Copyright 2015 Warner Brothers
Another summer blockbuster-by-the-numbers, another dad who needs redemption and re-connection with his family, and the only way he can get it is via massive, catastrophic disasters lovingly created via CGI that feels more real than the emotions, characters, or dialog. For those who have not found news footage of the floods in Texas enough of a thrill ride, we have “San Andreas,” the latest in schlock disaster porn.
This time, it’s an earthquake. Before the tectonic plates start to shift, we get quick intros to our two heroes, the brain (Paul Giamatti as Lawrence, a Caltech seismologist) and brawn ( Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Ray, a military rescue specialist turned LA Fire Department rescue specialist. This job is easier, because “no one is shooting at us.”
These scenes give the professor a chance to lecture his class and establish the scale of damage a quake inflicts and the impossibility of predicting when one will occur (until….). And it gives Ray a chance to rescue a pretty girl whose car has been knocked off a cliff, accompanied by a TV news reporter (“The Good Wife’s” Archie Panjabi) and cameraman. This is also the only clever twist in the film as the pretty girl is speeding along a narrow mountain road, reaching behind her for her water bottle and checking a text, either of which we assume are going to cause an accident. But this is not a Driver’s Ed cautionary video. Her car is knocked off the mountain by boulders, crushing it and wedging it precariously between rocks on the side of the cliff.
Fortunately, Ray and his wisecracking crew arrive to save the day, explaining what they are doing to the reporter so we can power through some more exposition and see the reporter’s notes on one of the team: “Cute but not smart.” Yep. That prepares us for what is coming all right. Except it’s not that cute. Example: two characters crash land in a baseball field and she says to him: “It’s been a while since I got you to second base!” How hilarious and quippily romantic in the midst of the entire state falling into the ocean!
We quickly establish Ray as a devoted father and estranged husband. Final divorce papers arrive in the mail and his ex, Emma (Carla Gugino — please get a better agent) is moving in with Richie Rich, I mean Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd), who has a mansion and a private plane and says that the skyscrapers he builds are his children. To sharpen Ray’s sense of being displaced, Daniel offers to fly Ray’s daughter Blake to her volleyball tournament in San Francisco, instead of driving with her dad.
As if to manifest Ray’s internal upheavals, the earth begins to shake, first in Nevada, where the Hoover Dam collapses, and then on the West Coast, when the fault line of the title, overdue for a major quake after more than a century, seizes, shifts, and heaves.
The special effects are so extensive that it amplifies their unreality. The movie is more concerned with the individual windows exploding out of the buildings than it is about the underlying mechanics of what is actually happening. It is preposterous enough that the professor not only predicts the second quake but hacks into the television networks. Wi-fi, electricity and broadcast channels are still operating, apparently, which is a long shot, but also people are actually watching the television news to find out what is happening, which is even more unlikely. And then, odds fast plummeting below zero, San Francisco is evacuated in a pretty orderly fashion (some folks stopping to loot flat-screens — why it it always flat-screens?), presumably so we can relish all the destruction without worrying too much about the people, the opposite of the neutron bomb. This is PG-13 “action violence,” designed to be exciting, not terrifying.
Goodbye, Golden Gate Bridge, cables swinging vertiginously. Goodbye Coit Tower. All those pretty pixels and algorithms, so cleverly arranged. California is shredded with the same glee the boys who played at our house used to have in wiping out the Sims with every possible kind of catastrophe.
What is terrifying is the Randian twist that has Ray abandoning any duties he has in LA to rescue just two people, both of whom are in his family. And in the middle of Armageddon, he somehow finds time for a heart-to-heart with his ex, after the scales drop from her eyes to understand what a selfish monster Daniel is. For all the literal flag-waving and reference to rebuilding at the end, this is a curiously sour portrayal of disaster as family therapy.
Parents should know that this film concerns a major earthquake affecting Nevada and California, with many collapsing buildings, roads, and bridges, fires, floods, looting, fighting, gun, characters injured and killed, references to death of a child, some disturbing images, and some strong language.
Family discussion: What does this movie teach us about skills and plans we should have for emergencies? What did Emma and Ray learn about one another and why did it take an earthquake for them to reach that understanding?
If you like this, try: “The Towering Inferno” and “The War of the Worlds”