San Andreas (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★
There are two major elements that determine whether a disaster flick is successful. First is whether the special and visual effects coupled with sound effects force us to have a visceral response—an out-of-body experience, if you will, while watching the picture unfold. Second, whether the characters that we follow are creative, resourceful, strong, or smart enough to make their way out of prickly or downright unlucky situations. It is very necessary that they justify making it all the way to the end. No one wants to see a weak or unlikable character make it through the incredible trials.
“San Andreas” then, based on the screenplay by Carlton Cuse and directed by Brad Peyton, is a successful disaster film. It is entertaining, has some moments of humor, and is genuinely terrifying once the ground begins to shake relentlessly. It is limited, however, by too many conversations during the middle section between a couple (Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino) on the verge of signing the divorce papers. Right from their first interaction during the first act, we are able to tell immediately that they still have remaining feelings for one another. If they had been written more sharply, with more differing thoughts in their minds, these exchanges might have been necessary. Alas, it is not a character-driven picture—and it does not need to be.
The action pieces are stunning. The first earthquake in Nevada, as we follow two seismologists (Paul Giamatti, Will Yun Lee) on the precipice of making a potentially game-changing discovery, is very nicely executed. The camera is active, the score is carefully modulated, and one can believe the two performers as genuine scientists who work at Cal Tech. Giamatti is not a stranger to playing somewhat eccentric, really smart, ordinary-looking men but he surprised me here. When he looks directly to camera, I felt that his character really cared about the people about to lose their lives in the series of massive quakes—“the swarm effect.” With the few scenes he is given, he is able to inject some heart, as well as a bit of camp, into the science of tectonic shifts.
Most central is the annihilation of San Francisco Bay Area. The aforementioned couple’s daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario) meets two British brothers (Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson) prior to the first earthquake in the city and they team up eventually in order to survive. They are young and a romantic connection is established so one might expect that this strand of the story would be at least somewhat annoying.
It is a breath of fresh air that it isn’t. The key, I think, is that there is a sweetness in the relationship between the brothers and also a sweetness between the eldest and Blake. It would have been so easy to make the brothers be somewhat combative or embarrassed by one another. Instead, there is a real bond to them that is relatable without being sitcom-like or boring. I would have liked to have seen more threats toward the well-being of all three because when one ended up injured or on the verge of dying, I found myself wondering if he or she could make it—and if they did somehow then I wondered how much further.
Although “San Andreas” does not redefine the sub-genre, it has a lot to offer when it comes to entertainment value. Appropriately, it is highly driven by astonishing visuals and sound work that really puts the viewer into the situation. Test this by closing your eyes for a few seconds when an earthquake is unfolding. Lastly, compare the performances here against lesser modern disaster flicks and one can really notice the difference. Thus, what we have here is a piece of work that can hold its own against similar movies released during the 1970s, the golden age of disaster films.