San Andreas

Sarah Ward

Prepare for Dwayne Johnson's charm, and plenty of standard man-versus-nature antics, in a glossy but empty disaster movie.
San Andreas

Image: sanandreasmovies.com 

In California's San Fernando Valley, a woman drives around a winding, mountainous road, dividing her attention between her task behind the wheel, looking at her phone, and rifling through the backseat. When a low rumble signals trouble, she swerves over the edge and tumbles downwards, landing precariously on a cliff ledge. Enter a Los Angeles fire department chopper and its army-trained pilot, Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson, Fast & Furious 7). He's the saviour this damsel in distress needs, persevering with her rescue regardless of the mounting danger of the situation. 

There's much in San Andreas that could be said to typify the movie as a whole as it tracks heightened seismic activity along the titular fault line; however the opening sequence capably sets the scene for the film to come – and not just by establishing the storyline that follows. A computer-generated disaster leads to clichéd scenarios, women requiring saving, and a constant display of courage and charm from the muscular hero. Repeat, then repeat again, for that's the feature's 114 minutes of quake-based antics.

Ray is in the final stages of a divorce from Emma (Carla Gugino, TV's Wayward Pines), with their college student daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario, True Detective), caught in the middle. Their issues, including Emma's new construction tycoon boyfriend (Ioan Gruffudd, Forever), are easily cast aside when the ground starts shaking. Emma is atop an LA skyscraper, while Blake is stranded in San Francisco with British tourist, Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries), and his younger brother, Ollie (Art Parkinson, Game of Thrones), as her only allies – and they all seek Ray's assistance. 

San Andreas recognises that disaster movies benefit from personal stakes to ground the chaos and carnage, or endeavour to. So far, so formulaic, and it also adheres to another oft-used aspect of the template: an expert forecasting doom and gloom. Here, that would be California University of Technology's Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti, The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise of Electro), who predicts tremors exceeding the worst earthquake on record. In yet another staple of such features, an intrepid reporter (Archie Panjabi, The Good Wife) helps him alert the masses.

Indeed, director Brad Peyton (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) and writer Carlton Cuse (best known for Lost) clearly haven't met a world-in-peril trope they didn't like, or come across a by-the-book way to bring them to the screen that they thought wouldn't fit. That includes characters doing little more uttering exposition or adding complications, with dialogue careening between obvious exclamations and attempted one-liners. It also extends to one-note performances that dare not let them deviate not let depth get in the way of spectacle. Visually the feature doesn't fare much better, nor does it thematically. The large-scale scenes of building-toppling destruction, though rendered and choreographed with competence, appear indistinguishable from the wealth of similar efforts, while the feature's closing sentiments spruik patriotism instead of evoking a real emotional reaction.

As a result, San Andreas is left looking glossy and unravelling just as the disaster film playbook dictates, but it feels empty and lacking in energy. Though the protagonist's profession affords the feature a high-flying vantage point, that's the extent of its heights, aesthetic or otherwise. Instead, as the high-stakes introduction makes plain, Johnson remains the film's champion in more ways than one. In the narrative, the former wrestler turned actor is a rock – pun intended – of reliability and sturdiness, never faltering even as everything else trembles and crumbles. In the movie, he's the only source of personality in a standard man-versus-nature effort that never contemplates, let alone tries, to break its generic boundaries.

Rating: 2 stars out of 5

San Andreas
Director: Brad Peyton
USA, 2015, 114 mins

Release date: May 28
Distributor: Roadshow
Rated: M

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay