SAN ANDREAS (2015) review
written by: Carlton Cuse
produced by: Beau Flynn, Hiram Garcia and Tripp Vinson
directed by: Brad Peyton
rating: PG-13 (for intense disaster action and mayhem throughout, and brief strong language)
runtime: 114 min.
U.S. release date: May 29, 2015
From the director of “Journey 2: Mysterious Island” and “Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore”, comes a movie I never want to see again. I’m not kidding. This one did me in. It’s not because “San Andreas” is awful, but the latest entry in the disaster genre, that Warner Bros. is counting on summer blockbuster glory, isn’t that great either. This movie, which is swaying side to side with heavy 3D CGI and is tipping over on account of its predictable corny dialogue, was just too much for me. Most of all though, this is a movie that has helped me realize that I’ve outgrown natural disasters and insurmountable death tolls as entertainment – and for that, I thank “San Andreas”.
In case you didn’t know, this movie stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (if you didn’t, maybe you’ve been living under one – sorry, humor may be my coping mechanism in the wake of this movie), so many will it as “The Rock vs. The Earthquake”. I’ve come to appreciate Dwayne Johnson for what he does both on (well, I haven’t seen “The Tooth Fairy”) and off-screen, so I was really curious what drew him to “San Andreas”. I’m going to assume he saw his role as a rescue pilot as a tribute to all those real-life men and women who risk their lives to save others and based on the trailer alone, this movie looked quite harrowing and definitely a movie where we’d find Johnson’s character in over his head – or at least dangling down a crack in the Earth.
The movie opens with probably the most gripping rescue scene since the opening of Renny Harlin’s “Cliffhanger” (thankfully, the outcome isn’t the same). It’s an obvious establishing scene, setting the nail-biting tone found throughout “San Andreas”, and, of course, an opening that introduces us to Chief Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson), a no-nonsense Los Angeles Fire and Rescue helicopter pilot, who brushes off his over 600 saves with a “I go where they tell me to go” humble bravado. Ray and his crew (Colton Haynes and Todd Williams), have a ride-along reporter (Archie Panjabi) and her cameraman on board, capturing their courageous maneuvers and providing a clichéd gateway to our protagonist.
After the daring and successful rescue of a cute California blonde dangling over a crack in the earth in her Subaru, we learn that Ray plans on driving his daughter, Blake (Alexandria Daddario), up to San Francisco where she’ll start college. “They grow up fast”, Ray tells a colleague. Ugh. Of course, his daughter is introduced as a busty babe sitting poolside in a bikini. Oh stop, it turns out she’s really nice and just as resourceful as her superhero pop! In no way is her sexualized intro and presence an homage to countless other disaster flicks.
While we’re figuring out where certain characters land, like Emma (Carla Gugino), Ray’s estranged wife – who just served him papers and is about to move in with smarmy billionaire architect, Daniel Riddick (played by the seemingly ageless, Ioan Grufford) – the building ominous score by Andrew Lockington (“Journey 2: Mysterious Island”, surprise!) tells us we’re about to meet the tectonic plate shifting antagonist.
But first stop is the CalTech seismology department, where we meet the token expert, in this case, Dr. Lawrence Hayes (a wide-eyed Paul Giamatti), a professor, who along with his partner, Dr. Chung (Will Yun Lee, “The Wolverine”), has created a device that can predict when an earthquake will strike. Alarming seismic activity leads the pair to the Hoover Dam, where they unfortunately find out their device works really really well as they get caught in a off-the-charts quake which destroys the dam (how many times has this iconic dam been destroyed on-screen?), a whole lot of people and triggers the San Andreas fault line that stretches up and down the California coast.
With the titular character triggered, devastation begins and events are set into motion to reunite Ray and his fractured family. The hero just so happens to be flying a rescue chopper solo when he receives a call from Emma that she’s trapped in an L.A. high-rise. Get to the roof, he tells her. Sure thing. Not long after that rescue, he receives a call from Blake, who is trapped in the parking garage in one of Daniel’s buildings. How did she get to San Francisco after Ray was called to duty? Daniel’s private jet, of course. But, Emma’s new man showed his true colors when he left her daughter for dead once the quake hit.
Thus begins Operation: Save My Family, without our hero receiving a call from LAFD or checking in with them (so much for, “I go where they tell me to go”). Ray can seemingly fly around in a vehicle owned by the fire department, singlehandedly save his wife from atop a crumbling rooftop – giving the two a change to conveniently reconnect as they work their way to San Francisco – all without informing, well, anyone, where he is.
