Part of me understands that disaster movies shouldn’t have to be anything more than what they are, namely loud, bombastic showcases of special effects and mass destruction. San Andreas, 2015’s answer to films as old as Earthquake and as recent as 2012, delivers in this regard; we watch in awe as sizable earthquakes reduce buildings to rubble, send out city-leveling shockwaves, trigger a cataclysmic tsunami, and cause the title fault line to widen into a great fissure, one that dramatically separates the whole west coast of California from the remainder of the United States. It’s obvious that tremendous skill went into making these events look and sound real – as real, at any rate, as they can be in a film that, in the best possible sense, doesn’t even try to be seismologically accurate.
But there’s another part of me, one that wonders why films like this tend to be so visually spectacular yet so narratively, characteristically, and thematically lacking. San Andreas is a real sight to behold – especially in 3D, much to my surprise – but like many films of this genre, it tells a manufactured, predictable story and is populated by characters so transparently developed that they didn’t seem like characters at all, but rather like typecasts. In the right hands, this can be an effective approach. Consider 2012; perhaps aware that audiences for disaster movies respond more to spectacle than to substance, director Roland Emmerich opted for a dramatic scenario that was preposterous even by disaster-movie standards and characters that would never pass as authentic. In the case of San Andreas, director Brad Peyton seems to labor mightily on the incorrect assumption that we should take the drama and the characters seriously.
All the expected hallmarks are there, dramatically speaking. It centers on a family that’s on the verge of falling apart. The father, Ray (Dwayne Johnson), is a retired marine who’s now a Los Angeles Fire Department helicopter rescue pilot; ever since the accidental drowning of one of his daughters, he has been emotionally walled off from his soon-to-be ex-wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), and overly attached to his surviving daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario), now only days away from going to college. Emma is in a new relationship with Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd), a wealthy, successful architect whose latest skyscraper is under construction in San Francisco. He’s introduced as a decent enough man; he shows no animosity towards Ray, and he assures Blake that he has no intention of undermining her relationship with her father. Of course, when disaster strikes, he will reveal himself as the heartless bastard he truly is.
This leads me to the other expected hallmark – the scientist that predicts doom and gloom. This would be Lawrence (Paul Giamatti), a Cal Tech seismologist. He and his team of students and assistants have developed a system that can predict earthquakes. Don’t bother asking how it works or even if such a thing is plausible; I assure you that, unless you’re someone like Neil deGrasse Tyson, who famously criticized a single shot of the night sky in James Cameron’s Titanic for being inaccurate, absolutely no one will care. Lawrence’s system is put to the test under the Hoover Dam, where, naturally, a magnitude seven-plus earthquake suddenly strikes, destroying the dam and sending millions of gallons of water cascading down the Colorado River. Incidentally, not since 1978’s Superman has the Hoover Dam been destroyed more spectacularly.
Lawrence’s findings quickly reveal that not one but several major seismic events – in excess of magnitude nine, if I remember correctly – will strike California, and that they will travel up the entirety of the San Andreas Fault. We first see Los Angeles crumble, though more with aerial shots than with shots on the ground. It’s here that Ray rescues Emma atop a collapsing building; this sets into motion their mission to fly to San Francisco, which has also crumbled to piles of debris, and rescue Blake. Meanwhile, in the middle of all this destruction, Blake befriends a young British architect named Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his kid brother, Ollie (Art Parkinson). As the three of them band together, strategize, and try to stay alive, it becomes increasingly apparent that Ben’s purpose as a character is to give Blake a love interest. Likewise, Blake’s purpose is to give her parents the opportunity to reevaluate the status of their relationship.
The list of technicalities the film glosses over is too long for this review. Let’s focus on just one. Being an Angeleno, I lived through the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, so I understand all too well that earthquakes knock out power and disconnect phone lines. How is it possible, then, that Lawrence’s Cal Tech lab would remain up and running during and immediately after the first quake strikes? Where was enough power found to operate the cameras of a scoop-hungry news anchor (Archie Panjabi), who gives Lawrence the necessary platform to warn Californians that more magnitude nine quakes are on the way? I ask these questions knowing there’s no reason to, because films like San Andreas almost never bother to answer them. I can accept that. What I can’t really accept are disaster movies that lack the conviction to make even the most threadbare dramatic clichés tolerable, maybe even fun.