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 take San Andreas as it is: exciting, adventurous and family-themed. See it 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 is well depicted in San Andreas. Layering epic scenes of mass death and destruction without minimizing life is hard to do and, partly for this reason, I am not a fan of these types of movies. If they advertise how to rescue and respond rationally, that’s fine. San Andreas ruptures and repairs well to this end. Having been in a major earthquake (read my thoughts on that experience here), I think this movie is an extreme and realistic recreation.
The movie’s mistakes are serious, very serious, in the case of an architect character (Ioan Gruffadd) who inexplicably goes bad. Everyone responds to the movie’s initial quake, one of several record-breaking temblors, aftershocks and foreshocks, at the Hoover Dam as if it’s just another breaking news alert, which is not at all realistic. 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‘ point; dramatizing that one must choose to think, especially and urgently when all around is coming to an end.
Its point is to think fast, really. The daughter the married-but-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, one of which is a very sharp fellow (Hugo Johnstone-Burt). Paul Giamatti (12 Years a Slave) thinks clearly and fast, too, as a heroic Cal Tech seismologist who reads biographies of Albert Einstein. At its best, San Andreas is an exaggeration on themes in the perfectly well done Twister (1996). It celebrates those who challenge nature. At its worst, it smears the productive, in the form of the movie’s architect, a man who is tested and responds, if ineffectively, and is cavalierly turned into a monster and dispensed with in the movie’s harshest scene.
For the moralizing against the architect, it is worth noting that, during the emergency, the government worker (Johnson) ditches his taxpayer-funded job and his oath to serve public safety to put his own immediate interest first. This raises interesting questions that San Andreas never answers, such as what people should do as so-called first responders abandon their posts, leave the public in danger and tend to their own values, which is what the architect is castigated for doing.
The can-do spirit comes through, thanks to Johnson, Gugino and Daddario and supporting cast, so see San Andreas for the thrill and experience in consideration of what would be your ethics in an emergency.