To prove she’s daddy’s little girl, Blake winds up leading the British brothers who saved her life, Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and Ollie (Art Parkinson “Game of Thrones”), to the highest point of San Francisco. That’s how daddy trained her. This proves to be quite a challenge when those high points are crumbling (because, as Giamatti’s character exclaims, “the quake isn’t stopping!” and more importantly, we still have an hour left of this movie!) amid a mass exodus. Nevermind that – daddy is coming! Why do Ben and Ollie stick with Blake? Because they’re crushing on her. Better to stick with a hot girl you just met, even if it means getting crushed by falling debris, right?
There’s really not much to tell you about the rest of the movie. Absolutely no one dies on The Rock’s watch. No one. He and Gugino go from one death-defying escape to the next with all but a few scrapes and bruises. Despite cruise liners, naval battleships and cargo barges are flipped upside down and thrown all over the Bay area due to a tsunami – these characters are a-okay. All the characters we are invested in or he is focusing on survive. That’s the kind of movie this is. If you think that’s spoiler territory than you haven’t seen that many movies or at least that many movies starring The Rock.
The screenplay for “San Andreas” has many fingerprints on it, but ultimately the one name it lands on is Carlton Cuse (ABC’s “Lost” and AMC’s “Bates Motel”). It was his “Lost” co-writer, Damon Lindelof’s turn last week with “Tomorrowland” and now Cuse steps up to the plate, marking this movie the first time he’s written for the big screen. Cuse will usurp Lindelof at the box office, but Cuse had to have written this in his sleep. It’s amount of over-foreshadowing is ridiculous. You can literally recite a line of dialogue before it comes out of an actor’s mouth. When a reported asks a frenzied Giamatti who they should alert, guess his response? “Everybody”. When The Rock’s Ray is trying to save his daughter from drowning, he says – wait for it – “Don’t you give up on me!” At the end of the movie, when the reunited family and the two British blokes are standing on a mountainside, overlooking a decimated San Francisco, Gugino’s Emma asks, “What do we do now?” What else does The Rock say but, “We rebuild”. Groan.
Now no one expects a screenplay for a disaster movie to receive praise, but we expect that a screenwriter has seen one or two disaster movies before. Maybe – I know it’s crazy – Cuse could’ve aimed for some kind of originality in this story and possibly include dialogue that isn’t so clichéd. This is why I want to believe that Cuse was just handed a story, gave it a once over and gave his stamp of approval. After all, story credits are given to Chad and Carey Hayes (“The Conjuring”) as well as Andre Fabrizio (who penned crappy Bruce Willis VOD flicks “The Prince” and “Vice”) and Jeremy Passmore (who wrote that 2012 “Red Dawn” remake). Since Cuse’s TV writing on “Lost” and “Bates Motel” is solid, which leaves me puzzled.
It’s too bad, since I like Dwayne Johnson and I like him reteaming with Carla Gugino (they were in “Race to Witch Mountain” and “Faster”) here. They have good chemistry and work off each other well with charisma and charm to boot. They’re acting isn’t bad at all here, it’s just this awful story they’re in with the terrible dialogue they’re subjected to. It’s also important to note that Johnson and Gugino are both 43 years old. It’s not often that a lead actor is paired with an actress the same age. Now everyone else in the movie, well they’re either looking like CW extras or working up a sweat as they gaze at charts and monitors (Oscar nominee, Giamatti).
I’m also puzzled and troubled as to how a movie with a death toll in the millions, due to a natural disaster, is considered entertainment. Disaster movies have always been around, with the best of them coming from the 70s, like “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno”, but those movies took time with their characters and they actually talked the way normal people talk, not in sound bytes. Even within the past 20 years, movies from Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, from “The Day After Tomorrow” and “2012”, showed mass destruction and apocalyptic drama, but there is something extremely unsettling about the catastrophe in “San Andreas”. It has to do with how most of what Peyton and his unquestionably talented cinematographer Steve Yedlin (“Looper”) show us is the kind of terrifying images we see on the news.
From the earthquake aftermath in Nepal to the footage of the devastation in Haiti five years ago, not to mention the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, we’ve been inundated with troubling images of death and loss as well as recovery and survival. There are times when films that revolve around such events can prove to be very compelling and moving, like “The Impossible” for example, but even that was a challenge to get through. I’ve gotten to the point though where it’s very hard to consider toppling buildings, people falling to their death, walls of water washing away cities and people drowning, as entertainment. In fact, I can’t.
But, what do I know? Walking out of the screening in a daze and a headache, I noticed a couple of dudes in the lobby confirming, “that was awesome!” Anyways….
Peyton tries to keep the movie focused on a family fighting to reunite, but the loudness and the constant destruction all around them that has viewers squirming in their seats is just too jarring. If I wasn’t groaning at the dialogue in “San Andreas”, I was cringing from the destruction. The images are just too life-like because of what we’ve seen and still see in real life. Who wants to repeatedly see such calamity on a big-screen in 3D? Not me. There was a time, but not anymore.