“San Andreas” Movie Review

     Director Brad Peyton’s “San Andreas” is every bit what you would expect the film to be with its straightforward marketing campaign as a summer disaster flick.  The screenplay by “Lost” and “Bates Motel” scribe Carlton Cuse is full of cheesy dialogue and predictable set ups designed to get the most out of the larger than life intrigue of the film’s star, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.  And yet, Peyton’s handling of the film’s action set pieces is on par with the very best tentpole action directors working today, resulting in a truly white knuckle and sometimes gut wrenching experience that I would compare to the moments before riding that new death defying roller coaster for the first time.  Sure, this has all been done before, maybe even with a story with significantly more emotional depth.  While classic films like “The Towering Inferno” and the “The Poseidon Adventure” immediately come to mind, no film thus far can match the sheer scale of destruction on display in “San Andreas”.

     When we are initially presented with the facts surrounding the situations the characters are dealing with at the beginning of the film, you can easily predict how it’s going to end and you may even realize exactly how we’re gonna get there as well.  To use the roller coaster analogy once more, when you see the track, there’s a beginning and an end.  You can also watch others take the ride, which will allow you to observe the actual path you will take yourself.  The car seems to be going slower than you thought, and the whole ride seems less daunting.  That is until you’re actually riding it.  As silly and preposterous as “San Andreas” is when you examine the characters themselves and the decisions they make throughout, the fact the film is a massively effective thrill ride cannot be denied.  For many summer movie goers, this is exactly the kind of film you look forward to seeing.  There is little thought required.  Just strap in and have a good time.

     I don’t know why there always has to be that character in disaster films that serves two basic purposes.  One is to have a scene in which the science of the pending disaster is explained, and the second is a scene or two where because the science is predicting that pending disaster, the scientist, if you will, is now grappling with the fact no one will listen.  In “San Andreas”, Paul Giamatti has the honors with his role as Cal Tech seismologist Lawrence.  An opening scene lets us sit in on his college course on the subject, where he covers many of the historically significant earthquake disasters around the world and the science behind them.  Then in perhaps the most obvious use of blatant foreshadowing, an innocent student raises her hand and asks Lawrence if something like that could happen here (California).  I think you can predict what his answer is.

     Aside from the obligatory “I warned them and they didn’t listen” character, the story focuses on stud Los Angeles Fire Department rescue helicopter pilot, Ray (Dwayne Johnson), along with his estranged wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), and their college aged daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario).  While the film opens with a tour de force set piece depicting Ray and his crew in action, the story begins to stall a bit when we learn Emma has moved in with her new boyfriend, a filthy rich architect named Daniel (Ioan Greffudd), and has promptly served Ray with divorce papers.  Thankfully, these scenes are rushed in order to get to the next action sequence, but for us film snobs, writing these scenes as more than the hollowed out melodrama that they are would have been a nice touch which could have paid off later in the film.  As is, these scenes play as mere filler in order to move on to another round of visual effects.

     It wasn’t long ago I was standing in the very spot at the top of Hoover Dam where Lawrence stands in the film when a massive earthquake hits the Colorado River and destroys the dam.  I found it odd the rest of the country and particularly the characters in Los Angeles, don’t seem to react the way I’d think they would when they found out a major landmark was just wiped out less then 300 miles away from them.  Aside from the mobilization of police and fire units to go help, characters like Blake and her mother’s boyfriend still hop on a private jet to San Francisco to move her to college.  Common sense should dictate those plans might want to be put on hold, but then we wouldn’t get to have any fun watching these people struggle in the face of peril while directly in the path of one of mother nature’s most terrifying and devilish creations.  The destruction of Hoover Dam is one of the most awe inspiring sequences I have ever seen in a film (likely since it’s in my own backyard), and the sequences that follow in both Los Angeles and San Francisco, complete with towering skyscrapers falling like dominos with millions of people running for their lives below, up the ante in both suspense and incredible visual detail.   Yes, the story that interconnects with these sequences is full of overused cliches, but “San Andreas” just may be that one exception where the story isn’t really about the characters.  GRADE: B-