There was a moment, roughly two-thirds of the way through San Andreas, when I actually LOL’d. I could barely stop myself from ROFL-ing, but seeing as I was in a movie theater, and terrified that ROFL-ing would lead to just straight-up rolling down the stairs, in the dark, I remained seated. But I wasn’t laughing AT the movie, I’m almost positive I was laughing WITH the movie. Unlike some of the dumber blockbusters that have been regurgitated to the public only to be pooped out after their by-normal-human-minds impressive opening weekends, but deemed as unimpressive by the we-only-deal-in-billions film industry, San Andreas never intentionally underestimates its audience intelligence. Instead, it takes the combination of elements that make a disaster movie the nearly impenetrable force of movie nature that it is and raises it to an all-star level. I’m honestly not sure that another disaster movie will ever be made that so meticulously references (some may be so bold as to substitute ‘references’ for ‘plagiarizes’) standard genre tropes, while resisting the urge to turn into an overly ironic parody. Instead, San Andreas dares you to love it, because of its faults (you’re welcome pun fans).
Before we go any further, here’s the formula of any great disaster movie:
1. Find a leading man who is BARELY believable as a normal person, but put him in a uniform. If he’s in a uniform, he’s instantly sympathetic. Police Officers, Firefighters, Military members, all are acceptable. Now, Twister deviated from this, but only because Bill Paxton’s swagger is enough to make up for almost anything. Also he has a Southern accent, so bonus points
2. Create a “heart” of the story. This means there’s an ‘emotional’ through-line that is generic enough for everyone to relate to, but that isn’t so character specific that it BECOMES the plot, because, well, Mother Nature is the plot
3. Fill the roles with lots of recognizable, but not Blockbuster names. We need to all be able to go “oh! That’s that guy from that thing!” but not be distracted from the Leading Man.
4. Go Big or Go Home and when you can, go BIGGER! Why stop at an Earthquake when you can add on Aliens? Or why stop at a Tsunami when you can tack on a building fire PLUS an airplane crash? Or why stop at any ONE of those when you can have them ALL?
5. One notable person must be sacrificed, but in the realm of the story, that’s it. No more than one. Because ultimately, the only thing a disaster movie is really about is survival.
6. The human villain can be despicable because, when needed, a house can be dropped on them. Literally a house. Or, in the case of San Andreas, a flying shipping container. No joke, that was my LOL moment. It combined the insanity of Loony Tunes’ Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote Acme-bought violence with the actual human fear of “if I was stuck on the Golden Gate Bridge, that would happen to me!”
7. Include wildlife when you can. Flying cows, coyotes in Central Park, anything goes.
Now that we’re clear on the rules, let’s discuss expectations. A disaster movie is never EXPECTED to be good. It’s EXPECTED to be entertaining. Because ultimately, it’s not about what happens in the movie, it’s about the audience being able to say to themselves “but what would I do in that situation?” This is the same psychology behind any apocalypse-set film. Every single person in the audience is nearly INCAPABLE of believing themselves to be so ordinary as to be one of the dumb people trapped in their cars or shuffled to the side and trampled on. We are each the hero of our own survival story and, so, the characters in a disaster movie are only there as vicarious stand-ins. A disaster movie is only about the characters in so much as we need a REASON to watch the Golden Gate Bridge collapse. Titanic is, by far, the most successful disaster movie that will ever be made, (because it’s emotional throughline was being played by two actors who could really pull it off) but I’m willing to put a wager down now that San Andreas will be in the Top 5 disaster movies as the years pass, because it walks the fine line of ridiculous and unbelievable so well.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (I’ll never drop The Rock for you Dwayne, never! It will forever be your reminder of your humble beginnings!) stars as Ray Gaines, an LA Fire and Rescue guy who looks like, not only can he fly a helicopter, but if you needed one pulled to the mechanic up the road, he could do that too. To be honest, if he was the guy rescuing me, my first thought would be “YES! Someone to get me off this cliff!” the second would be “But how will that rope hold him AND ME? Was it woven by Rumplestiltskin?!” Just kidding, I probably wouldn’t be having a second thought because all of my mental energy would be going to my “terrified” cry, which is different from my “angry” cry, which is different from my “sad” cry.
