San Andreas gets immediate points off for opening with the Warner Bros. logo transitioning into the New Line Cinema logo, triggering traumatic Hobbit flashbacks.
It follows this up at once by making viewers listen to most of Taylor Swift’s “Style.” This movie has, dare I say it, a very shaky start.
San Andreas mostly follows Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson) through an agonizing 45-minute act one, then through multiple earthquakes stemming from California’s San Andreas Fault. Gaines’ wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), has left him for real estate mogul Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffuld) and has already moved into his castle-like mansion with their daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario), though she waited until early in the movie to serve him divorce papers for the audience’s convenience. A rescue worker with more than 600 confirmed rescues, Ray Gaines is on his way to help relieve a smaller, related earthquake in Nevada, inexplicably unaccompanied in the world’s worst helicopter, when The Big One hits Los Angeles. Gaines gets a call from his wife, gives her terrible earthquake safety advice, then completely abandons his duty to rescue her. From there, they head to San Francisco to rescue their daughter, who was laying over in the city with Riddick on her way to college.
Meanwhile, California Institute of Technology seismologist Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) develops and proves a reliable method of predicting earthquakes a full half a minute in advance, which is actually a cool and interesting accomplishment, but doesn’t have anything whatsoever to do with the rest of the movie.
First thing’s first — let’s go through all the terrible, stupid things characters do in this movie. These actions and statements make these characters unsympathetic, and can make viewers not care what happens to them.
Ray Gaines, who, and this really can’t be emphasized enough, is the world’s worst rescue worker, after seeing an entire highway intersection collapse, tells Emma Gaines that the safest place to be is on the roof, and that he’ll come pick her up. The point of his doing that was pretty clearly to justify this trailer’s key sequence (shot starts at 40 seconds), as Emma is in constant peril in this scene.
- To follow that up, Ray Gaines tells Blake to get to high ground where he will come pick her up, instead of going with the entire city of people that is also in need of rescue and seems to be headed to a generally known evacuation point. Most of Blake Gaines’ scenes feature her walking against the crowd and implying that every single person in San Francisco is doing the wrong thing, even though the opportunity for rescue that she is running toward is exclusively only just for her because her father is a terrible rescue worker and an incredibly selfish human being.
- Hayes’ entire storyline revolves around TV reporter Serena Johnson (Archie Panjabi) coming to meet him about his discovery and getting caught with him in the earthquake. Afterward, Hayes and his team discover that another, potentially bigger quake is on the way. With their hardware fried, the duo hack into a 24 hour news network to warn anyone they can the destruction isn’t over. When they succeed, two things happen — first, a news anchor formally introduces the “hacked” feed, then Johnson shames the entire world for not listening to Hayes’ prediction, even though his model is about a day old and he saw the earthquake coming all of 15 seconds in advance.
Characters are the foundation of any movie, and with characters this dumb, it’s impossible to connect with San Andreas in any meaningful way. The movie puts itself at a severe disadvantage here.But as a disaster movie, this was already behind the eight ball. Most disaster movies are terrible because their structure actively hinders this foundational aspect of storytelling.
Where action movies normally follow a single sympathetic character and put them through entertaining fight scenes and stunts, disaster movies follow “a cross section of society” through wave after wave of CGI menace. None of the characters are developed enough, the cornerstone visuals are 100 percent computer generated and bad, and the movie typically falls flat because of it. There are a lot of ways around these problems, however, and San Andreas tantalizes because it gropes at the edges of doing just that.
The best recent disaster movies are 2008’s The Dark Knight and 2007’s Transformers, which everyone forgets is excellent. These movies take the disaster formula and flip it on its head by making characters the most important thing. Instead of CG volcanoes, The Dark Knight’s world-breaking disaster was a character, instantly one of the most recognizable of all time. Transformers had the CGI, but, again, it was used to create characters. They weren’t the most complex, but they had motivations, waxed poetic on the merits of humanity and one of them was voiced by Hugo Weaving.
The characters responding to the disaster were also much better fleshed out. The aesthetic most disaster movies only dream about was perfectly captured in The Dark Knight, in which the cast, news footage and brilliant editing made the entire city of Gotham into its own character. Transformers’ main character was annoying, but not boring. He had enough personality to carry the film, which in the end was about him and not the giant robots.
San Andreas also has this going for it, which is why it’s so close to being good. This isn’t a movie about earthquakes, it’s a movie about a family struggling to recover from a physical disaster as well as dealing with grief and guilt over their younger daughter’s death a year earlier. But the movie also tries to be about earthquakes and, for some reason, patriotism, and that’s where it falls apart. The kernel of a good story is there and shines brightly in many scenes, but there’s some intense restructuring that needed to take place.
The parts about earthquakes and the fact that California is eventually going to fall into the ocean are boring and dumb and serve only to interrupt the story. What they really should have done is have the entire movie take place in the aftermath of one massive quake and center around Ray Gaines searching for an estranged wife he’s still in love with, then fighting through the 380 mile journey to the city their daughter is in, haunted by flashbacks about his failure to save their younger daughter.
Also on the chopping block should be the part where he’s a rescue worker. There’s an interesting, dramatic movie to be made about rescue workers responding in the middle of a disaster, and San Andreas is not that movie. Gaines does probably one thing that he’s actually supposed to do as a rescue worker, and the only resource he uses is the dysfunctional helicopter, but he hijacks two other vehicles so he clearly doesn’t need one built. This movie becomes a lot more interesting if it’s about some guy responding to this and makes me not hate the character for abandoning his duty in a time of incredible need.
Also, they need to rewrite all the dialogue, because that’s bad too.
With so many changes needed to accentuate the film’s one redeeming aspect, it’s impossible to say anything but to avoid this movie.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. This review brought to you in part by Shannon “Boring” Hall. I’ve had a change of heart about reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.