Review: 'San Andreas' is a Clear Indication the Disaster Movie is Dead
by Jeremy Kirk
May 29, 2015
The ground shakes. Buildings fall. Hope rises. The crowd falls asleep… That's about where we're at with disaster movies and have been under this same model since the aliens invaded on Independence Day nearly 20 years ago. Sure, gimmicks like found footage and the glorious discovery of 3D (Thanks, Cameron) have given disaster movies a glossy, new coat, but it's the same gears moving it all forward underneath. Did you really think San Andreas, the latest, disaster flick from Warner Bros, would shake things up? Don't let the assumed size of the film's title fool you. San Andreas keeps it right at that level we've all grown tired of.
The various cliches you will find throughout this big-budget blockbuster are the heroes of our story, this time a Los Angeles fire and rescue pilot played by Dwayne "Still The Rock To Me, Dammit" Johnson, going through hellfire and destruction to find his daughter, played here by Alexandra Daddario. Carla Gugino plays the part of the estranged–or is she?–wife of our hero, Ioan Gruffudd as the douchey new guy in her life. These are the recognizable players going through the epic devastation of our disaster porn. Filling in the gaps to catch the audience up on just what in the hell is going on with all the shaking and the screaming is our resident "-ologist", played here by Paul Giamatti.
So you know right from that paragraph alone San Andreas has the acting muscle to carry whatever lazy, hackneyed drama they've got going on under the film's hood. It's no shocker that a film of this sub-genre is lacking in the story department, not that that's any excuse, but San Andreas' screenplay, written by Carlton Cuse from a story by Andre Fabrizio and Jeremy Passmore, may still shock you.
The basic premise seems perfect for a ginormous-budgeted epic that would fit right in here in the summer months. We've all heard the stories that when the San Andreas Fault goes Las Vegas will become beachfront property. It's just amazing the size of the film's bag of cliches would rival the fault line itself. Screenwriter Carlton Cuse, who you may remember as Damon Lindelof's writing buddy for the bulk of "Lost", doesn't shy away from using any cliche he can find in the book. This goes for characters, situations, and even dialogue. If it made any sense at all, Giamatti would have explained at some point how the San Andreas Fault was responsible for wiping out the dinosaurs.
The human drama suffers from all this familiarity, especially when there are so few players with which to work. There are no subplots about secondary characters, at least none that go anywhere. Giamatti's scenes are entirely disconnected from Johnson's family adventure aside from the central premise. Disaster movies, at their core, are about the randomness of events when it comes to natural disasters and how they make everyday drama pale by comparison. With San Andreas, there's no genuine drama to be had at any turn.
It doesn't matter how many skyscrapers collapsing, fissures in the Earth, or exploding twisters of debris the film's budget can buy. Director Brad Peyton seems to determined to rival Roland Emmerich for mass of destruction. Still, his effects and camera work within and around them are nothing new. How many times have we seen Los Angeles get destroyed on film? How many times have we seen the same for San Francisco, where San Andreas' second half moves? With a natural event that is sure to touch the lives of every man, woman, and child on the continent, you would think there would be room to see something new brought to the disaster movie table. You would be wrong.
In the foreground of all that destruction going on, the actors seem to be on autopilot, as well. Johnson has a natural charm that makes you want to follow him anywhere, a genuine empathy that makes you want to give him a hug whenever he's down. In San Andreas, none of that is absent, and Peyton utilizes every emotion in Johnson's playbook to keep the emotion of the film somewhat alive. It's heartbeat stops a lot, but, somehow, Johnson manages to get it ticking again.
He's the only element of the film worth crediting, and you begin to wonder if the disaster movie has truly died a death. At this point, San Andreas seems to be the only one left in town when it comes to the sub-genre, but all of that might change next summer when Emmerich graces us with the long-gestating Independence Day 2. Like most sub-genres, the disaster movie will come in cycles, grow cold, then get hot again. San Andreas is a clear mark that the disaster movie, in its current form, has gone as far as it can go, and, if it wasn't dead already, this film sure killed it.