As the Hoover Dam splinters in a thousand concrete shards, the Hollywood sign tumbles slowly down its resting place, and San Francisco is pummelled, set on fire and comprehensively levelled by a tsunami, we should be, by all rights, aghast at such wanton destruction of all the great (Californian) things humanity has wrought.
After all, we’re talking about a massive earthquake, the likes of which none of us have ever seen before, striking America’s most populous state, and taking many of its most recognisable urban landscapes with it, without fear or favour.
And yet for all of the adherence by San Andreas, directed by Brad Peyton to a script by Lost‘s Carlton Cuse, to the familiar tropes of the disaster movie genre – fractured family, strangers becoming friends, long odds on survival nevertheless met, massive destruction on a Biblical scale, deeply introspective insights – and its striking, jaw-dropping special effects, of which there are many, it’s hard not to feel like this is disaster with a lower case “d”.
It’s spectacular yes, its characters writ shallow but large, their desperate quest for survival set against a tableau of ever-escalating death and mayhem, but somehow it all manages to come across as decidedly ho-hum.
As Nepal has recently shown us in ways almost too shocking to absorb, disasters of this magnitude are anything but ho-hum and routine, and yet somehow San Andreas, despite valiantly playing the “People Who You Might Possibly Care About If We Tug Your Heartstrings With Sufficient Vigour” card, comes bearing a been-there-done-that-got-the-debris-dust-covered-Tshirt feel to it.
To a certain extent that’s expected, this is a disaster movie after all following a well-shaken premise – in that respect at least, the film’s gloriously over the top damn near cartoon-ish approach makes perfect sense – it also feels however, as if we have most likely reached Peak Disaster Movie where all the impressive CGI in the world is not enough to truly, deeply move us.
But you still expect to feel something, anything, at least beyond a cosy sense that you’re safe and sound while the world, or at least California, goes to hell, and the Pacific Ocean, in a ripped-to-sunder basket.
Alas you do not.
In fact, thanks to Cuse’s penchant for cheesy dialogue of the lowest order in which real situations of peril and the frantic, emotion-laden language that goes with them, are reduced to the stuff of poorly-written movie of the week fodder, you are more apt to laugh at critically-important moments than grip the edge of your chair with cushion-shredding tension, fearing for the lives of those you have come to know, at least in passing.
The odd thing for a movie so enamoured of tropes we have seen used a thousand times before (and usually in far better fashion), is it does a reasonably good job of crafting characters that you have an outside case of possibly caring for, at least enough to make the action meaningful.
Chief Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson) is your archetypal strong, silent type, a man who has survived war, and countless rescues as a member of the LAFD and who fears nothing and no one it seems; his soon-to-be ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino), who still loves him though she’s now with an insanely-rich property developer of questionable backbone, and he have raised a daughter of resourcefulness, ingenuity and great charm, Blake (Alexandra Daddario) who has maintained close relationships with both parents throughout their marital estrangement.
They make a believable, tight family unit, albeit one temporarily fractured, who draw others into their orbit like moths to a flame; most notably English brothers Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and Ollie (Art Parkinson) who meet Blake barely minutes before San Francisco endures the first of its city-levelling earthquakes.
Granted they aren’t drawn with the sort of attention to melodramatic detail that movies like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure, classics of the genre managed, but they are likeable, their relationships authentic enough to be acceptable in the context of a movie like this, and their resulting actions, largely but not entirely, in keeping with what we know of their characters.
They are even allow to be almost egregiously selfish at times, such as when Ray and Emma determinedly motor past another boat owner who is selflessly rescuing total strangers, in their own stolen water-borne vehicle through a tsunami-logged San Francisco downtown, their focus solely on finding Blake, a blindly-driven imperative fuelled by the death of their other child some years earlier in a drowning incident.
They’re not perfect people, flawed like the rest of us who go through hell and back to keep their family unit alive and kicking.
It’s hard not to want to relate to them and wish them well, their cheesy conversations be damned.
They’re joined in the likeability stakes by a CalTech scientist named Lawrence (Paul Giamatti), a man who with his colleagues, one of whom predictably perishes very early on in proceedings, has developed a novel way of predicting earthquakes by charting the magnetic waves that often precede them.
Naturally he is a lone wolf in the wilderness initially although as events unfold, more and more people listen to him, and lives, countless lives, are saved.
And yet for all these quite likeable characters, and special effects that leave you gasping at times with their audacity (and thus rather perversely entertained in the process as is the way with these films), San Andreas is a curiously lifeless affair, a disaster movie into which so much crude symbolism, and hilariously- misshapen dialogue, has been stuffed into its teetering narratively threadbare form it’s a wonder it doesn’t crash over with the weight well before the Big One hits.
It’s clearly aiming for meaningful and emotionally-intense but instead comes across as a B-grade movie filled to the brim with pretty good actors who are given very little in the way of anything worthwhile to work with, at least anything that will ultimately matter.
Yes, it is a creature of its genre, and yes it plays out much as you expect it to, for which it cannot be faulted; but by the end, when everyone who you wish would survive do survive, and the long, expensive, clean up process has begun, San Andreas is laid bare as an unimaginative ticking of the same old same old boxes exercise, an opportunity wasted to re-invent a genre that is close to becoming as much of a disaster as the increasingly empty films that populate its storm-soaked, earthquake-ravaged expanse.