Two in particular that I remember seeing in their opening weeks were INDEPENDENCE DAY and GODZILLA, both were directed by Roland Emmerich. Both were hyped in commercials for their action scenes, achieved using the best computers money could buy. Unfortunately, the one thing they didn’t use computers for was a script. This brings me to today, where I see a familiar name in the disaster movie world shows up in the end credits of SAN ANDREAS: Toby Emmerich. So it came to no surprise why my reaction to this movie was what it was. (Note: Toby & Roland are not related.)
SAN ANDREAS follows the fractured Gaines family during a once-every-150-years earthquake as they race against nature to find each other. But writer Carlton Cuse (Lost co-creator) and director Brad Peyton don’t really care about the characters all that much. Ray (The Rock) and Emma (Gugino) are in the middle of a divorce; not that you can tell, there is little friction between them in the one argument they have. Their (living) daughter Blake (Daddario) seems fine with the fact that her mother is running into the arms of successful architect Daniel Riddick (Gruffund). I guess she just loves lounging around by the giant, in-ground pool in the backyard.
There is unintentional comedy thanks to the plight of the soon-to-be ex-spouses. But to get the hilarity, you have to go to the deepest, darkest recesses of my mind then turn left. I also hope you don’t mind me spoiling this part of the movie but it has to be fully described to be believed. Mr. & Mrs. The Rock are playing out the disaster movie version of PLANES, TRAINS & AUTOMOBILES. In order to get to their daughter, Ray has to fly his helicopter to rescue Emma on a crumbling skyscraper in LA, crash into the Bakersfield Mall, hotwire a pickup truck, give the pickup to a senior couple in exchange for directions to an airfield, fly a small, parachuting training plane to San Francisco, tandem-jump into AT&T Bank Stadium, save dozens in an aftershock, borrow a rescue boat, only to be almost pulverized by a tidal wave before entering the final leg of their journey.
Their daughter, on the other hand, is stuck as the basic damsel in distress before becoming the tough, young woman to the face of adversity, while attached to the dull love interest Ben & his ineffective comic relief little brother Ollie, both of whom are visiting from the UK for a reason I still don’t comprehend. Another problem here is that every single thing they run into becomes convenient. “We need a landline to tell our family we are alive. Look! An electronics store is around the corner!” “Hey! An abandoned fire truck that hasn’t been ransacked. Let’s load up on medical supplies in case one of us gets a stabbed by a falling window.” “Oh no! The floor we are on in this in-construction building is flooding! Quick, let’s go the stairwell we just came up that used to be blocked but isn’t anymore and go up three floors to safety!” It’s moments like these that makes this movie almost too bad for its own good.
Everything we learn about the earthquake is through Professor Lawrence (Giamatti). His purpose is to discover the phenomenon, predict what happens next and alert the media (and the audience) what they are going to experience next. Apart from the first earthquake at the Hoover Dam, Giamatti was relegated to staying in his office, occasionally visiting the Cal Tech media studio to be on the news or hiding underneath his desk every time the camera (sorry, earth) shook. This I didn’t mind because he also wasn’t the bumbling comic relief like previous disaster movie scientists.
But there were plenty of little things that I did mind. The special effects aren’t that special. Falling building hitting other buildings causing them to fall and the destruction of the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge by earthquake & tsunami, respectively, which are nothing you haven’t seen happen before to the White House or Statue of Liberty. There are numerous, half-assed shots of random extras embracing each other or praying together that add nothing to the proceedings since they only appear in a single shot. Some of the main actors appear lost while uttering the bland, redundant dialogue against an occasionally obvious green screen. A minority has to die first, but at least he isn’t black this time. Progress! Another surprise: Emma’s boyfriend is an a$$hole, who gets a comeuppance he doesn’t deserve because of how little it has to do with the central family and is, frankly, a cop out to get a cheap cheer from the crowd. He should have been thrown off his precious building by The Rock in full costume. 3-D still sucks. And don’t get me started on the tasteless opening scene.
SAN ANDREAS feels like the younger step-brother to Roland Emmerich’s disaster porn movies of the mid-to-late 1990s. The movie is lifeless in story & character but overstuffed in the underwhelming special effects department. In a world where superhero movies understand story is at least slightly important and movies like MAD MAX: FURY ROAD use real, practical effects to tell a complex story, movies like this have no place in the summer blockbuster landscape anymore. Good riddance and don’t let the door digitally collapse on you on the way out.