In today’s film climate of constantly reheated premises and big-budget tentpole films, it’s strange to reflect for a moment on the relative paucity of the hallowed disaster film, especially when you consider that the last of its type, Roland Emmerich’s 2012 did not actually come out in its titular year, but in the ancient history of 2009. Unless you count dramatisations of real world events (The Impossible, Pompeii) or the distinctly different sub-genre of monster movies (Godzilla), that’s a five year gap since we last really saw Hollywood tackle the genre – for reference, there has been no less than thirty superhero films in that same timeframe. It might be out of tact – the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011 or the typhoon and earthquakes in Philippines in 2013 may have made people less comfortable about being entertained by these sort of tragedies. In any case, San Andreas returns to the genre with the largest and most bankable geological asset in Hollywood, The Rock, and the film’s pros and cons could likely be anticipated miles off by any amateur cultural seismologist. Ultimately it works as disaster porn – and there certainly are money shots – but doesn’t achieve any depth or unpredictability outside of that.
The opening scenes set up three main plot points, though without the relentless CGI of the rest of the film there’s not much to hold interest outside of some egregious product placement in an otherwise drab visual aesthetic. Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson) is an Fire Department Rescue pilot, tormented by the death of his daughter years ago. His other daughter (Alexandra Daddario) and estranged ex-wife (Carla Gugino) are moving in with her new wealthy boyfriend (Ioan Gruffudd). Meanwhile, Paul Giamatti plays Paul Giamatti as the seismologist who has invented a new and accurate method of predicting earthquakes, something that happens just as one of the biggest in the nations history wipes out the Hoover dam, killing his partner. What he then discovers is that that was merely a precursor, as the San Andreas fault of the title gives rise to the largest earthquake in recorded history that comes to hit San Francisco. Separated from his wife and daughter when it hits, Ray seeks to reunite with them as the city around him crumbles.
The basic film structure follows some of the oldest, most traditional and conservative screenwriting themes in the book; the inverse relationship of outward destruction and the strengthening of the bonds within the family unit. The earthquake film, of course, can show this with more overt symbolism than most, as the giant cracks in the ground mean that the bonds between Ray and his family are tested by literal and figurative chasms that he has to traverse. I wish I could say it was more nuanced than it sounds, but it’s not, and the film ultimately feels like too much of an obvious skeletal structure to a screenwriting exercise to function. Ironically then, that the script has gone through no less than 6 hands, each seemingly cancelling out any idiosyncrasy or character before them, paring the film and characters down to the most basic motivations and characteristics. It’s through no fault of the cast, however. Johnson demonstrates why he gets entrusted with these sorts of projects through his sheer presence and charisma, and hits the obvious emotional notes perhaps more believably than one might expect. Daddario handles her role admirably as well, in what is effectively the co-lead, and in one of the few instances of genuinely upending conventions turns the damsel in distress role on its head as she leads and protects two brothers (Hugo Johnstone-Burt and Art Parkinson) to safety.
But to give credit where credit is due, the film knows where its appeal lies and it delivers in sheer spectacle through its set pieces. Making the most of Johnson’s character’s helicopter, we get to traverse over giant landscapes quivering, entire sites moving like water mattresses, and giant buildings slowly crumbling and it understands the requirement of disaster movies to focus on iconic buildings and locations for maximum effect. The use of CGI is mostly terrific, although in 3D it occasionally makes your eyes distinguish between what objects in the frame are and aren’t real. Interestingly enough, this blockbuster was actually produced on a relatively modest budget of $100 million (2012 was nearly exactly double at a reported $200 million) and doesn’t look like any expense was spared; its location shooting in the Gold Coast worked a treat, standing in nicely for San Francisco with the only discernible trait of Australiana being an inspired Kylie Minogue cameo.
As to the substance to the science behind all that which tends to dominate discourse about these sort of films upon release, I’m in no position to assess and instead I’m happy to call it often great, viscerally affecting cinema – there’s a sequence once the tidal wave hits that’s likely to be one of the most thrilling scenes in a film all year. It’s just a shame that for a film so rooted in the fates of the individuals, there’s such a predictability and shallow depth to its characterisations that make it hard to really be gripped throughout the very human drama and emotions that the film tries to evoke.