Anyway, Ray’s daughter is going off to college and his soon-to be ex-wife is about to move in with LA Donald Trump-lite. To simplify, things are going rough for Ray even though he’s a really stand-up guy who is good at his job. Luckily his job is rescuing people so when the Hoover Dam crumbles into a billion pieces, his crew is called up to help. But he’ll never get there because just as the Hoover Dam gets done shaking it off Swift-style, LA gets blindsided by the earthquake that they’ve literally been warned about for a century. Guys, if you’ve put a lot of money into LA real estate, you’ve been swindled, because one day you’ll actually just float off into the Pacific. This is just science.
Ray has to go rescue his soon-to-be ex-baby-momma, and then they have to go save their daughter. Their daughter, by the way, has managed to meet a super cute British engineer who’s looking for a job with her maybe-soon-to-be-new-dad. (HINT: he won’t be her new dad, she gets to keep her old dad)
Ray and his momma bear do eventually get to San Francisco FROM LA in record time using no less than a helicopter, a hot-wired vehicle, a jump plane (remember that, A JUMP PLANE) and a boat that can scale a Tsunami. If this were a parody, they would have thrown in a train with wings, but like I said, they walk a fine line.
I can’t tell you why I found what is clearly a ridiculous movie so heartwarming. Perhaps it’s because of nostalgia, perhaps it’s because of the simplicity of it all, perhaps it’s because I need to believe that one day I TOO will be hot enough to catch the eye of an attractive, sensitive unemployed British engineer/architect. Like I said, vicarious stand-ins.
But all I know is that every time I noticed a moment taken DIRECTLY from another disaster movie, I couldn’t be mad, because they picked the RIGHT moments. Remember that time when you were watching Titanic and instead of worrying about Jack and Rose, all you could think of was that old couple clinging to each other as the water was rising over their third-class bed? That moment is in the movie. Remember when all you needed was for Jo and Bill to tie themselves to a pipe, using a belt, in order to survive an F-5 that demolishes every other living being in the vicinity, but they survive in order to realize they’re still in love with each other? Yup, that moment made the best-of cut, as well. I recognized it all, and you know what? I didn’t care. Like Dorothy, I snuck a peek behind the giant green curtain and instead of being mad that I was faced with a charlatan, I thought, “well, but if you can get me home, you’re good in my book!”
It’s difficult to say which moment was THE MOST ham-fisted, but maybe that’s also part of its charm. Maybe if you crowd the screen with so much that’s ridiculously over-the-top, you forgive the moment when you realize that, ultimately, the daughter just did a giant circle and ended up BACK at the same collapsing building she started in. Or that there’s a weird moment where maybe-soon-to-be-new-dad/real-estate tycoon guy talks about skyscrapers like they’re his kids and uses a pun about “raising them”…woof. On the other hand, Carla Gugino shines in her kick-ass mom role that’s part Sarah Connor, part Helen Hunt, and all, totally believable. Seriously, Hollywood, give this woman more roles! She’s amazing in all of them. You take the good, you take the bad and ultimately, you take San Andreas too.
Overall: Fun for the whole family, unless you have a fear of earthquakes. Then I’d imagine, you want to stay away from this one.
3.5 out of 5. It’s definitely worth a rent. Only disaster-movie fiends like me need spend hard-earned money for a first-run viewing.
Also, if you or anyone you know finds yourself equally attracted to the handsome, yet regular, British boy next door, known as BEN in the movie, that’s Hugo Johnstone-Burt (I know, right?) and he’s in a fantastic Australian TV series, “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” that I would highly recommend. Yes, he’s Australian. Even hotter now, right?
And finally, don’t forget to recognize that Ollie, Ben’s precocious little brother was Rickon on Game of Thrones, when Rickon was still around.