The uncomplicated San Andreas from Warner Bros.’ New Line Cinema is not really about the big one, the fault line, the seismology or the typical disaster movie themes of enlightenment through trauma, trial and error. It’s about rescuing one’s values at the end of the world.
Get and check plot particulars elsewhere—Cal Tech’s entrenched scholars are already Tweeting about its flaws—and see this exciting, adventurous family-themed movie if and only if you dare.
A Los Angeles, California, search and rescue helicopter pilot (Dwayne Johnson) and his estranged wife (Carla Gugino) make their way together from Los Angeles to San Francisco to save their only daughter. The characters are plain and the performances are good. The visual effects are also good. They’re not overblown.
Director Brad Peyton gets a few key points wrong but overall does right by his theme that when the world’s coming to an end, one ought to grab hold of one’s selfish values and adopt the can-do American spirit. This is the California, especially Southern California, ethos, and it’s well depicted in San Andreas. Layering epic scenes of mass death and destruction is hard to do without minimizing life and I am not really a fan of these types of movies. If they’re advertising for how to rescue and respond rationally, that’s fine. San Andreas ruptures and repairs well to this end and, having been in a major earthquake (read about that experience here), I think this movie is an extreme and also realistic recreation of reality.
The mistakes are serious, very serious, in the case of an architect character (Ioan Gruffadd) who inexplicably goes bad. Everyone responds to the movie’s first quake, one of many record-breaking temblors, aftershocks and foreshocks, at the Hoover Dam as if it’s just another breaking news alert, which is not realistic. And the situational coincidences pile up faster than the bodies and rubble. The callousness of mass death is not lost on this reviewer—skyscrapers topple in seconds while action centers on certain characters—but this is part of San Andreas‘ purpose; to dramatize that when all around you is ending, one must choose to think.
Think fast, really. The daughter the married though separated couple try to save (Alexandra Daddario) embodies this trait, having learned from her fireman dad (Johnson) and she picks up a couple of heroes along the way. Paul Giamatti (12 Years a Slave) is heroic, too, as a Cal Tech seismologist who reads biographies of Albert Einstein. At its best, San Andreas is an exaggeration on the themes of the perfectly well done Twister. It celebrates those who rise to challenge nature. At its worst, it smears the businessman, in the form of the movie’s architect, a man who is tested and responds, if ineffectively, but is cavalierly turned into a monster and tossed aside for not also being a man of muscle.
Still, the can-do spirit comes through, thanks to Johnson, Gugino and Daddario and supporting cast. In fact, curiously, for its harsh moralizing against the architect, when disaster strikes, the government worker (Johnson) ditches his job and oath to serve public safety in order to put his own interest first in an emergency. This raises interesting questions that San Andreas never answers, such as what people of L.A. should do as so-called first responders (a term I reject) abandon their posts at the first sign of impending doom, leave the public in danger and fly away to save their own values, which, ironically, is what one character is castigated for doing.
See San Andreas for the thrill and experience of considering what would be your ethics in an emergency.