Disaster movies are so often judged before arrival, and rightfully so. At times, they may make sly nods that would imply a hint of self-awareness, but it is more likely that they take themselves too seriously. A film like The Day After Tomorrow fails because it treats its subject matter like it could exist. By doing that, plot holes and logic gaps prevented the movie from being as silly as its premise suggests. 2012 spent far too much time with characters that were uninteresting that it forgot its premise could be capitalized on with absurdity alone. Disaster films are inherently silly, and it takes the good ones to realize this early on and prepare the viewer. San Andreas does this in its opening moments, and then never relents.
It is important for me to preface this entire review by stating that I saw this in D-BOX, which when done right can make something thrilling even more intense. It can also elevate the humor in a situation when someone keeps hitting obstacles along their descent and the chair just keeps shaking violently (my anecdote from this film). But for a film that is all about its thrills, San Andreas deserves the D-BOX treatment.
As for the movie, there’s a scene at the beginning which lets the viewer know what San Andreas is going to be. It wears its influences and its tropes on its sleeve as it teases viewers with different ways for a car to crash on a highway. A woman is listening to loud pop music while driving, getting distracted by its infectious melodies; then she reaches for a bottle of water as a car is incoming, without looking at the road; then her phone vibrates with a text message which she gleefully responds to while still in motion; then a sharp rock up ahead and a cliff indicate that maybe she might do something similar and end up driving off the edge. The only threat in this movie is earthquakes, and byproducts of earthquakes. So when she eventually falls down a now opened up Earth, the danger has been set.
Wily professor Lawrence (Paul Giamatti) is close to discovering a way to predict earthquakes before they happen. Him and his partner do so moments before an earthquake tears up the Hoover Dam. If you need an analog to another disaster movie, you can look at Lawrence as the Dennis Quaid character from the first half of The Day After Tomorrow. Meanwhile, Ray (Dwayne Johnson) plays the Dennis Quaid character from the second half of The Day After Tomorrow. It makes things slightly more plausible, even if Lawrence’s entire purpose is merely to let the viewer know that earthquakes are extremely dangerous. The billion dollars worth of damage happening as the San Andreas fault line erupts would have sufficed, effectively removing a small chunk of needless exposition from the film. Especially since all it does is warn everyone that isn’t Ray’s family to get out of harm’s way.
San Andreas is not shy on showing the destruction of an entire city, as San Francisco basically becomes ruins. Visually, the film is jaw-dropping, even with its noticeable moments of green screen and minor CGI blemishes. Unfortunately, the money that went into the special effects never trickled down into the script. Ray’s entire family is being torn apart (just like the Earth!) at the beginning of this film, as his wife (Carla Gugino) has just filed for divorce and his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) is moving off to college. This all follows his other daughter having drowned prior to the events of this film, and not everyone having moved on completely. Textbook disaster movie stuff, as you know what will be the end result of this tear in the family. If you don’t know, then the film’s excessive use of generic disaster movie moments will be lost on you.
For those who are willing to accept San Andreas for what it is – a disaster movie that only wants to entertain with a bare minimum of emotion – then you’ve come to the right film. With every major moment, the stakes are raised constantly. Tension no longer exists because the film has established itself early on as a thrill ride, but not one where you should be scared. It’s a roller coaster with a harness. Tips on what to do during an earthquake are yelled by main characters with some authority, but only ever apply during those specific sequences. And yes, the movie does manage to cram in a tsunami sequence which works in tandem with the earthquake to provide escalated moments of destruction. Music cues will help notify you of when imminent danger is coming.
As for the performances, everyone is scared or brave when they need to be. It would be unfair to not mention how charismatic Dwayne Johnson continues to be, even when he’s delivering some of the worst lines in existence. The issue is that the script moves, but the film needlessly slows down for emotional beats that no one cares about. Subtlety is thrown out the window, and this person whose job is to help those in need ignores everyone else unless it is on his way to saving his family. My other gripe is that dialogue simply walks the line between being boring or dumb – never humorous. The humor comes in the over-the-top situations that people are placed in at convenient times and immediately after dialogue that foreshadows the next couple minutes.
The Fast and Furious franchise took several movies before it established the rules (or lack thereof) in its world. Main characters are almost always considered safe, and death becomes a unicorn in their universe. Similarly, San Andreas behaves with the same philosophy, and establishes it much sooner. It laughs at death and subversion of expectations. Instead, it goes for upping the ante of its visual moments. It becomes an escape from reality, almost despite itself. But it is near-impossible to be bored by its insanity and death-defying sequences. San Andreas makes earthquakes feel deadly without ever actually implanting any sense of peril (or plausibility). In essence, it does everything every other disaster blockbuster does, just with enough awareness that carries its action sequences from visually incredible to a roller coaster ride of adrenaline. All they needed to do was to remove the safety of the ride.