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The Rock and a Rumble

Warner Brothers
 114 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Brad Peyton
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino 
San Andreas

Back in the 1970s, the major studios tried to outdo each other with a series of big budget disaster films in which megastars like Gene Hackman, Burt Lancaster, Steve McQueen, and Paul Newman headlined casts filled with big names all of whom spent two hours in peril from fires, plane crashes, or drowning on a capsized ship. One of the last and biggest of these disaster epics was Earthquake, featuring Charlton Heston trying to cope with, you guessed it.


For a long time, disaster films went into hibernation, usually being reserved for television movies made on a much smaller scale with a lesser wattage cast. But now, thanks to CGI, they are back with a flourish, the latest of which is San Andreas. In some ways, the new disaster films are pretty much the same as those of the Heston era. The plots are just as formulaic, predictable, and simple as before. In other ways they are scaled back somewhat; instead of Heston and Ava Gardner heading the cast, we’ve got Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino. Most important, just as before, the new disaster films spare no expense in using state-of-the-art effects work to dazzle the audience. And, when done right, as the CGI work in San Andreas is, the results can be dazzling.


The plot of San Andreas doesn’t seem to have been scripted so much as assembled for the sole purpose of putting a relatively small cast in every West Coast location that would look really neat getting leveled by a major earthquake—Hoover Dam, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. To get the cast from one location to another, Johnson becomes a Los Angeles rescue helicopter pilot (albeit one not too dedicated to his job since he essentially absconds with his chopper after the first quake hits to chase after his family).


One scene early in the movie tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the plot. In it, Chief Ray Gaines (Johnson) leaves his humble little house to go to the palatial mansion of his estranged wife Emma’s (Carla Gugino) filthy rich new boyfriend Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd). Daniel is getting ready to fly Ray’s teenage daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) up to her new college in San Francisco.


From that scene, you know: (1) Emma will get in trouble somewhere in Los Angeles (hint: she agrees to meet Daniel’s sister for lunch in a top floor restaurant in a highrise); (2) Blake will get in trouble somewhere in San Francisco; (3) when she does, Daniel will prove to be either a coward, a crook, or both and no help whatsoever (no crook, just yellow); (4) Ray will rescue Emma; (5) Ray and Emma will head up to San Francisco and rescue Blake. If this synopsis actually spoils the plot for anyone, then they can probably count the number of movies they’ve seen in their lives on the fingers of one hand.


When San Andreas doesn’t focus on the Gaines family, the camera (and a TV news crew headed by The Good Wife’s Archie Panjabi) spends time with seismologist Paul Giammati, in full gloom-and-doom mode. He dispenses the movie’s bits and pieces of scientific exposition that puts the disaster in its proper perspective. The translation in simple English is that the first earthquake was only a prelude and that the “big one,” which turns out to be the biggest earthquake in recorded history, is yet to come.


I’m not saying there aren’t any surprises in San Andreas. There are a few surprises, but they are generated by the effects and the stunt work, not by the plot or characters. One thing you wouldn’t expect to see in an earthquake disaster film is a pair of characters parachuting into a baseball stadium, but Gaines and Emma do here, giving rise to a bad pun about getting to second base. That’s nothing compared to the finale, in which what’s left of the city takes a hit from a tsunami, leaving Gaines and Emma to go around the city in a speedboat moving between half submerged office buildings.


Far too many CGI effects-laden films in recent years featuring large-scale urban destruction look completely faked and lose audience interest accordingly. Director Brad Peyton employs some clever camera work (along with some first rate effects) to maintain the illusion. I’m not generally a fan of rapid editing, but Peyton never lets the camera linger too long on any one shot of a recognizable structure like the Golden Gate Bridge (which, not surprisingly, doesn’t make it through the movie). As a result, viewers can recognize what they’re seeing in San Andreas, but they don’t have enough time to study the effect and have their minds register the artificiality.


Similarly, Peyton uses 3D to very good effect here. Too often, 3D merely serves as a vehicle for “gotcha” moments when something jumps out towards the screen. Peyton incorporates the 3D into the effects work, given viewers a much better idea of the scope of what’s going on and immersing them in the movie. Instead of looking at a screen from which objects occasionally fly out, as in most 3D movies, here, the audience becomes part of the disaster.


San Andreas is a difficult movie to rate. The plot and character development are laughable; the actual attempts at humor are lame; and the acting is serviceable. However, the film gets the story elements out of the way quickly and concentrates on coming up with a wide variety of different action scenes, most of them quite realistic appearing, and all of them reasonably exciting. After the first few minutes, I realized the type of movie I was watching, just decided to go with the flow and had a lot of fun, San Andreas isn’t an earth shattering experience, but it’s a well staged two-hour thrill ride.

Read other reviews of San Andreas:


San Andreas (2015) on IMDb