Dwayne Johnson should be the world’s biggest action star right now. Why he isn’t, I have no idea. Why can’t he can’t into better projects that feature him? Because when he gets inserted into something like a “Fast & Furious” movie or a “G.I. Joe” sequel, or even as a sidekick in a Michael Bay-Mark Walhberg movie, he is easily the best part of those films, whether they are good or bad. But then we have something like “San Andreas.” When he gets the chance to be the lead, it is almost always in a movie that is just not good, no matter how much charisma he pumps into it. Like “Hercules,” we have Mr. Johnson bringing his A-game to a movie that just doesn’t work out, for a myriad of reasons.
In “San Andreas,” Ray (Dwayne Johnson) is dealing with the recent separation and impending divorce from his wife whom he still clearly loves Emma (Carla Gugino), and it’s one of those separations that seem to be as amiable as it gets. Emma has a new super rich architect boyfriend named Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd) which does make things a little awkward. And in the middle of all this is Ray and Emma’s college age daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario). And when the movie starts, despite Ray having to break plans with his daughter because of work related stuff and despite the divorce, all of these people get along pretty great. Whereas other movies would use this to make Ray seem like a workaholic and his family resentful of it, Blake is super understanding of her dad’s job. And when Ray and Emma have a little tiff over her plans to move in with Daniel, Ray gets in touch with Emma the very next day and apologizes and she accepts it and it is all hunky-dory. And when it seems like Daniel would be trying to move in as “new dad” and possibly have a hard time relating to Blake, he turns out to be kind and thoughtful, and he’s all like “I’m not here to replace your dad or what you have with him, I just wanna be like cool and stuff,” and Blake is all smiles and she’s like “hey thanks man I really appreciate that.”
Suffice to say, this movie is totally lacking in drama when the film starts. Well, that’s not entirely true, as the movie technically starts with a scene of a young woman driving on a windy mountain road and a rock slide sends her car over the edge of the cliff and down the side of the mountain, and it is actually a pretty terrifying sequence, the kind of stuff nightmares are made of, and the car finally comes to a rest in an improbable position on the side of a cliff, and this cues the search and rescue team, led by Ray. He flies the helicopter and organizes the rescue and he seems to have a tight crew of guys who all stayed together after being in the military together. So the movie opens with this history between these three or four guys, Ray is their leader, and they set out to save this girl from this car. The whole time they are being interviewed for a news report of some sort. And when this scene is over, practically nothing from it carries over to the rest of the movie. The rescue mission doesn’t play into the rest of the story, the news report never gets referenced or comes up in any way, and there is maybe one scene of Ray talking to one of the guys from his crew, but it is an inconsequential conversation and then we never see those guys again.
In a better movie, the opening rescue mission would have tied into the rest of the story in a meaningful way. Think of “Cliffhanger,” which isn’t that good to begin with, but looks like a master class in filmmaking next to this. That movie starts with the main character trying to save a friend from falling down a mountainside, a task that this character does as his job, and he fails and the friend dies. This informs the rest of that movie, as the main character is psychologically damaged from that moment to the point of being unable to perform his job anymore, which makes it that much more difficult for him when he finds himself thrust back into the position of having to use those skills again. In “San Andreas,” either they should have saved the girl and then this character would be of some importance to the rest of the story, or the girl should have died and this should have brought much doubt and despair to Ray right before when his skills were going to be needed the most. That is basic dramatic storytelling right there. “San Andreas” chooses to do neither. Just enjoy the unrelated preamble, the furthering adventures of Ray and his rescue crew. And that crew! Why introduce them and say they have this war-fed backstory and then not use them at all? When the earthquakes hit and Ray has to go do his thing, they do not come along to help, but instead are discarded almost immediately. This is just downright lazy.
“San Andreas” also decides to have three stories going on at once, with only two of them converging. There is the plot of Ray and Emma heading to San Francisco to save their daughter Blake, and the plot of Blake trying to survive the earthquakes along with two English brothers (long story). And then off to the side there is this whole plot line about a group of seismologists who have just discovered a way to predict earthquakes. Led by Lawrence (Paul Giamatti), this group predicts that a massive tectonic movement is happening, and that the San Andreas fault line is about crack open, causing historic earthquakes from Southern California all the way up to San Francisco. And Paul Giamatti might as well be in a different movie entirely from Dwayne Johnson and all of them, because outside of an initial earthquake at the Hoover Dam, he spends the whole movie in his office with his team pounding away at computers, all the while being interviewed about the earthquakes by the exact same reporter from the opening scene. And no, there is not a single link between the reporter interviewing Ray and his crew and then going on to interview Lawrence and his crew. Not only does this whole section feel like a different movie, it feels like Mr. Giamatti thought he was in a different movie as well, because he approaches the material with his usual level of reliable gruffness and despair, imbuing his speeches with gravitas that is totally unearned by the rest of the story and movie. Outside of one very emotional scene between Ray and Emma, nothing else comes to the same level as this, and that is a symptom of this movie’s lack of tonal control.
A great example of this lack of cohesion in the movie’s tone comes about an hour or so into the movie. This may be considered a SPOILER but really trust me on this one, I’m not ruining anything (I’m actually trying to save you). So this Daniel character starts out as super nice and friendly, but when Blake gets stuck in a car under rubble in a parking garage, he leaves her to get help. But when someone dies right in front of him, he goes into shock and wanders away, leaving Blake behind. A few scenes later, he purposefully dicks over some guy to snag his secure spot to save himself while the other guy (presumably) dies. So he went from shell shocked to just being an asshole. And then we don’t see him again until much later, when a tsunami is going to destroy the west coast – he’s crossing a bridge on foot with other evacuees, and he looks up and sees a cargo ship on top of a tsunami wave coming right for him, and a shipping container falls off the ship and crushes him comically, ending this stupidly drawn character’s four scene story arc. And then this is immediately followed by everyone else dying from the tsunami, including a moment in which an elderly couple looks up, sees the wave coming for them, and they turn to each other and embrace, knowing they are going to die. A character’s comical death is punctuated with the very sad deaths of many, many people, and either this is a dumb move by the filmmakers or their attempt to make the audience feel guilty about watching so many PG-13 deaths. And considering everything else that happens in this movie, the former seems MUCH more likely.
Oh, and that tsunami? We see parts of it crash from a number of different ground level perspectives, and every single time there was some sort of large boat or ship at the top of the wave, and multiple people look up in time to see a ship coming right for them. It was ridiculous.
Since this is a disaster movie, at there is plenty of disastering going on. Multiple earthquakes in multiple locations, plus that tsunami makes for a lot of crumbling buildings and collapsing bridges. The most striking image of the whole movie is probably a shot of a set of skyscrapers in San Francisco swaying back and forth wildly from the force of the earthquake, that was a pretty crazy sight. But otherwise, it all looks like a bunch of CG destruction, ugly and not particularly memorable. At no point did I feel real danger or tension from the collapsing cities or crumbling streets because it never felt real, there was no weight to any of it. Much like the story of Ray and Emma getting over the thing that broke up their marriage, or the story of Blake and the two English boys, not of it had any real weight and felt inconsequential.
Sure this is just an old school style b-movie like “Earthquake” or “The Towering Inferno,” but those movies weren’t very good either, they were just reasons for putting together lots of stars and special effects. Well “San Andreas” only has a handful of stars and bland special effects so it can’t even seem to compete with those 70’s disaster “classics.” Once again Dwayne Johnson is the best thing in a bad movie. Someone get this guy a better project on the double. He deserves more than this.