In my opinion, disaster movies used to be a tricky business. Their production involved taking things that often have affected the audience on a personal level (fires, tornadoes, etc.) and trying to show their drama while at the same time make for audience entertainment. With the advent of advanced special effects, though, it’s far, far, more about spectacle and how many oohs and aahs they can generate. I doubt anybody came out of The Poseidon Adventure or Towering Inferno talking about how “fun” they were. Contrast that with, say, Twister.
San Andreas (PG-13, 2015) understands this. It is perfectly willing to sacrifice plot for more and more shots of California being annihilated. In fact, that pretty much is the plot.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson stars as Ray Gaines, a rescue helicopter pilot who is trying to maintain a relationship with his daughter Blake (played by Alexandra Daddario) while his marriage to his wife Emma (Carla Gugino) is falling apart. Fortunately for Ray’s marriage, California gets hit by a cluster of earthquakes that are Biblical in their destructive power. Having been separated from his family members, Ray must fight through what’s left of California to re-unite them.
If this all sounds very overwrought and cheesy, it is for the most part. Truthfully, the cast members are just a second thought for most of the movie. Their main purpose is to move you from one catastrophe to another. This is a shame because the characters were actually pretty interesting. Or could have been. Johnson plays a fairly clichéd unstoppable, can-do hero, but there is a lot of underlying substance that the family dynamic teases and even lets off the leash at times. Gugino and Daddario deserve similar praise for being able to deliver performances that, despite their fifth-wheel status, stand out and make you notice them.
I’ll also admit a bias here, as I consider them to be among the most striking women in Hollywood.
That being said, it’s a shame that the film as a whole didn’t allow for more development of the characters. Granted, that would have required more plot, which would probably have required less spectacle, which is probably not what most people showed up to see.
As far as the spectacle part goes, I thought the effects were pretty awesome. There were more than a few “wow” moments. More importantly, it isn’t so chaotic that you get a headache from all the stuff happening on screen. It isn’t two hours of shaky-cam, nor is it just a non-stop mass of stuff whirling around so much that it makes your eyeballs tired.
Switching gears, I was surprised at the number of religious references in San Andreas. There are multiple comments about the need for prayer for the earthquake victims and their well-being, mostly from Paul Giamatti, portraying the seismologist who sees the disaster coming and races to inform the public. Naturally, there is a strong family message that you do what you have to do for those you love. I daresay this even pushes into a theme of overtly anti-divorce, especially when the reasons for Ray and Emma’s estrangement are explored.
Sadly, there was one use of blasphemy. There was also one f-bomb. As usual, these seem to have been thrown in just to lock down a PG-13 rating. Otherwise, it’s actually a pretty clean show. The cataclysm is mostly bloodless. There is no sexual content. I have to ask myself why a PG rating wouldn’t have been good enough. Is the 13 something that really brings in that many more ticket sales?
As a member of the modern disaster film genre, San Andreas excels. The problem is that it could have been a lot more than that, so I walked away feeling that there was a ton of lost potential. I suppose I shouldn’t let that take away from the good that was there, though. I’m giving it 1 and ½ tiaras. It would have been 2, but the throwaway blasphemy really ticked me off.
1 ½ tiaras.
Review by Throwback