Is it possible we’ve reached the pinnacle of disaster movies? Now that basically anything can be done in films, special-effects wise, it seems like the bigger and crazier these films get, the less distinctive they become. We’ve seen every major landmark get destroyed a dozen times, cities of millions laid to waste, and even seen the entire world destroyed. As far as disaster films go, maybe we’ve had too much disaster.
At this point, it’s all been done, but the trick for any disaster film is to find a niche to make itself stand out. For example, 2012 knew how ridiculous it was and played up that fact, or films like the recent Godzilla and Cloverfield made the cause of the destruction so overwhelming, it begged to be looked at in awe. With San Andreas, however, the film never even attempts to find its own place in the genre, only retreading the same disaster tropes we’ve seen for decades, with the same computer-generated destruction that now numb most audiences.
San Andreas presents its story in the usual “separated family trying to reunite” arc that we’ve seen in The Day After Tomorrow, The Impossible, Independence Day, etc. When a series of earthquakes all of California, rescue helicopter pilot Ray (Dwayne Johnson) must fly his way throughout the state to save his soon-to-be ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino) and his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario). Along the way, Ray must ignore the thousands of other people in danger to save the two people who truly matter to him.
Every periphery character outside of this trio is basically cobbled together from exhausted ideas. There’s Joby (Colton Haynes), the young man who helps Blake and of course begins a classic will-they-won’t-they relationship that somehow springs up during the most horrific disasters. There’s Joby’s brother Ollie (Art Parkinson), who takes up the role of plucky child who somehow has knowledge that will help the adults, this time through a guide book to San Francisco. Then there is Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd), Emma’s new boyfriend, who at first seems he might be a good guy and will take care of Blake when the destruction starts, but then out of nowhere, becomes a self-centered prick who literally allows people to die in order for him to survive.
Maybe most disappointing however is Lawrence, played by Paul Giamatti, a scientist who has discovered a way to predict oncoming earthquakes. However his “discovery” basically allows a few seconds of warning before buildings start collapsing. Lawrence spends most of the film trapped in his office, broadcasting obvious statements like “stay out of San Francisco,” and unfortunately missing most of the action.
Yet even with the usually charismatic Johnson – possibly our best current action star – and the consistently great Giamatti, what holds San Andreas down the most is its exposition-filled screenplay. Written by Carlton Cuse of Lost and Bates Motel, San Andreas blatantly distributes characters in order to give us information we should know. Before she is swiftly killed by falling debris, a friend of Emma played by Kylie Minogue has lunch with Emma solely to drop the information that Emma once had a daughter who drowned. Then just like that, Minogue is never again to be seen. We also see this technique used with Ray’s flying partners, who seem important in the beginning, then are never seen again beyond the first act, and a reporter who interviews both Ray and Lawrence, only to get vital info to the audience through just flat out asking what we should know.
San Andreas also builds its action to a ridiculous level, but never to a point where it’s actually all that fun. Earthquakes and tsunamis are frequent, yet there’s a significant lack of danger felt towards any of our characters. Even when Ray and Emma drive a boat straight up a gigantic wave that could engulf the entire Golden Gate Bridge, then get to the top to almost run into a tanker, which has containers falling right towards them, the danger levels still feel non-existent.
San Andreas doesn’t distinguish itself enough or feel all that unique from other similar films to feel like anything more than just a tired retread. Even an ending, which disregards the selfishness of our leads for a patriotic bonding together of our fellow man, seems like it has been done before, as the American flag waves to prove that we will rebuild once again. Sometimes bigger isn’t better, it’s just bland instead.