San Andreas movie review: 9.6 on the Ridiculous Scale

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San Andreas red light

Cornball disaster-porn melodrama… in 3D! Dumb, insulting, and bloodless. It’s Hollywood’s subconscious death wish brought to life, in more ways than one.
I’m “biast” (pro): like Dwayne Johnson, love Paul Giamatti

I’m “biast” (con): not enamored of disaster movies

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

San Andreas opens with a truly spectacular helicopter rescue of a woman whose car has plunged down a ravine near the Southern California coast. It’s nothing to do with the Big One about to strike the region (although maybe we’re meant to infer that the rockfall that pushed her off the road was a foreshock of the quake to come). It’s just another day at the office for Los Angeles Fire Department search-and-rescue pilot and all-around daredevil badass-in-the-name-of-good Ray and his crew.

The scene is visually dazzling — and not like anything we’ve seen before! so great for an action movie to find something fresh to do — and dramatically gripping. And I found myself thinking, Oh, hey, is this not going to be another cornball disaster-porn melodrama but maybe a celebration of first-responders? Cuz those guys and gals are awesome and deserve to be celebrated, and they are going to be the ones who save so many people’s lives when the Big One does really hit.

Alas, I was mistaken in this. As soon as the Big One hits — and it is freakin’ huge, apparently even huger than the San Andreas fault could actually produce — Ray completely abandons his post and his responsibilities to hare off to rescue a few people he knows, stealing an LAFD helicopter in the process, because one of them — his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario: Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters) — is hundreds of miles away in San Francisco. So not only is Ray not doing his job, he is preventing others who have not abandoned their posts from taking up his slack. How many people died who might not have because of Ray’s selfishness?

Nice one, movie. Way to insult the people who put their lives on the line for us all the time.

San Andreas then becomes this sort of crap: Ray (Dwayne Johnson: Furious 7, Hercules) and his soon-to-be-ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino: Man of Steel, New Year’s Eve) flying over the end of the world in progress below them, as the entire coast of California from L.A. to San Francisco is getting flattened, discussing their relationship and golly gee, what happened to them, anyway, they used to be so great together. Hundreds of thousands of people are dead, most likely; certainly millions are displaced; two major American cities have been utterly demolished, which will wreck the U.S. economy and have an enormous impact worldwide, too… and the most important story happening among this catastrophe is The Rock getting the opportunity to reconnect with his estranged wife. The divorce papers haven’t been signed yet, so there’s still a chance for him. Go Ray!

“Get up against something sturdy,” Ray informs Emma when another aftershock hits, “and protect yourself.” Is this earthquake advice, or life advice? From the way Emma melts into a puddle of lady-goo when he says this, we may presume that it is both.

(This isn’t quite as bad as 2012 destroying human civilization and killing billions so that a little girl could triumph over her embarrassing bedwetting, but almost. Almost.)

I am not exaggerating the ridiculousness of this movie in the least. In fact, there’s plenty more I’m not even gonna go near because I don’t want to think about how dumb it is. Like the scene in which Emma’s new boyfriend has to say something so stupid that I can’t believe Ioan Gruffudd, who is playing a character who turns out to be a ludicrously cartoonish villain, didn’t throw the script down and walk off the set.

San Andreas is a disaster flick, all-righty. A disaster for good actors… and I include Johnson in that. He is at his best when he can be funny, and that’s so uncalled for here. (Yes, the movie does call for him to be funny a few times. What was everybody thinking? Director Brad Peyton, of Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island infamy, is already a bit of a hack, but is he auditioning to be the new Brett Ratner?) Paul Giamatti (The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Saving Mr. Banks) as a CalTech seismologist is the absolute best thing here, but it’s like he’s in a different movie altogether, one in which the seriousness of what is happening is actually acknowledged.

