At the risk of sounding like something off of A Prairie Home Companion, there was a time, back in my day, and by that I mean the late-1990s and early-2000s, when big, huge natural disaster movies were what summers were made of. For about five years, we had nothing but movies where big casts of people had to deal with some kind of weather/earth/space-related horror show, worse than anything we’ve ever seen before. It gave us movies like Twister, Dante’s Peak, Volcano, Armageddon, Deep Impact, Titanic, The Day After Tomorrow, The Perfect Storm, and even utter hogwash like The Core. If it could wipe out a lot of people and was somehow scientifically relevant, it was made into a movie. Made seemingly a decade too late, but hearkening back to the 1970s for sure, San Andreas is the latest film to follow that formula, and follow it it does, almost to the letter, but cuts all the fat it can and makes the plot as convenient, and hence hilarious, as possible.
Every single thing about San Andreas feels like it’s meant to be as stereotypical a disaster movie as possible. We have our hero, Ray (Dwayne Johnson), a rescue worker and helicopter pilot working for the Los Angeles Fire Department. He’s great at his job and we know this because of how effectively he saves someone at the beginning of the movie. But, Ray’s life isn’t perfect, you guys; he’s estranged from his wife Emma (Carla Gugino) who is dating a rich architect (Ioan Gruffudd), and he’s meant to take his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) up to college in Seattle this weekend, but a darned earthquake hits the Hoover Dam (but there are no fault lines in that part of Nevada?!?!?) and he has to go, leaving Daniel to take her with him to San Francisco for a meeting before going up to Washington. Poor Ray.
Those earthquakes…we should probably mention those a bit, huh? Well, Professor Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) is the foremost researcher of earthquakes and he and his colleague are attempting to find a way to predict said quakes, thus hopefully saving hundreds of lives. They happen to be at the Hoover Dam when the massive quake hits, following up on some strange seismic activity. But that’s not the end of the quakes by a long shot…that’s only the beginning! A massive, world-reverberating quake hits Downtown Los Angeles just as Emma is down there meeting Kylie Minogue who’s in the movie for some reason, and Emma is able to get to the roof JUST in time to be saved by Ray who just HAPPENS to be flying his helicopter solo at the time. But, that isn’t the end either, because Blake’s in San Francisco and so the much worst earthquake has to hit up there, leaving her to try to seek safety along with a cute British guy and his precocious younger brother before the even-mostest-biggerest-quake hits Frisco while Ray and Emma attempt to fly up the coast to save her.
This movie is pure, uncut absurdity. Everything that happens is so massive and inconceivably destructive, and yet the movie focuses solely on the characters we’ve met and care about. And there aren’t that many of them. We see people get crushed by falling debris mere inches, nanometers, from someone we know and then they just move on, like it’s a joke. The entire city of Los Angeles topples over and seemingly everyone is killed, but as long as the Rock and Carla Gugino are okay, everything’s fine. The same thing happens in San Francisco, but because the City by the Bay has become the cinematic sci-fi punching bag, it’s much worse; after the mom’s boyfriend proves what he really is (because he has to be a horrible person because he’s not the hero), Blake and the two Brits become the only people who know what to do amid people dying left, right, and center. The only people who are spared are those who listen to the words of wisdom imparted by Ray, Blake, or Dr. Hayes, because they know what to do when earthquakes happen.
And that’s ultimately what the movie is – a PSA on how to survive a 9-point-something earthquake. Characters who know what do survive and characters who don’t, don’t. It’s as though writer Carlton Cuse (yes, of LOST and Bates Motel) realized hardly anyone knows what actually to do in the event of an earthquake and so constructed an action movie around it, showing, like one of those industrial films about ducking and covering, what to do and what not to do. (Don’t hide in a doorway, get under a table.) Surrounding that is a very thin, very predictable, very, very convenient plot with the least number of characters possible.
And that said… I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed all of those things about it because it’s just as ridiculous and absurd as a movie could be and the movie makes no apologies and never attempts to be anything else. This is a movie with massive CGI effects, a young woman who’s introduced laying out in a bikini (for no reason; she could just as easily have been inside reading a book) while she’s on the phone to her dad, and the biggest action star of today being a big, giant action star. It’s a movie I smiled at from beginning to end, even as I shook my head and threw my hands in the air alternately.
So, I suppose, I would recommend this movie, provided you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into. It’s melodrama, it’s people looking at camera and saying dramatic things, it’s destruction on a massive scale that has seemingly no consequences unless they’re for our characters, and it’s “What?!”-inducing fun.