“We’ll get hit again…and it’s going to be a bigger monster.”
The character who utters these words in San Andreas is referring to an impending earthquake that could literally rip California apart. But he could just as easily be talking about the summer movie season, when audiences who have just been rocked by a catastrophic quake have to deal with something called “Indominus Rex” a mere two weeks later. San Andreas almost certainly won’t end up as the biggest bully on the Hollywood block, but it’s a big, dumb, fun disaster flick the whole family can enjoy.
Chief Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson) is an L.A. Fire Department helicopter pilot with a sterling professional reputation for saving people’s lives. Of course, the one person he couldn’t rescue was his daughter Mallory, who died during a rafting trip years earlier. Ray never emotionally recovered from the accident, which left him disconnected from soon-to-be-ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino) and surviving daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario). As Blake prepares to head off to college — and Emma prepares to cohabitate with her posh new architect boyfriend Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd) — the state of California is rocked by a massive earthquake.
Earlier on, I referred to San Andreas as something the whole family can enjoy. Sure, there’s plenty of death and disaster-related mayhem, but director Brad Peyton and writer Carlton Cuse have structured their film in a way that unintentionally(?) makes the case that this apocalyptic earthquake might be the best thing that could’ve happened for Ray’s family life. After the quake hits, Ray races to save Emma in Los Angeles and Blake in San Francisco. Blake had been accompanied to San Francisco by Daniel, but ends up surviving the disaster with the help of jittery, charming Brit Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his younger brother Ollie (Art Parkinson, who basically steals the movie).
San Andreas is something of an anomaly in that it’s a summer blockbuster with a budget north of $100 million that isn’t a sequel or a reboot. (There are people in real-life who believe a devastating earthquake along the San Andreas Fault is imminent, and those concerns are colorfully expressed here by the CalTech seismologist Paul Giamatti plays.) Of course, San Andreas‘ “originality” is a matter of semantics. The movie may not be based on a specific preexisting property, but it owes a lot to some of the disaster movies that came before it.
The obvious doppelganger is 1974’s Earthquake, which is mostly remembered for spawning the creation of seat-rattling Sensurround and inspiring a theme park ride at Universal Studios. (The movie itself — which featured a star-studded cast led by Charlton Heston — is less fondly remembered than both those things.) But the CGI-heavy San Andreas actually made me feel like I was watching a Roland Emmerich film festival. A father heroically racing to save his stranded, blue-eyed progeny in the face of a natural disaster? Check! A world-changing catastrophe potentially rekindling a romance between estranged spouses? Double check!! Destruction of iconic landmarks? But, of course!!! The special effects in San Andreas are frequently spectacular — in case you’re curious, the Hoover Dam, Golden Gate Bridge, and Hollywood Sign all get what’s coming to them — but it’s disappointing that all this technical wizardry filmmakers have at their disposal often leads to such uninspired storytelling. (You’re not gonna believe this, but the first significant death is a minority character.)
At least Peyton — who has effects-heavy/kid-friendly adventures like Journey 2: The Mysterious Island and Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore on his resume — finds ways to sneak in light, nimble touches. I’m thinking about the opening sequence, which features a couple of clever fake-outs before it imperils a distracted driver. That first car crash is presented as a giddy amusement park deathtrap, and many of the collisions that come afterward follow suit. Overall, Peyton and Cuse seem to be aware of how dumb their movie is. That being said, the film would’ve benefited from nixing a few of its groan-worthy one-liners; the one that Johnson delivers after parachuting into AT&T Park in San Francisco is a doozy.
Then again, The Artist Formerly Known as “The Rock” is one of the few people starring in action movies these days who can really sell a cheesy catchphrase. Up to this point, Johnson has been “franchise viagra” for The Mummy, Fast and Furious, and G.I. Joe movie series. (Not to mention teaming up with Peyton for Journey 2…I’m good skipping over Be Cool if you are) In San Andreas, he’s entrusted with the responsibility of launching his own franchise. It didn’t go super well with last year’s Hercules, and San Andreas doesn’t quite tap into what I believe to be a deep well of charisma and star power. Not to belabor the Roland Emmerich comparisons, but San Andreas had the potential to turn Johnson into a big-time leading man the same way Independence Day did for Will Smith. Johnson — who is surprisingly at ease when he goes into doting-dad mode — is good here, but doesn’t get to that level.
The rest of the cast is solid. This is the third movie Johnson and Gugino have appeared in together — following Race to Witch Mountain and Faster — and the pair have a pleasing ease with each other on-screen. I also liked that Daddario’s Blake is much more resourceful than your average damsel in distress. Meanwhile, Giamatti is exactly the type of zippy, overqualified performer you want delivering scientific exposition and livening up scenes that don’t have Johnson swooping in to rescue someone.
San Andreas is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 30 mbps. There’s a lot to love about this high-definition image presentation. The most important has to be the level of detail you’ll find. Sure, there’s a lot of long shots of crumbling buildings, but it’s when you get to ground level that careful detail of the production pays off. From dust to debris, it doesn’t just blend into a blob of mass. If you look carefully, you’re going to see that a lot of work went into even the smallest particles. Colors are pretty natural. Black levels are superb with plenty of shadow definition that all combines to provide you with a solid image at all times. Contrast brings the shadows of debris tight against the sunny California sunshine. Long shots are crisp.
The Atmos Multi-Channel audio translates to a Dolby Digital TrueHD 7.1 track that will blow you away. This is the closest you’ll get to being in a real earthquake without the wobbly feet. The subs kick into high gear and literally shake a good theatre room. It does so without distortion and without stepping on the other sounds. Dialog somehow cuts through this thing perfectly. The surrounds offer a completely immersive experience. It’s not just the crashing and crunching of buildings. It’s the subtle settling of dust or the fully surround whip of the chopper blades. The score is certainly a rousing one at times, but credit the audio production folks for allowing moments of unsettling quiet to give breath to the ambient sounds. This is reference material that will do well as a system show-off piece.
San Andreas – The Real Fault Line: (6:22) OK, raise your hands if you think this is about the actual place or science of San Andreas. You can put your hands down now. You know I can’t see you, right? The closest this feature gets to talking about the actual San Andreas Fault is when one of the participants mentions that it is, indeed, a real place. Otherwise this is a short behind-the-scenes feature.
Dwayne Johnson To The Rescue: (9:23) This is a Johnson love-fest. The ladies swoon and talk about wanting to be rescued by Johnson. Otherwise it’s a brief look at some of his stunts for the film. No question the man can be physical when he wants to be…which appears to be all the time.
Scoring The Quake: (6:13) Composer Andrew Lockington talks about the unique ways he approached the film’s music. They recorded actual fault sounds. They also recorded themselves destroying an old piano. You get some footage from the orchestra recording sessions at the famous Abby Road Studios in London.
Deleted Scenes: (4:40) There is an optional commentary but no individual selection.
Gage Reel: (4:40)
Stunt Reel: (2:56)
Despite its premise, San Andreas doesn’t come close to breaking any new ground. But at 107 minutes, it’s refreshingly breezy compared to many of the bloated blockbusters that lumber well past the two-hour mark. More importantly, the movie is an unabashed crowd pleaser — the resident coward gets a predictable but satisfying comeuppance — that offers thrills by land, by air, and by sea.
Parts of this review were written by Gino Sassani