Disaster movies are a unique group, as we discussed when we published our 15 best disaster movies. San Andreas arrives this week and hopes to make its mark with a swath of destruction that is frankly unparalleled in any of the mayhem movies that we’ve seen prior. Is that a good thing?
Dwayne Johnson stars as Ray, a helicopter pilot for the Los Angeles Fire Department who, it is established, is one of the best at what he does. When people need rescuing, he’s your guy. The opening sequence illustrates that. It’s a classic action movie set-up where the thrills are ramped up immediately to start the audience's adrenaline pumping fresh out of the gate. James Bond movies have been doing it for fifty years!
What we also learn is that Ray is divorced from his wife Emma (Carla Gugino) and is set to take his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) to school in San Francisco the next day. A massive earthquake in Nevada that destroys the Hoover Dam (teased in the San Andreas trailer) calls him away and Blake must head to San Francisco in her mom’s boyfriend’s private jet. Turns out that Nevada earthquake was just the beginning. The San Andreas fault is busting a move, and before we know it Los Angeles is seeing destruction at an epic level that has Johnson swinging into action to find and save Emma from a downtown Los Angeles rooftop.
The “science” of the film is established through Paul Giamatti’s Lawrence, an earthquake specialist at Cal Tech who has developed a method of predicting earthquakes and learns that Nevada and Los Angeles are merely two-thirds of a San Andreas trifecta of terror… San Francisco is next. Ray and Emma are off to the Bay Area to find their daughter before that city is enveloped in waves of destruction that includes buildings collapsing, tsunamis terrorizing and fires raging.
Johnson re-teams with his Journey 2: The Mysterious Island director Brad Peyton for San Andreas, and it’s clear that these two have a cinematic shorthand for creating action sequences that play off of both of their strengths. Peyton does a masterful job of painting a landscape of destruction unlike any we’ve ever seen onscreen. It must have been quite a challenge to literally destroy two of California’s biggest cities and practically everything in between in a manner that feels real and at least somewhat scientifically correct. This is a very real threat to the people of California and having Giamatti’s character serve as a scientific narrator certainly helps things too in terms of showing how real this could be.
Johnson, for his part, manages to dig a little deeper on the emotional scale than he has before and shows us that the man can wear his heart on his gigantically muscle-filled sleeves. There’s plenty of action for him as well, including peril around what seems like every turn. But what is so great about Johnson, who is at his best in this movie, is that he knows what kind of action movie he’s in. This is a disaster movie and there’s a certain school of performance for said subgenre. He nails it.
Gugino and Daddario are underdeveloped characters, unfortunately. But, that is to be expected in a disaster movie of this size and scope, our San Andreas review has to say. Sure, the screenplay was written by Carlton Cuse (of Lost fame). But, it’s not like he had to paint a picture with words. This is about the thrill of watching an entire state collapse and audiences sucking down their popcorn as each building collapses and mayhem makes its way through the Golden State.