Should we admonish you for your willingness to spend $15 on San Andreas in 3D when you could be donating that money to the victims in Nepal?
Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse for San Francisco. Attacked by towering monsters and overrun by damn dirty apes, the City by the Bay hasn’t fared too well lately at the movies. But S.F. hasn’t seen anything like this most recent onslaught of devastation that only a rippling mountain of muscle like Dwayne Johnson can overcome. San Andreas drops the strongest earthquake of all time on the city, one that’s rendered in spellbinding 3D. If you haven’t already gotten enough of seeing the Golden Gate Bridge get jacked up in epic ways, this movie is for you.
Disaster porn is a tricky business. San Andreas took some flak for pimping its CGI destruction while thousands of lives were being lost last month in quake-shattered Nepal. Films have been pushed back due to major tragedies before. But then again, this is 21st century America, a place not known for the length of its collective attention span—recent disasters will likely do little to quell the hype that has built for San Andreas.
Following the disaster film formula, San Andreas revolves around a core group, most of whom are family. Ray (Johnson) is a rescue helicopter pilot who’s on the outs with his wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), largely because they lost a daughter to a rafting accident (those’ll get ya) years earlier. As a result, the otherwise affable Ray evidently shuttered up his soft spots. Meanwhile, their other daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario), makes a stop off in San Francisco where she meets a cute and charming British guy (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his even more adorable little bro (Art Parkinson)—just in time for a series of devastating earthquakes to split California in two.
From there, we get to see Johnson pilot a couple of choppers and a small plane, tandem parachute with his almost-ex-wife into AT&T Park (and make a killer baseball-themed sex joke), steal a truck and drive a boat through waterlogged skyscrapers. Paul Giamatti is also thrown in there (largely to frequently take off his glasses and rub his forehead in consternation) as a Caltech-based seismologist who invents a methodology for predicting earthquakes on the same day California is hit by an unprecedented one.
Of course, San Andreas falls into the disaster porn trap of giving us only a few characters to follow while they’re otherwise surrounded by hordes of screaming destruction fodder. Other than all being affluent and good-looking, there’s not much reason why these half dozen or so people at the core of the film warrant any specific attention. Their family backstory is perfunctory and almost laughably cheesy by the end, especially when the requisite CPR-against-all-odds starts up and the “Don’t quit on me!” and “I won’t lose her, too!” gems get busted out.
Above the other disaster films it borrows from, San Andreas owes a great debt to Titanic, especially when a tsunami turns San Fran into soup. The tandem skydiving serves as an almost literal “I’m flying, Jack” moment, bodies tumble from great heights, massive barge propellers serve as deadly perils and there’s plenty of held-breath heroics. We even get a cowardly, rich asshole who puts himself ahead of the women and children. For the drier action, we’re given cars/trucks/helicopters/planes crashing and protagonists repeatedly pulled from wreckage at the last possible instant before it collapses.
This should add up to a train wreck, but instead San Andreas proves to be effective-enough popcorn fare. Director Brad Peyton does fine work with the outright impressive 3D visuals, having transcended his previous résumé of shitty sequels in weak PG-rated franchises. With a movie this over-the-top in its iconic carnage, it’s a disappointment that they didn’t find a way to involve Alcatraz, if only so critics could land a few “the Rock at the Rock” jokes. And this is also probably the point where I should admonish you for your willingness to spend $15 on San Andreas in 3D when you could be donating that money to the victims in Nepal. But, there’s a place for technical wonders/brainless eye candy. So do what you want, I’m not your mom.