There is an undercurrent of awkwardness in almost every large-scale disaster movie that is very difficult to shake, and it is especially evident in San Andreas. The movie very badly wants to tell us the story of heroism in the face of abject disaster – and to do that the narrative necessarily focuses on a handful of characters for the audience to relate to during the calamity. Unfortunately, when coupled with the reality of showing city-wide destruction, the massive loss of life that must take place off-screen begins to weigh down the popcorn-flick levity that San Andreas really wants to create. This very basic conflict muddies this movie somewhat, but judged on the scale of a fairly mindless summer blockbuster movie, it does far more right than it does wrong, and most of what it does wrong is almost an artifact of this kind of disaster movie. if you’re capable of ignoring the massive loss of life occurring beyond the edges of the screen and focusing just on the characters that San Andreas wants you to, you will certainly have a fine time. If you’re not, you may start to wonder why you care so much about one girl when San Francisco just went 20 feet underwater after all of the buildings fell down and people were still trying to escape.
The plot is fairly bare bones, but in my opinion actually should have been even more streamlined. Dwayne Johnson plays a helicopter rescue pilot named Ray as a series of earthquakes along the San Andreas fault delivers massive destruction to California. He absconds with basically every kind of vehicle to effect the rescue of his ex-wife (Carla Gugino) and also his daughter (Alexandra Daddario), who was in San Francisco with her mother’s boyfriend (some idiot who dies). Meanwhile, a seismologist at CAL Tech (Paul Giamatti) is working hard with his colleagues on a predictive method for this string of earthquakes so that he can warn of the impending tremors. Giamatti gets a little hammy at times, but I think he just knows what kind of movie he is in, because he is a definite source of comic relief during some of his line reads.
By far the worst part of this film involved a shoe-horned back story involving the death by drowning of Ray’s other daughter. This one character element informs the death of Ray and his wife’s relationship and is the subject of conversations between them on their helicopter ride and truck ride and plane ride and boat ride. It also figures prominently in the climax of the film, where Ray must save his daughter from drowning. Overall, it feels unnecessary and distracting, like trying to inject a little motivation / meaning into some characters that already felt well-developed. Movies like this always have the low-hanging fruit of poor acting, cheesy lines, and physics-defying action on screen of which to critique and make fun, so I think it speaks volumes to the prowess of this film that its worst feature is a misguided characterization element.
San Andreas was never going to impress with storytelling, theme, or a strong plot. But, by performing adequately in those aspects, it was able to knock that which is could do well right out of the park and create an entertaining action piece not built around established characters. A couple of scenes stand out as big winners: the opening to the film involves a helicopter rescue on a cliff side with tension and drama that is rarely equaled again in the film. When our main characters are forced to navigate through shaking buildings we get some cool claustrophobic sequences, too. And, there are some great character moments amidst the destruction, although occasionally the movie descends into caricature (Ray’s daughter is left trapped in her car by her mom’s boyfriend, who we then see push a man into falling debris to save himself, and then see crushed later on by a ship container; I get it – he’s a jerk, so he died). In fact, you can probably guess the exact final three word sentence, uttered by Ray, that closes the film. In a way, it is a perfect summation of the spirit of the film: predictable, a little corny, and missing the point of the destruction – but definitely fun.