Oh, how late producer Irwin Allen would have enjoyed San Andreas. How would he have not? Allen produced some of the greatest disaster films in the 1970s, such as The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, carving out his own niche and establishing the modern-day disaster film genre. Eventually, as all things do, quality is lost through the generations when you try to do something over and over, similar to when we used cassettes to record music from another source and dubbed it for friends with those pesky double-cassette decks. Things were copied and copied and copied until the source material didn’t sound like itself, but rather a shell of itself with no depth or dynamic range.
The same could be said about Brad Peyton’s San Andreas, where all – and I mean every last one – of the disaster film clichés is paraded past us, with little resonance or firm attack. It’s one of those movies that’s in one ear and out the other almost as soon as it’s done, representative of the film studio trash that they’ve been plying us with in a seemingly concerted effort to make the American summer movie season dumber than it already is. My guess is that with films like these, the studios figure that we’re there to see the spectacle of improbable things, not a deeply moving human story with actual pathos and gravitas.
Instead, San Andreas, centered around a devastating earthquake that tears California apart from Los Angeles to San Francisco, features every character you’d want in a disaster film –the pretty girl in peril (Alexandra Daddario), the plucky guy who befriends her (Hugh Johnstone-Burt), the haughty business tycoon who believes that he has the strongest product (Ioan Gruffudd), the scientist who knows everything but isn’t listened to by anybody (Paul Giamatti), the mother (Carla Gugino) intent on divorcing the estranged father who’s going to save everyone (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), and the reporter who’s going to cover it all (Archie Panjabi). The movie lifts from other disaster films, creating a mixtape that could be called “Roland Emmerich and James Cameron’s Greatest Hits” – among them being the urgently whispered warning of danger (Independence Day), the news crew stuck in the middle of the unfolding drama (1998’s Godzilla), the in-love-but-too-damaged-to-admit-it couple, an intentional drowning (The Abyss), and, of course, the requisite “GIVE ME YOUR HAND!” and “GET THE HELL OUT OF THERE!” lines that must accompany every single movie like this. This movie also commits one of the biggest cardinal sins in my book: using the American flag as the ultimate courage-bolstering cliché.
However, the worst sin this movie commits is adding nothing – absolute zero – to the current cinema landscape. Do we really need to see large cities destroyed again, with people running around all pell-mell and dying horrible deaths? The characters are all retreads, as is the story itself. Where San Andreas doesn’t quit is in its action scenes and the suspense it so desperately tries to build, only to be undone by the fact that every character is so trope-laden that we know they’re going to be all right in the end. I refuse to believe that Cuse, a veteran television writer of gripping shows like “Lost,” FX’s “The Strain,” and “Bates Motel,” could be capable of such mediocrity; there has to be a larger metaphor at work.
Is it the ultimate middle-finger to the summer movie season? By being so predictable and rote, is Cuse sending us a wake-up call to get us angry about the kind of entertainments the movie studios think we want? Is he calling attention to the fact that the cinematic world needs some kind of catastrophic, earthquake-like shakeup to dislodge us from the rut in which we’ve entrenched ourselves? And is this why Los Angeles, where most of the movies we see are made, gets destroyed early in the film? If the larger metaphor screenwriter Carlton Cuse wanted to get across was that the threadbare lack of creativity needs to be destroyed in order to be rebuilt, then God bless him. And do he and director Peyton really think Dwayne Johnson is the man to save us from ourselves? I’d like to think so, as Johnson is one of the bright points of this movie, standing tall with stoicism and his own particular brand of guts amid a trainwreck of banal characters.
Boy, I want to believe what I just wrote. I really do, as there is not one excuse for this movie. It’s a computer-graphics-driven destructo-fest, loud and unabashed in its want to show you just how close our lead characters can come to dying, only to yank the wires back at the last second. Not one emotional connection is made with the audience in this movie, no matter how hard the cast and crew try – and believe me, they try hard. Too hard. So hard that it pushes into melodrama, the kind that makes the audience groan and say, “Are they really doing this now?” San Andreas is yet another film from the Hollywood machine that seems to think that everyone wants to watch the world burn, but the only thing being burnt out is our patience with these kinds of empty, shallow effects vehicles.