This is a shortened review. For my full length review, please visit: http://guywithamovieblog.blogspot.com/
I have a soft spot for disaster films. I'm not ashamed to admit it. They're generally a fun, energetic way to spend a couple hours while munching on popcorn or throwing back handfuls of Skittles. They're almost always better if you're able to disconnect your brain, sit back, and just enjoy the spectacle.
The genre has a rich Hollywood background. It goes back fifty or sixty years, but hit a pinnacle of sorts in the 1970's with such excellent films as Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, and Earthquake. The 1990's saw a revival of the genre when audiences were treated to the likes of Twister, Titanic, Armageddon, Independence Day, and Deep Impact. They weren't always good films (I'm looking at you, Volcano), but they were big (big casts, big special effects) and emotional and simply fun.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, the disaster film genre has seen its share of hits and misses. The Perfect Storm, Contagion, The Impossible, War of the Worlds, and Gravity have all been very good or even great. They have carried on the tradition in a very noble way. San Andreas is one of the most recent additions to the genre, but it fails on almost every level.
The plot is threadbare, but concerns one family dealing with the effects of gigantic earthquakes shaking and shattering the Earth along the titular fault line in Nevada and California. The father, Ray (played by the normally charismatic Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) is a former Army medic and current rescue chopper pilot and EMT. His soon-to-be ex-wife, Emma (Carla Gugino) is moving in with her new boyfriend who, of course, is a real jerk, but she doesn't know that yet. Rounding out the family is Blake (Alexandra Daddario), Ray and Emma's daughter who is setting off for college when the movie picks up.
San Andreas, much like lesser disaster films such as The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, uses the "fractured family overcomes enormous difficulties to rebuild their lives together" motif as if Cruse simply pulled the formula out of a hat of clichés early in the writing process. I don't think I'm spoiling anything for anyone when I say there was never one moment during the entire 114 minute runtime where I thought they weren't going to end up together after the horrendous events they had to endure. Nothing like a national tragedy with millions of fatalities to bring a family closer together! One somewhat baffling aspect of the plot is there is scene after scene of Ray stealing different vehicles and piloting them towards San Francisco in an attempt to rescue his stranded daughter. He starts off in his helicopter and then steals a pickup truck, then a plane, then a boat. By this point, I was already laughing at the movie and I began to envision a series of events where Ray has to commandeer a railroad locomotive and, in the final harrowing moments, a vintage San Francisco cable car. Sadly, those wishes didn't come true. If they would have, the movie would have been slightly better.
For a movie like this, the plot doesn't have to be revolutionary to make a great film, though. If the characters are relatable, engaging, and act in believably human ways, they can make up for something simple and ordinary. Unfortunately, these characters (and the others they meet along the way) are none of those things.
As far as the cast goes, I thought it would be the film's saving grace – even if other areas fell flat. I almost always enjoy Johnson, even in lesser films. He's got charm and charisma to spare and has shown some decent acting chops (especially in the criminally overlooked Pain & Gain). Gugino and Daddario have been fine in the few films I've seen them in and, if nothing else, they're both attractive (especially Daddario!) and have screen presence. Unfortunately, just like most aspects of this film, the performances are average at best and laughably bad at worst.
Paul Giamatti (playing a Cal-Tech scientist who figures out a way to predict the quakes) was who I was most looking forward to seeing, though. Giamatti might be the best actor of his generation and I have been enthralled by his various performances for nearly 20 years. San Andreas is one of those rare films where he would have been much better off just saying "no" when his agent approached him about taking the role. He's not given much to work with, no one in the film is, but he also seems to be phoning in the entire performance. I don't necessarily blame him – why exert too much energy when the project certainly doesn't deserve it? – but he could have been the one bright spot in an otherwise dismal film.
Even the basic glue that normally holds these big spectacles together – the fancy computer effects – were seriously lacking. There's a moment at the beginning where a young woman is driving and goes off the road. Her car flips a comical amount of time before getting snagged on the side of a cliff. The entire scene, from the car to the surrounding area, is so poorly rendered that it looks like an Asylum production with a $1 million budget, not a major studio release. In fact, almost all of the scenes involving moving vehicles were obviously filmed with green screen backgrounds. This method is not new, of course, but on better films with better filmmakers, it is much less obvious and distracting. To be taken out of the film, practically at the start, was a serious blow.
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