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Non-Review Review: San Andreas

San Andreas is a b-movie that desperately wants to be taken seriously.

The film is at its best when it engages with its corniness. The characters make terrible baseball-related puns as the world falls to pieces. Our protagonist has a clever idea inspired by a passer-by’s choice of headware. Paul Giamatti sells his seismological terror. A desperate mother decides to plough a boat through a window into the room where her daughter is already close to death. The disaster relief efforts are interrupted so that the news reporters can thank the team of hard-working seismologists who predicted the disaster whole minutes before it happened.

Pilot error?

Pilot error?

However, the film has no real sense of tone or mood. The script longs for a deeper resonance, and so aims a lot higher than it can actually hit. The main characters spend most of the disaster working through the death of a child several years earlier, with cliché flashbacks striving for heart-breaking but landing on groan-inducing. Plot points are dutifully and awkwardly set up, with characters spending most of the first act spewing obvious foreshadowing more than meaningful dialogue.

The result is a mismatched and uneven piece of work, a disaster movie in more than the way that the production team intended.

"Um, I found a plot hole..."

“Um, I found a plot hole…”

The disaster movie genre has seen better days. There was a time when these sorts of adventures were a dime a dozen, with stories of all sorts of calamities unfolding in all sorts of ridiculous ways. From The Great Inferno to Earthquake to The Poseidon Adventure to Airport. Airplane! has aged remarkably well, almost completely divorced from the slate of disaster films that inspired it. Despite the better efforts of Roland Emmerich, it seems like the disaster movie has largely faded. A revival is attempted every couple of years, but it never quite sticks.

There are a lot of reasons why these sorts of films don’t work as well as they once did. Changing tastes are obviously part of it, but there is also the simple fact that the way studios make movies has changed dramatically. Those classic disaster films were generally bigger ensemble pieces, with many of the more notable performances coming from supporting players. In contrast, modern blockbusters have become more brand-driven than ensemble-driven; they are all built around characters or concepts or actors that audiences recognise and respond to.

It's not that bad...

It’s not that bad…

Asked to provide advice for surviving a natural disaster, the lead character in San Andreas suggests, “Find something sturdy and hold on.” That is very much the model of modern movie-making, and it can work very well. There is a sense that the producers of San Andreas understand the philosophy; they found Dwayne Johnson and are holding on for dear life. San Andreas is a disaster movie, but one where the ensemble very clearly branches out from a single point. Dwayne Johnson is the epicentre of the film; everything else is a fore- or aftershock.

Dwayne Johnson essentially anchors the film, with other characters asserting their importance relative to him. With the exception of Paul Giamatti’s exposition-generating team, the interest that a film has in its characters is relative to their relationship to Dwayne Johnson. Anybody more than two degrees removed is pretty much dead on arrival. At one point, the central character hijacks a rescue helicopter to rescue his wife and daughter, while Los Angeles is trying to cope with its own crisis. Nobody seems to point out that the decision dooms dozens of innocent people.

A driving force...

A driving force…

There is a very strange dissonance at the heart of San Andreas. It is a movie that aims for epic scale, but without the necessary ground work. The bulk of the adventure is very much the story of a single family trying to reunite across the disaster-addled state of California, with the actual consequences and impact of the disaster forced to the background. Buildings tumble and the ground opens up, but San Andreas is only interested in that computer-generated imagery as an obstacle to the Gaines family unit.

There is nothing inherently wrong on trying to tell an intimate story in the midst of an epic disaster. It is an approach that can work quite well, as Steven Spielberg demonstrated with the underrated War of the Worlds. In a way, Mad Max: Fury Road tells a similar type of story very well. However, the problem with San Andreas is that it tries to have the best of both worlds. It is not satisfied to confine its scope to the trials and tribulations of the Gaines family, instead trying to provide a larger-scale drama.

"It's so green screened!"

“It’s so green screened!”

However, San Andreas is unwilling to take the focus off its star long enough to develop or flesh out the world beyond Dwayne Johnson. The film’s characters are assigned importance relative to the lead character, rather than offering unique vantage points of an unfolding catastrophe. The only cast members who remain completely divorced from the protagonists are the seismologists at Caltech who predict the quakes. Led by Paul Giamatti as a leading earthquake researcher, they exist primarily to provide exposition rather than to flesh out the story.

The problem is compounded by the sense that San Andreas desperately wants to be taken seriously. Our lead characters are given a tragic back story involving a dead child. The script occasionally provides short snippets of the chaos unfolding as California tears itself apart as looters rob and guns go off. Unfortunately, all of this seems ridiculously earnest when juxtaposed with the absurdity of the natural disaster. Apparently this is not just any earthquake, we are informed at one point, but the biggest earthquake in the history of mankind!

Keeping nature at bay...

Keeping nature at bay…

There is a sense that there is an enjoyable b-movie buried under this. The film features a cameo from Kylie Minogue, who shows up to articulate a tragic family back story so clumsily and bluntly that it becomes an act of postmodern genius. (It is like Superman introducing Batman with, “So I hear your parents are dead?”) Similarly, the script doesn’t give Paul Giamatti much to work with, but he delivers his laboured dialogue with an incredible sincerity that makes his performance the best thing about the film. (What should we do? “We tell everyone.”)

Even the cast suggests a silly blockbuster romp. Twenty-nine-year-old Andrea Daddario plays the ambigously-aged young daughter of forty-three-year-old Dwayne Johnson and forty-three-year-old Carlo Gugino. Ioan Gruffudd plays the wealthy boyfriend of the protagonist’s soon-to-be-divorced wife, and going full-on Billy Zane as the script progresses. Our hero is a rescue worker in Los Angeles who responds to a natural disaster in the region by hijacking a rescue copter and flying half-way to San Francisco.

Finding a Rock to cling to...

Finding a Rock to cling to…

Buildings collapse! The earth opens! Glass shatters! Tidal wave rise! At one point, it seems like Dwayne Johnson is powering a speedboat against the law of gravity by sheer force of will. None of this is brilliant or compelling, but it has the potential to be silly fun. The problem is that the script refuses to embrace that sense of silly fun, instead labouring the characters with a grim and gritty back story and repeatedly trying to reinforce the horror that has consumed so many anonymous extras.

San Andreas is a misfire, a movie that spectacularly misjudges itself. The faultlines run deep.

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4 Responses

  1. “Predictable to a fault” – LOL

  2. A very weird movie. I get the feeling there must have been some behind the scenes confusion regarding Ioan Gruffudd – in his initial ‘coward’ moment he is portrayed almost sympathetically and realistically as someone going through a mental collapse; then suddenly a few scenes later he is, as you (awesomely) say, full-on Billy Zane. It was like the writers suddenly remembered he was meant to be a mustache twirling cartoon.

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