WRITTEN REVIEW – San Andreas (2015)
Directed by: Brad Peyton
Written by: Carlton Cuse
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Ioan Gruffudd & Paul Giamatti
Music: Andrew Lockington
Release Date: May 29th 2015
Blockbuster disaster movies often come in waves and these are usually instigated from new leaps in technology. Giant movie studios and new camera techniques allowed for films such as 1958’s ‘A Night To Remember‘ and then CGI and model-making in the 1990s meant that films like ‘Twister‘, ‘Volcano‘ and ‘Titanic‘ were possible. But since then, the genre has been surprisingly quiet, save for the occasional Roland Emmerich movie. Why is this?
In this critic’s (uninformed opinion), it’s because first world countries are more connected to each other then ever thanks to phones, the internet and other devices. This means that whenever a natural disaster takes place, mainstream audiences can see it first-hand and understand the devastating impact an earthquake, a hurricane or a tidal wave can have on people and that it’s not particularly entertaining. I must stress, this is just MY theory and there’s no evidence to back this up, but I think it makes sense. It might also explain why ‘San Andreas‘, despite a big marketing campaign and Dwyane “The Rock” Johnson as the star seems to have landed with a thud for many critics and audience members. Just how can a movie strike the balance between being a sombre look at the impact of natural disasters while simultaneously trying to be an appealing mainstream blockbuster?
Ray Gaines (Johnson) is a helicopter rescue pilot for the Los Angeles Fire Department. Despite being separated from his wife Emma (Gugino) who is now seeing wealthy real estate developer Daniel Riddick (Gruffudd), he still tries to have a good relationship with his daughter, Blake (Daddario) who has just finished college. However, the San Andreas fault starts to shift causing massive earthquakes in San Francisco where Emma, Daniel and Blake are and Ray must use his skills as a pilot to rescue them from the aftershocks as well as incoming tsunamis and collapsing infrastructures.
Now, I get that movies like ‘San Andreas‘ aren’t trying to be high-art. There’s not much in terms of cultural commentary in the genre other than “natural disasters are bad but they look cool”. But there’s one detail in ‘San Andreas‘ that prevents full “turn-off-your-brain” enjoyment and that’s Ray Gaines. He’s a Los Angeles Fire Department helicopter rescue pilot and he’s one of the best in the business. He and his crew are described as a “family” and he’s sworn to protect the citizens of LA at the cost of his own life and do what he can to save people.
Which is why it’s strange that the moment the earthquake hits San Francisco that Ray drops everything he’s doing to rescue his family and JUST his family.
Don’t get me wrong, I actually liked his family and it’s one of the best things about ‘San Andreas‘. Dwayne Johnson has an effortless charm to him that even a severely under-written character can’t suppress and his ex and daughter are actually pretty endearing and I wanted to see them make it out of the story alive. But when your main character is sworn to protect the public, seeing him rescue JUST his family and selfishly abandon everybody else prevents your brain from turning off because this massive obstacle to your enjoyment keeps rearing its ugly head.
I SHOULD be embracing the spectacle of a huge building falling over on the big screen in IMAX 3-D as Ray rescues his ex, Emma, from a collapsed roof. But I was distracted by the fact that Ray didn’t even search for survivors or ask Emma is she’s aware of any. He saves Emma from the danger zone and leaves the area.
There’s one scene when Ray and Emma are on a speedboat travelling through a river of corpses through what remains of San Francisco trying to find Blake and the two pass another speedboat with someone pulling survivors onboard from the water. Ray doesn’t stop to help, he doesn’t ask the other speedboat driver if they need assistance and doesn’t acknowledge any of the survivors still in the water. He just speeds by to find his daughter. It’s also worth noting that he doesn’t know where Blake is. He and Emma are aimlessly searching, so it’s not like they have a particular destination that they need to get to in a time-specific fashion.
Am I over-thinking this? Perhaps, but when your main character is someone who is SWORN to protect the people, the fact that he doesn’t even consider doing that and goes to rescue only his family just smacks of dangerously lazy writing. I’m sure screenwriter Carlton Cuse just had Ray as a rescue pilot so it would be an easy explanation as to how Ray can operate numerous rescue vehicles and knows procedures, but that shorthand hinders more then it helps. There is one scene where he does carry someone to safety, but it seemed like he only carried them because they were in his way as opposed to him genuinely wanting to save them.
In an alternative universe, there may be a version of ‘San Andreas‘ where the movie has Ray debating with himself whether or not to rescue the citizens of San Francisco while is family is out there. But then he hears from his family who say that they’re okay and surviving using the skills he taught his them. Now THAT two-pronged narrative is a disaster film with purpose and one that I’d like to see. But that’s not the movie we’re dealing with.
If the movie focused on Ray’s family and JUST Ray’s family, then you could argue that I’m over-thinking things. But when there are numerous scenes and sequences dedicated to the other people in the city getting crushed, drowning or worse in the wake of the biggest earthquake ever recorded it makes this selfish abandonment on the part of Ray impossible to ignore. It’s also strange that despite being referenced to as a “family” in the opening scene, as soon as the earthquake hits Ray abandons all of his firefighter friends and they’re never seen or heard from again.
