Movies have been obsessed with disaster from the very beginning. Biblical epics would rain supernatural forces down onto a deserving human race in the first half of the 20th century; human follies would entrap their makers in The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, and Titanic; outer space would even have a go with the likes of Deep Impact and Armageddon (both released in the same year, such is our hunger for watching the world go kaput). And now we have the latest in this long line of planetary destruction: San Andreas. But does it match up to even the shlockiest entries of the genre?
Dwayne Johnson stars as Ray, a search-and-rescue operative with over 600 successful rescues under his belt. He’s also a recently divorced dad: his daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario) is starting a new life with her mother Emma (Carla Gugino) and her rich new boyfriend, Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd). That all goes to hell, however, when a gigantic earthquake hits the entire San Andreas fault line; San Francisco is routinely torn asunder, and Ray and Carla join forces as a mum-and-dad team to search for their daughter, lost amid the chaos. Blake, being the daughter of the Rock, naturally, knows how to survive, leading herself and two new friends toward salvation. Meanwhile, Paul Giamatti blurts exposition from an office somewhere. San Andreas makes its first mistake with its characters: there is zero chemistry between what is supposed to be a family, and so very early on (following a genuinely rather suspenseful opening rescue scene) the movie deflates any potential; a terrifically awkward family scene, when Ray is introduced to his ex-wife’s new boyfriend, is devoid of any genuine tension. Call it poor acting, miscasting, or awful writing; what is supposed to be the emotional springboard for the rest of the movie – the precious few moments which galvanise the character’s motives and our own investment in this huge story – is utterly neglected. The ensuing action, while colossal in scope, is therefore nothing more than that: action.
Instead of constructing moments that fill you with a sense of awe, there are only ones that evoke nothing more than the response, ‘that’s some pretty impressive CGI’. Which would be superb if this were a technical demo, but this is supposed to be disaster cinema; it should be terrifying us and wowing us in equal measure. You’ll hear arguments that at least the film looks good; but in truth, it doesn’t. It’s a garish splurge of woefully paper-thin visual effects, as tangible as candy floss and just as bad for you . We’re not asking the studios to level San Francisco for real; merely, we want some character in the design. More design in the art. More art in the damn film. We don’t want high-brow; we just want our dumb action flicks to be well made.
But above all – and it bears repeating – we’re supposed to care about these characters. It’s a downright shame, because Johnson has plenty of star power, as he’s shown evidence of many times in the past; his inbuilt action-hero qualities are wasted here, if not ignored entirely. But unfortunately, this movie is representative of all the problems that are endemic in Hollywood movies that come with a budget first, and everything else later. San Andreas is supposed to shake us silly; sadly, it measures little more than a bump on the Richter scale.