and smarts alongside the destruction, but we can all agree some effort is appreciated right?
Anyway. Let’s talk about San Andreas.
Ray (Dwayne Johnson) is a celebrated rescue helicopter pilot for L.A. County prone to acts of heroism with a dash of the crazy – he’s not Top Gun’s Maverick-levels of recklessness, but he takes unnecessary risks. Unfortunately for him he also just received divorce papers from his wife and can’t compete with her new boyfriend’s immense wealth. It seems all the bravery and courageous feats in the world aren’t enough to keep his family together… or are they?!
An earthquake strikes near the Hoover Dam so Ray suits up and heads out alone to lend a beefy hand, but he’s barely out of the city when a related quake strikes Los Angeles trapping his wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), atop a downtown high-rise. Ray abandons his post without a second thought and rushes to save her, but his day is just getting started – his daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario) is in San Francisco with her soon-to-be step-dad, Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd) – and when the seismic chain reaction moves north Ray and Emma take an impromptu sky/road trip to save their daughter who’s in her own fight for survival alongside two new friends from England. If only someone had listened to the CalTech professor’s (Paul Giamotti) warnings!
“Pray for the people of San Francisco.”
As disaster movies go director Brad Peyton’s first non-sequel (after Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) captures some exquisitely detailed destruction and death on a massive scale. He spreads his geographic money shots around giving viewers spectacular views of CG mayhem at the Hoover Dam, in L.A. and throughout the entirety of San Francisco. The latter gets the worst of it with multiple quakes and an epic tsunami that work together to leave the city in utter ruin. (The fine folks over at Fox News will be calling this the best film of the year any minute now.) Thousands of people die with hundreds of them visibly biting it onscreen, and the overall level of detailed annihilation sets a slightly higher bar for the disaster porn sub-genre.
Through it all though the script (by Carlton Cuse) keeps the film’s – and Ray’s – focus on rescuing Blake. There are minor emotional beats throughout between Ray and his soon-to-be ex and among Blake and her two new British best friends, and more than a few humorous bits land as well, but none of them distract from the fact that Ray is an absolutely immoral, irresponsible and terrible municipal employee.
Not only does he abandon his post early on, but in his efforts to reach his wife and daughter he makes zero effort to help anyone else. The helicopter he’s in could be used to save dozens of people around the city, but instead he effectively steals it and flies the mostly empty chopper towards San Francisco. It’s pretty amazing actually how indifferent he is to strangers. Not only is it Ray’s job in the world of the film, but it’s also who he is in the “film” – he’s the hero, he’s the one who saves people, he’s The Rock for christ’s sake. He steals several vehicles to reach Blake, and I can’t help but imagine their owners arriving moments later with their families ready to escape to safety only to realize they’re screwed. It would be one thing if this character trait was somehow a part of the story or even commented on, but it’s not and instead the film still treats Ray as an incredible hero.
His selfish tendencies (and preference for wearing one size too small tee-shirts) run in the family too as Blake and her new friends scavenge supplies from a fire truck for possible use in the future – and they do so within feet of the rescue personnel actually doing their job and helping people. Adding insult to injury they don’t even use those bandages at a later moment and instead Blake is forced to remove her shirt to use as a bandage and never mind I just realized that’s actually a highlight.
Cuse’s script features other groaners as well beyond its focus on the adventures of California’s most self-centered family. Worried that Emma’s new man might actually be a good guy worthy of her love? Don’t be. Concerned that no one will take time away from the death and destruction surrounding them to give in to their more primal urges and kiss? Fret not.
San Andreas accomplishes the basic goal of big budget disaster movies and destroys numerous landmarks and lives in glorious fashion. It’s just everything else that it gets wrong.
The Upside: Fantastically detailed CG destruction; other eye candy; great use of the f-bomb; Paul Giamotti’s puppy dog eyes
The Downside: Script is ridiculously myopic and irresponsible in regard to main character; script embraces far too many cliches; lacks balls