Some “family”, huh?
But, Ray’s actual family are pretty likeable. Are they more likeable than the tens of thousands of people who Ray decided not to save? Probably not, but let’s focus on the positives. Ray, as mentioned before, isn’t a particularly nice human being and his arc is cliché as hell. He’s a divorcee with a tragic past but trying to have a good relationship with his daughter. It’s a “been-there-done-that” arc that’s been played out in numerous disaster movies and it’s not done particularly well here. Ray’s tragic backstory doesn’t play any sort of role in the story meaning that the numerous dialogue sequences dedicated to it doesn’t feel justified, especially when most audience members just want to see buildings collapse instead of elongated “emotional” scenes.
Ioan Gruffudd’s character is also pretty unlikeable, however that’s intentionally so. But the character does such a fast and unrealistic 180 degree turnaround in the movie that it’s doesn’t feel genuine and I didn’t love to hate his character. I just hated him.
Where are the positive characters? Well, it’s actually with the women of the family as Carla Gugino does a good job with the role of Emma; a very determined mother trying to rescue her daughter who gets this 12A movie’s only f-bomb, which she nails. It’s also refreshing that we have an age-appropriate female star in this type of role and while it’s not exactly Shakespeare, Gugino does well. We also have Alexandra Daddario as Blake and while I’m 99% certain that she was hired first and foremost because of her almost unnatural good looks (seriously, those eyes are pretty ethereal) and her ability to look very good when swimming underwater, it seems like Daddario will be damned if that’s all her character wound up being because she actually does something with this role.
Blake isn’t just a damsel in distress as she picked up quite a few tips from her dad on how to survive during an earthquake and how to communicate through radio when there is no signal. There are some legitimately solid tips for viewers if they want to learn something by watching this movie. Blake even makes friends with two English guys who accompany her through the devastated city and they help each other out to try and reach Ray. These two are played by Hugo Johnstone-Burt (who is Australian) and Art Parkinson (Irish) and they are the most British people you will see in an American-made blockbuster this year with the accents and their mannerisms.
Seriously, all they needed to do was ask someone to “Put t’kettle on” and we would have reached Britical Mass.
All joking aside, I did get attached to them both and I did believe the blooming romance between Daddario and Johnstone-Burt while Parkinson was playing one of the rare child character who you don’t want to strangle as he’s pretty effective at providing some levity to the situation, though not in an obnoxious way. But the MVP of the movie is Paul Giamatti who I literally have not mentioned in this review yet because he has practically no impact on the plot and doesn’t interact with any of our main characters despite him getting a butt-load of screentime.
Paul Giamatti plays Lawrence Hayes, a seismologist who has just developed the technology to predict earthquakes…which plays no part in the plot because he predicts them seconds before they’re about to happen making his contributions to the narrative feel inconsequential. But Paul Giamatti really sells the hell out of his role in ‘San Andreas‘ which requires him to very earnestly spout off exposition about how earthquakes work, what will happen to the San Andreas fault and how quickly people need to evacuate. He plays no role in the story, but I’m glad he was there.
With the exception of some terrible CGI work with an opening car accident (in which the movie has a lot of fun playing with audience’s expectations as to when the accident will happen) and some sketchy green-screen work when the characters are on a speedboat, the production values for ‘San Andreas‘ are top notch. The sound design is superb with the audio effects shaking the movie theatre making for a superb IMAX presentation. The special effects, while not breaking any new ground, are effective and there’s a lot of inventive camerawork on display. The sequence of Emma making her way up the staircase as it crumbles around her before reaching the roof is a stunning one-take that is one of the best long-shots that I’ve seen for quite a while, even though most of it was probably done on a computer and through clever cutting as opposed to it being a legitimate single-take.
The scale is superb, whether it’s a massive cruise ship being thrown at the city thanks to an epic tsunami, flooding buildings, the gorgeous tableau’s of the San Andreas fault rising up and down knocking down buildings in its wake, ‘San Andreas‘ is worth seeing on the big screen. But the editing feels very choppy and many of the gorgeous shots are actually quick cuts which prevent some of the imagery from making an impact. There are some stunning, lengthy takes but they do feel disjointed from many of the characters involved (save for the aforementioned long take with Emma). Andrew Lockington’s score is decent in the moment and I actually stuck around during the credits to listen to more of it. Though I doubt I’ll be running out to buy the soundtrack.
‘San Andreas‘ tries to walk the line between being a moving story of a torn apart family as well as a popcorn-blockbuster to entertain audience members and it’s a line that it’s unable to walk. The decision to have our “protagonist” as a member of the fire department yet not save anyone who isn’t a blood-relation is something that ultimate cripples ‘San Andreas‘ and will be a hurdle that will prevent many people from turning off their brains to enjoy the visual spectacle. It wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to show the devastating impact that a natural disaster can have and for audience members to feel sorry for the people involved, but it also wants to be an entertaining IMAX 3D spectacle. It wants both, but it can’t have it and that dissonance ultimately causes ‘San Andreas‘ to collapse. Even Dwayne Johnson feels too underwritten and his character is too uncharismatic to really rescue it, despite its technical merits.
I give ‘San Andreas‘ 2 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 11th Jun 15