Disaster epics can be a hard sell nowadays - post the advent of CGI, there is now very little left to the imagination. We’ve seen the White House destroyed by an alien invasion and the statue of Liberty buried in snow - what else is left?
Attempting to prove that there are still enough American monuments available to be imaginatively destroyed comes San Andreas - the latest match-up between director Brad Peyton and star Dwayne Johnson - and here it is the Hoover Dam and The Golden Gate Bridge that appear most in peril.
In its simplest form San Andreas is a story depicting the decimation of the San Francisco bay area - and the wider West Coast of America running across the San Andreas fault line - by a succession of major earthquakes.
Johnson appears as Ray, an emergency services helicopter pilot attempting to locate and rescue both his estranged wife Emma (Night at the museums Carla Gugino) and his resolute daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario - the Percy Jackson franchise) from the chaos that engulfs the city.
With an attempt to add a deeper back-story and some emotional heft to proceedings we also learn that Ray lost his other daughter to a drowning incident years before which goes some way to explaining the fractures in his once solid marital foundations. Whilst it is a brave attempt to explore the shattered fault-lines of the families’ inter-personal relationships aswell as those of the American West Coast it never really feels like anything other than a cheap emotional trick, which, one later underwater scene aside, never really achieves the emotive response it seeks.
This is unfortunately not the last of the negatives as far as San Andreas is concerned and there is an unavoidable feeling that this is nothing we haven’t seen before. Substitute ‘earthquake’ for ‘flood’, ‘fire’ or ‘aliens’ and you’ve basically got every recent disaster movie that has been released but with the added crime that there is no real attempt to do anything differently. It’s difficult to become emotionally engaged with something that feels as though it uses an identi-kit set of characters in an inter-changeable environment all combating the same perils we’ve seen time and time again.
There are occasional moments of interest - and certainly for anyone who hasn’t seen a disaster movie before then this will be a good couple of hours entertainment - but for those with any experience whatsoever of this particular genre then you will be sorely disappointed if you expect anything remotely original or it must be said - thrilling. Both 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow - whilst not really being anything spectacular themselves - have the edge over San Andreas in terms of both tension and delivery.
The movie starts well enough with a tight, tense opening sequence that involves a cliff-face rescue but then struggles to build on it’s early promise and soon descends into a familiarity that quickly becomes dull. There are long periods that become tedious and the run-time is at least 40 minutes too long.
The special-effects are indeed impressive in places but unfortunately too many of the movie’s action set-pieces look nothing more than what they are - images generated on someone’s computer. Unlike the previously mentioned opening sequence that manages to appear both exhilarating and authentic, the majority of the film - in particular the last 20 minutes - looks nothing more than counterfeit and does absolutely nothing to enhance the film’s authenticity - it’s hard to really get a sense of the characters travails when everything seems nothing more than a giant simulation.
Obviously any Hollywood movie requires a certain suspension of belief - movies are implausible by their very nature - but San Andreas stretches credibility far beyond any natural cinema-going limit and really suffers as a result. This is about as far-fetched as you can imagine with the narrative in particular being a bigger culprit than the action set-pieces themselves. The plot and dialogue are so cheesy it’s hard to believe that script-writer Carlton Cuse didn’t have a cheeky smirk playing on his lips when he handed this in.
Adding to the credibility issues comes the movies chronic propensity to just ‘hand’ the main protagonists exactly what they need at every given opportunity. This is all far too convenient and at times it’s down-right ridiculous. Highly useful items just seem to appear from thin-air - If you think crash landing into a department store when in need of new clothing isn’t bad enough then how about the chances of a helicopter pilot in desperate need of air transport happening across a civil air-line owner literally in the middle of nowhere? It feels all too forced, too scripted and - added to the lack of authentic CGI - just further highlights the fakeness of it all.
Whilst various films that are lacking in the major technical areas can often be redeemed by solid acting performances, there is no such luck here and this is yet another aspect that San Andreas never really manages to elevate above average.
Johnson’s shoulders are about as broad as they come but with such a poor script and a lack of any real excitement he flounders in San Andreas and even a man of his remarkable size can’t carry a movie fraught with so much baggage. The one-time Rock is in danger of watching his career slide into the “Arnie Mk.II” territory that he seemed so desperate to avoid with intuitive choices such as Pain & Gain and The Other Guys - movies that show-cased his unmatched charisma, comedy timing and his potential as a serious actor. Roles such as this one however - with it’s clunky dialogue and total lack of originality - are doing nothing for him, and he needs to reject this type of script in the future before he ends up in career purgatory and finds himself in the next expendables movie wondering where it all went wrong.
In contrast, newcomer Hugo Johnstone-Burt provides a nice little turn as the ordinary joe hero who also ensures one or two lighter moments of humour are brought to proceedings - as well as supplying Daddario ever increasing opportunities to create an extremely competent and spunky role-model. This is far from the hysterical, screaming female that is so often a staple of this type of fare and if nothing else San Andreas should be applauded for it’s focus in creating such a strong female character.
Paul Giamatti - in his role as a seismatologist hell-bent on alerting as many people as he possibly can as to the dangers - is easily the best thing in this rather damp squib and - aside from Daddario and Johnstone-Burt - probably the only one who emerges with any credit. Whilst the rest of the cast are hamstrung by the outrageously cheesy - at times even cringe-worthy - script, Giamatti puts his strong thespian abilities to good use and avoids being dragged down like the rest of his lesser skilled cast-members. Providing the brains to Johnson’s brawn he is a welcome counter-point to the terrible over-acting that threatens to drown the movie in the same way the giant tsunami menaces the San Fran coast-line.
Other than Giamatti and his two young co-stars, the only other real positive to be mined from San Andreas is the crisp cinematography that utilises bright, sun-drenched colours and at least provides a warm, appealing visual that has the advantage of creating an almost idyllic contrast to the wanton destruction that envelopes the principle cast.
Unfortunately, the negatives far outweigh the positives when it comes to San Andreas and I can only imagine that director Peyton seems to have followed “the idiots guide to Hollywood film-making” manual during the creation process. This is about as by-the-numbers as film-making gets and Peyton has managed to produce a very ‘vanilla’ movie that provides absolutely nothing new and instead just seems to regurgitate every tired old cliche in the book. When one of your final shots is a battered American flag fluttering defiantly in the breeze you have pretty much thrown originality out of the window.
Ironically then, this is far from earth-shattering and will definitely not be leaving any major quakes at the box-office. A huge waste of time and money and yet more proof that Hollywood - and Johnson in particular - need to be smarter in their future choices.