Ever play Disaster Movie Bingo? No? Well, it’s an ever-shifting game, but here are just a few of the things you could throw on a card the next time you find yourself in that Roland Emmerich kind of mood.
-A highly intelligent male protagonist, thoroughly skilled in his chosen craft
-A female foil, often with a personal and/or estranged relationship to the protagonist, whose primary responsibility it is to marvel with shock at various things
-An attractive younger person, usually the progeny of one or both of the above, whose skillset proves useful under duress
-Massive human casualties, treated with the gravity of ants frying beneath a magnifying glass
-An expert in the field of whatever’s going wrong, who’s ignored until the first instance of disaster occurs, and who then subsequently becomes the Most Important Human on Earth
-News anchors relaying vague information that the audience already knows
-A precocious, sharp-beyond-their-years child
-A friend of one of the above characters who dies early on, prominently and brutally, to establish the stakes involved
-One or more opening sequences that tease both the oncoming destruction and the characters’ ability to withstand it with brawn/intelligence/cunning/luck
-Destruction of well-known landmarks
-Destruction of large landmasses
-No poor people
-Seriously, no poor people ever
-Disputes about exactly what it is that’s going on; typically, the dissenter will die brutally at some point, or at least suffer some kind of fall from grace
-A selfish type who cares not for helping those around them, instead content to just survive. They will absolutely die a brutal death
-A climactic race against time
-A climactic race against time in a building far less well-known than any previously decimated landmarks
-Sunrises after the chaos
-Moments of mutual human understanding among chaos (two squares if they take place while other people are dying in mass quantities)
-A dog that survives the cataclysm
San Andreas is essentially the filmic equivalent of Disaster Movie Bingo. Well, not entirely. It doesn’t have the dog. But the rest is there. The film is about California sinking into the ocean, or at least, it’s about that in the intermittent moments when it isn’t about the marital strife besetting Ray (Dwayne Johnson), an expert helicopter rescue pilot dealing with both the daily anxieties of his high-pressure job and his oncoming divorce from Emma (Carla Gugino). Despite their seemingly affluent lifestyle and the successful parentage of their whip-smart daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario, a woman who in no way could have ever resulted from her parentage as suggested here), Emma can’t handle Ray’s reserved manner any more than Ray can handle her new beau, the gently smarmy Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd).
Meanwhile, the Hoover Dam is exploding. It happens as Lawrence (Paul Giamatti) is investigating a new predictive model that would be able to track and anticipate earthquakes before they happen, and it happens right after Lawrence figures out what’s happening and far too late to save people in the effort. Soon Lawrence has worked out that the San Andreas fault has finally been triggered, summoning the final dissolution of Southern California into the ocean. Meanwhile, Ray has to save people in his helicopter, until it’s time to save his family instead. And then a lot of CGI buildings get destroyed and far more CGI people die screaming.
It’s hard to treat a movie so squarely aimed at escapism with such scorn, but San Andreas is beset by the dual afflictions of being far too cheesy to achieve genuine quality and too stone-faced serious to not leave a bad taste in the mouth. Disaster movies, by design, are something of a sadistic enterprise; you’re supposed to look at the people not dying in order to avoid thinking about the many who are. The good ones give you enough to look at that you can make that deal for a couple hours at a time; Independence Day, for instance, has the right balance of cheese and pathos that keeps it entertaining rather than unsettling. (This critic will argue that White House Down did as well; most just refused to give it a chance.)
By contrast, San Andreas very much wants you to feel the fear of an entire city being decimated by forces beyond human control, but it also really wants you to invest in whether Ray can save his marriage along the way. Because director Brad Peyton and writer Carlton Cuse aim for both, neither ultimately succeeds. Johnson’s default charm carries him to a certain point, but he’s given little to do, and he comes out ahead. Giamatti mostly shows up to elaborate on debatable science, Daddario’s perpetually shot in such a way where she’s sporting the maximum possible cleavage no matter the situation or scene, and her attempts to reach safety with a kind British twentysomething (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his younger brother (Art Parkinson) feel like digressions, random bits of film assembled to move San Andreas from one prolonged stretch of destruction porn to the next.
The CG-heavy affair is staged with so much volume and grit that it makes for a genuinely distressing experience, and there’s really nothing to the film beyond nearly two hours of aesthetically pleasing people narrowly escaping death. Again, you could use this as a rubric for a lot of disaster movies, but most of them manage at least a meager bit of self-effacement that allows for exchanges like this one to feel appropriate, rather than absurd:
Student: “Who should we call?”
San Andreas aims for thrills, but it’s all just deafening after a while; one can only watch so many CG skyscrapers almost collapse as people run out of them before restlessness begins to set in, and you start attempting to predict which reasonably important supporting character will bite it next. For a film that demolishes the Golden Gate Bridge with a tidal wave (one that Johnson drives a boat up vertically, no less), San Andreas isn’t particularly fun or thrilling. It’s campily uproarious for a while, sure, but so was Battleship. And once that’s gone, there’s just the unshakeable feeling that a lot of money was spent on a parade of non-threatening mass death and 9/11 imagery designed to rile moviegoers on the most primal levels.