Not only is San Andreas disaster porn — in 3D! — it’s not even good disaster porn. It keeps its distance in every way, and is bloodless in every way. The only lessons it takes from real disasters — 9/11, the Thailand tsunami — is how dust clouds from collapsing skyscrapers billow down a city street, how urban flotsam accumulates in rising water, how in the aftermath people post flyers seeking information on their missing loved ones like they’re lost puppies. (The legacy of 9/11: shitty disaster movies look more realistic now… which actually makes them less fun to watch than they were when we could see that it was a model on a table shaking.) San Andreas completely ignores how we’ve seen real people behave when the worst happens, like how people pull together and help complete strangers en masse, except when it wants to make a joke about looting (which probably wouldn’t happen beyond people rooting around for water and emergency supplies anyway).

Ray gets to watch the Hollywood sign collapse from his helicopter perch above Los Angeles as the city crumbles below him. Does the movie industry has some sort of subconscious death wish? Is that why it makes movies like this? Because it wants to drive us away?

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of San Andreas for its representation of girls and women.

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Thu, May 28, 2015 1:08pm

Darn. This looked from the trailers as though it might be enjoyably cheesy.

Looking at the classic disaster pictures, I think what they’re trying to do with the soapy stuff is make the disasters human-scale and relatable: it’s not just a building on fire or a cruise ship that’s sinking upside-down, it’s this adorable little girl who’s going to die if she isn’t rescued. Which I suppose I can appreciate. But the more the stories are divorced (ha!) from the actual disaster, the more the suffering and megadeaths become a stage backdrop to play out a story of human relationships that could have happened around an office or a student residence.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  RogerBW
Thu, May 28, 2015 1:25pm

Exactly. A huge disaster has to be humanized and told via small-scale stories, but this movie goes about that in exactly the wrong way.

Thu, May 28, 2015 1:10pm

No matter how many ads I see for this, I still don’t believe it’s a real movie and not an SNL sketch or one of the fake movie advertisements on Seinfeld.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Danielm80
Thu, May 28, 2015 1:25pm

Me too. Even while I was watching the movie, I was thinking this.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Thu, May 28, 2015 1:31pm


Tony Scudder
Thu, May 28, 2015 1:41pm

I couldn’t see this on Tuesday as other work intruded, but I’m not so sad now!

Thu, May 28, 2015 2:14pm

Can I also just drop here that what I saw in the trailer seemed waaaay off for what actually happens in an earthquake? A real one? Even a real and very large one?

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  LaSargenta
Thu, May 28, 2015 4:30pm
Mon, Jun 15, 2015 5:20pm

I just saw this yesterday (not my idea–my dad wanted to go, and since I had dragged him to Mad Max last month and he hated that one [don’t ask, I have no idea why he didn’t get it!], I had to go along with his choice), and I really did not like it at all.
I’m old enough to have seen the old Irwin Allen disaster films in the theaters back in the 1970s, and clearly remember Earthquake, with the shaking seats and all, and that one was better than San Andreas. At least they got the correct formula of how to do a disaster film right, as you point out.
This one couldn’t even follow its own internal physics correctly. When you set up the rules of an earthquake in an opening lecture by your resident scientist character, you have to follow them. Yes, they had the tsunami (although those are only generated by offshore events, not land-based quakes), but Giamatti’s character stated in the beginning that the bigger quakes last longer, with the 9.5 South America one he cites lasting 11 minutes. None of the film’s tremors last anywhere near that long, damnit!
And don’t get me started on the interpersonal relations. The worst example of that for me was just a tiny little gesture at the end of the film, when the reporter was reassuring Giamatti that he had done good with his early warning. She reaches out to him and puts her hand on his thigh. You just don’t do that with someone you’re not intimately involved with, especially not a person you just met that day!! I don’t care how intense the events that happened on that day, you just don’t cross that line. Grrr. (I may have personal space issues.)

reply to  Kathy_A
Mon, Jun 15, 2015 5:38pm

A friend pointed out that there’s an obvious reason why Ray gets back together with Emma after the earthquake is over.
She had filed for a no-fault divorce.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Kathy_A
Mon, Jun 15, 2015 6:44pm

Clearly, Giamatti gets a new girlfriend out of the whole apocalyptic-quake thing.