Recently, I was out in Los Angeles visiting an old high school friend who lives in one of the city’s hillier neighborhoods. As we sat on his deck catching up over a beer, I couldn’t help but notice just how precarious this idyllic setting was—high up and supported by creaky timber stilts that felt as sturdy as chewed toothpicks. He must have noticed the uneasy look on my face because he then launched into a monologue about how folks out there had been talking a lot lately about their fears that an earthquake was long overdue. Not just a minor event, but The Big One. When he was finished, two thoughts ran through my head: First, if and when this major quake came, this place was going to be toast. And second, that the marketing team behind San Andreas had gotten their psychic meat hooks into him bad.
Hollywood disaster movies have been around since the birth of moving pictures. The only difference between then and now is how much bigger and better our cinematic destruction has gotten. The most fertile wave of celluloid disaster porn came in the 1970s, when maestros of mayhem like producer Irwin Allen churned out star-studded cataclysms like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. One of the best – and by best, I mean most cheesily entertaining – was Charlton Heston’s 1974 hit Earthquake, which turned L.A. into a Sensurround pile of Styrofoam rubble. For audiences at a safe remove from California’s ever-shifting and cranky tectonic plates, movies like Earthquake were pure escapism with a splash of schadenfreude. After all, there had to be a price for all of that sunshine, right? But for Angelenos, these films cut deeper. They were a primal reckoning with Mother Nature’s wrath.
San Andreas is just the latest shake, rattle, and roll tentpole to grapple with these anxieties. And as patently preposterous, scientifically dubious, and unapologetically corny as director Brad Peyton’s orgy of CGI devastation is, its popcorn prophecy of the inevitable is a blast of giddy, disposable fun. It’s a ridiculously satisfying slice of summer disaster porn. Taking the reins from Heston, the onetime posterboy of stoic, can-do heroism, is Dwayne Johnson. With his air of alpha-male invincibility, he’s given the chance to step out from the ensemble shadow of the Fast and Furious films and topline his own shock-and-awe laser show. And while the role isn’t exactly Hamlet, it’s a gig he seems born for. Johnson stars as Ray Gaines, a cool-under-pressure Afghan War vet-turned-daredevil leader of the Los Angeles Fire Department’s Search and Rescue team. He’s the kind of guy who can lower a helicopter into a ravine and snatch a young woman trapped in a hanging car from the jaws of death without breaking a sweat and later laugh the whole thing off like Evel Knievel. He’s also, as the Hollywood disaster film playbook dictates, a good man with an ex-wife (Carla Gugino), a college-age daughter he dotes on (Alexandra Daddario), and an unhealed tragedy in his past involving another daughter who he could not save from a white-water rafting accident. He’s a haunted hero with a heart of gold and biceps of granite.
As he runs around saving lives trying to make peace with his past, a Cal Tech seismologist (Paul Giamatti, delivering grave arias of spurious scientific exposition) is busy mapping a spike in subterranean activity that threatens to turn the Left Coast into mincemeat. This impending apocalypse first strikes in Nevada, destroying the Hoover Dam and taking the life of his trusty research partner. Then, he quickly learns that this is all just an appetizer for something bigger…way bigger – a massive 9.0-plus event running up the spine of California. Los Angeles, San Francisco, and everywhere in between is about to be leveled by a quake of Shiva, Destroyer of Worlds-like proportions. The race is afoot.
Complicating matters for Johnson’s Ray is the fact that his daughter has traveled up to the Bay Area with his ex’s snaky, superrich fiancé (Ioan Gruffudd). She’s too far away for him to do much to rescue her. Or is she? Disaster movies have always been, to some degree, melodramatic soap operas sandwiched between eye-popping action set pieces. And San Andreas, written by Lost’s Carlton Cuse, isn’t very interested in messing with that formula. The plot essentially boils down to a family-values saga where husband and ex-wife put aside their differences to save their child and restore domestic harmony. But what makes the film work (to the extent it does) is its giddy stretches of rack and ruin. Skyscrapers topple like Jenga towers. Tsunamis level the Golden Gate Bridge. Cruise ships get tossed like kids’ bathtub toys. And it all delivers an uneasy, primal jolt.
In the wake of Mad Max: Fury Road, a lot of ink has been spilled about the superiority of old-school practical effects over pixelated CGI flash. And there’s some truth in that argument. But between its groan-inducing human moments, San Andreas shows that sometimes the fake stuff can get the job done beautifully. I don’t want to make any claims that San Andreas is a great film. It’s not. But as mindless sensory barrages go, its fakery taps into something real: It shows us just how impotent we all are to control our planet. Unless, of course, you happen to be The Rock. B-