I said it to myself six years ago, and I stand by my stance today: every natural disaster film ever made for the rest of my life will pale in comparison to Roland Emmerich’s 2012. The pretenders will come, they’ll try to convince us their version of Mother Nature is the angriest of all times, they’ll knock over buildings by the dozen, they’ll grind hundreds of extras and millions of CG avatars into so much disaster mulch, and they’ll end with the reassurance that all the right costars will survive. None of them can hope to match Emmerich’s ludicrous audacity, the intimidating sight of America burning and sliding into the ocean, the world’s fastest limousine, the pre-Fast/Furious car-jump out of a flying plane, Woody Harrelson’s free-spirit zealotry, the post-apocalyptic speech to end all post-apocalyptic speeches as delivered by future Academy Award Nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor, or the bizarre fact that the movie costarred a screenwriter but was co-written by its composer.
It’s cute when someone invests a lot of money in giving one a try anyway. My mom needs reasons to get out of the house and she loves disaster movies (for her the gold standard is Earthquake), so one night I found myself at a showing of San Andreas with zero expectations and the satisfaction in knowing that sometimes I do try to be a good son.
Short version for the unfamiliar: There’s a humongous earthquake and The Rock has to save the day.
Sure, there’s technically more. Barely. When all the American west-coast faultlines form a super-villain team and begin destroying California without giving humanity a ransom note first, accomplished rescue worker Dwayne “Roadblock from GI Joe” Johnson uses his work helicopter to fly above the carnage so he can track down and reunite his broken family — nearly-ex-wife Carla Gugino, who’s divorcing him for reasons beyond his control, and daughter Alexandria Daddario (I only know her as Percy Jackson’s girlfriend), who never dreamed that the colossal rift between her parents might be mended by a colossal rift in the planet. And if she wants to bring friends, Dad’s cool with them surviving as long as they do their fair share of good deeds.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Paul Giamatti is the mandatory seismologist who has to make Wikipedia dissertation sound like human speech in between his panicky screaming fits. His loyal followers include Will Yun Lee (The Wolverine, Bionic Woman, Hawaii Five-O), at last playing a character who has no fight scenes, and Arsenal from Arrow. The Good Wife‘s Archie Panjabi is the mandatory journalist who must alert the public so they can start freaking out before they die helplessly in droves.
Forever‘s Ioan Gruffudd is Mom’s new boyfriend, who’s obviously not The Rock and doesn’t try to be, to his eternal shame. One of The Rock’s briefly used rescue coworkers is Matt Gerald, a.k.a. costumer Melvin Potter from Netflix’s Marvel’s Daredevil. And Kylie Minogue has a scene as an unpleasant woman, because I guess AMPAS union bylaws say there has to be one for diversity or something.
Addendum for future tracking purposes: one of the daughter’s new friends, an unfamiliar yet pleasant Australian named Hugo Johnstone-Burt, will probably someday costar in Oscar-season costume dramas, so we might as well get used to his name now.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? San Andreas aims squarely for movie fans who prefer timeless, sensible themes that we wish would resonate across the generations and factor into more modern movies:
1. Family above ALL.
2. Yay teamwork!
3. If you can save occasional strangers along the way, great!
4. Sinners gonna get what’s comin’ to ’em.
5. Forgiveness based on intense experiences lasts for at least as long as the movie keeps going.
Otherwise: EXPLOSIONS EXPLOSIONS EXPLOSIONS EXPLOSIONS EXPLOSIONS! Drink every time a piece of giant debris hits the ground at top speed after appearing from literally nowhere; every time a building collapses against another building; or every time someone shouts, “OH MY GOD!” Not a single character is allowed to ruminate on What It All Means, How Small Humanity Is in the Grand Scheme, the Sovereignty of Planet Earth, or the Importance of Human Decency. The wordiest moments are reserved for couples’ therapy on the go.
Nitpicking? Scary heavy objects out of thin air, characters converging by divine coincidence, shaky shaking effects, panoramas more obviously green-screen than a Star Wars prequel hallway, and one of the most obtrusively clichéd scores I’ve ever caught. Every one of these elements has its fans, so come ‘n’ get some if that’s you.
To be fair, and to note the things that surprised me, there are a couple of scenes in which characters come close to making choices that characters in average movies would make, only to be logically talked out of potential killer mistakes. And in at least one scene, a guy uses basic car tools in unusual ways to save a trapped victim. Strictly speaking and scrutinizing at a molecular level, there are modest signs of intelligence.
So did I like it or not? Director Brad Peyton’s previous works include the sequels to both Journey of the Center of the Earth and Cats & Dogs. The Rock’s brand of common-hero crowd-pleasers tend to fall below my radar. One of the screenwriters was a head showrunner on Lost. Also, it’s still not 2012. Like I said: zero expectations.
That’s as opposed to Jurassic World, which I attended with some expectations, which were just barely met. Sequels to amazing old movies tend to face unfair judgment from me like that. If we continue the math analogy and compare their final grades as X/Y ratios where X equals the movie’s sum of positive accomplishments and Y equals my expectations, then from this perspective San Andreas is mathematically a better movie than Jurassic World.
Heck, I’ll up the hyperbole one more notch: San Andreas is better than all the Syfy Original Movies I’ve ever seen combined. That’s very few because some standards, but it includes both Sharknados. For what it basically was, a suitably bombastic loss-leader for popcorn salesmen, San Andreas was kind of competent, if not nearly as brash as an Emmerich joint. It checked all the boxes it was supposed to check: heroes were heroes, a few jolts were jolting, stunt vehicles did stunts, some Hollywood helicopter pilots got a chance to strut their stuff, and everyone took turns between being helpless and saving others. It might’ve been nice if The Rock had been able to lead thousands to safety by parting California’s new sea, but he does pause once to save one or two more people than Superman visibly did in Man of Steel.
I also gave San Andreas extra-credit points for trying something completely out of character for a big-budget B-movie: a continuous tracking shot. We’re watching Carla Gugino frantically working her way up a collapsing structure while surrounded on all sides by flying rubble, sliding furniture, deadly shards, plummeting chunks, disappearing floors, and multiple deaths, and after several seconds I realize the camera is just going and going and going, wondering to itself what a Towering Inferno remake directed by Brian DePalma might look like. I’m frankly stunned that anyone involved in this kind of flick would try a vaguely arty tracking shot. Granted, bits of it feel stitched together in post-production, but the thought alone was worth a pat on the back. Between this and that one Agents of SHIELD episode last season, I hope this doesn’t means tracking shots are now officially Over.
Though I may seem awfully kind to San Andreas, rest assured if a single producer dares suggest they make San Andreas 2, there will be a extremely slight expectation next time. Division by zero won’t save them again.
And for the record, my mom thought the effects were better than Earthquake‘s, but we agreed it was no 2012.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the San Andreas end credits, though they do spool upward around a stylish seismograph cylinder while the soundtrack cues up a cover of “California Dreamin'” by Sia, even though they had Kylie Minogue right there on set.
Also, if any viewers leave the experience with some concern for their welfare, the end credits list three websites that can assist you with your earthquake survival strategies. Apparently San Andreas isn’t just a disaster movie: it’s also a PSA for earthquake awareness. Because YOU need to know how to survive your first cataclysm, and knowing is half the battle!