San Andreas starts out promising. It has a typical disaster movie premise, wherein America’s west coast is shaken by a huge earthquake along the San Andreas faultline. The main protagonist, Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson), is a rescue worker with family in the disaster zone, which at first seems to indicate a unique direction by the filmmakers. While plenty of films are centred around natural disasters – 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, Dante’s Peak, Twister, to name just a few– they’ve rarely been told from the perspective of first responders. The kind of quiet heroism it takes to do your duty in those kinds of conditions is potentially very compelling.
Unfortunately, the movie swiftly derails into a derivative plot, rife with clichés and paper thin characterisation. When disaster strikes, instead of doing his job and evacuating people, Ray co-opts a rescue helicopter for an unauthorised mission across the country to rescue his daughter in a storyline suspiciously similar to The Day After Tomorrow. Not only is this a story that’s been done before, it also renders the hero somewhat less than heroic, given that he abandons his responsibilities at literally the worst possible time. And rather pointlessly, as his daughter (Alexandra Daddario) seems to be doing just fine rescuing herself.
If anyone shows an ounce of heroism in this movie, it’s the daughter’s love interest Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt), who, despite having no rescue training, goes out of his way to save someone he’s just met. The only scene that manages any real tension was where he uses engineering (ie. common sense) to rescue a person from a crushed car. No CGI, no computer graphics, just an ordinary man using his brain to solve a problem while the clock is ticking. If more of the movie was like this instead of ramming home CGI porn, you might actually have had a decent flick.
Sadly, the filmmakers seemed to believe the best way to inject tension was to throw CGI at it, and the way to inject emotion was to give the characters harrowing backstories. Newsflash, this is a disaster movie; the fact that they’re in a disaster should be harrowing enough. Even the CGI-overdose 2012 and the rather dated Deep Impact knew there was a lot of mileage to be gained out of exploring how ordinary people react in an extraordinary situation. This movie does occasionally meander in that direction, with moments like the unsettling realisation that people are using the disaster to raid stores, or when a character’s brush with death leads him to abandon a family member in need. But these hints are more frustrating than insightful, as they never go anywhere and provide no deeper meaning.
Instead the plot seems to revolve around wildly improbable near-misses that will wear out your willing suspension of disbelief well before the third act, and a broken family dynamic so trite and overused it will wear on your last nerve before the second act. Why do disaster movies always revolve around middle-aged divorcees who use the disaster to prove themselves once again worthy as a husband and/or father? For that matter, why do the ex-wives always take them back? No earthquake, erupting volcano, or tornado filled with man-eating sharks is going to erase the reasons they divorced in the first place. At least Sharknado never took itself remotely seriously.
Despite a promising premise, San Andreas is little more than CGI porn. It’s unoriginal, uninspired, and wastes the talents of a perfectly good cast of actors. If you have seen literally any disaster movies in the past decade, then you have seen this movie. Save your money and go see Fury Road instead.
THE REEL SCORE: 3/10