Film Review: San Andreas (2015)

Director: Brad Peyton

Writer: Carlton Cuse

Stars:  Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Paul Giamatti

The disaster movie is back, and it’s the big surprise of 2015 so far.

If I made a compliment like “they don’t make ‘em like this much anymore” about San Andreas I’d forgive you for thinking I’d gone mad but only if you hadn’t seen the film. Anyone who sees the movie is guaranteed at least one of two things; the most fun you’ll have had for the price of your ticket in 2015 so far, and just maybe you’ll agree just where I’m coming from with my unapologetic glee.

Make no mistake, San Andreas offers nothing new to the disaster movie genre, but what it does it does as well as can be expected, and any flaws it has are typical of the genre – they come with the package. It’s up to the viewer to take them or leave them. I left them because movies like this, the like of which I hadn’t seen since Roland Emmerich’s 2012 came out six years ago, are simply created to be the cinematic equivalent of a hypodermic needle to inject pure spectacle into our eyeballs. The special effects are special indeed, creating a vision of destruction and mayhem which Hollywood has been perfecting ever since the golden age of the genre back in the 1970s and each scene is realised as well as could be hoped for, especially from a director (Brad Peyton) who hasn’t been involved in production anywhere near this size before.

Peyton’s direction is crucial to the film’s success. He keeps the action clear and crisp where so many film makers today go out of their way to show similar scenes of mayhem in an obnoxious a way as possible (think Bay, Synder, Liebesman) with edits every two seconds and a camera which never knows when to stay still. I’ll go further and point out one fantastic scene which plays out like one single take (although I have to assume there were hidden cuts) starting at wide shot of Los Angeles crumbling and pushes in through a window of a skyscraper showing us the survival of a key character whilst panic ensue all around. It’s moments like this, where a film maker decides how to show us spectacle in such a carefully orchestrated way, which may sadly go unnoticed on audiences assuming it’s the same old frenzy as is standard these days.

So much fun that even Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson won me over.

So much fun that even Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson won me over.

Nothing bores me quicker than action caused by convoluted plots and storylines, where I’m left wondering how we ever got to the action now unfolding on screen, and to this point I’ll add my pleasure of seeing a city once again destroyed by Hollywood magic because of a natural disaster, not because of some dumb villain who fires a blue light from the heavens. Disasters movies are so straight forward that they set up just two things; a disaster which impacts many, and the survival story of a select few and San Andreas knows better than to complicate this tried and true combination of cause and effect.

Characters in disaster films are rarely deep but rarely do they purport to be. When you think of the best examples you see a trend in the quality of actors involved, not the quality of the screenplay; John Cusack, Helen Hunt, Tommy Lee Jones, Morgan Freeman, in the modern era and Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, Burt Lancaster in the 70s all made us believe in the spectacle and stunts unfolding before our eyes. Whilst San Andreas can’t boast of anyone to match that list the cast do exactly what they need to do, with Paul Giamatti and Carla Gugino leading by example; but it was the casting of Dwayne Johnson who had put doubts in my mind for he had yet to win me over in any film I’d seen him in before. After San Andreas I know why this was. Unlike most I don’t buy Johnson as the muscle-bound indestructible hero to fill the void left by Schwarzenegger and Stallone, but here his role isn’t defined by his size and strength and the film never once puts his character into a position where he needs to have arms like tree trunks. It could have been played by any of the aforementioned leading men and the film would not necessarily have broken through the ceiling of its limitations – and that it to Johnson’s credit.

Unlike the best of the post 70s disaster movies (Twister, 2012, and Alex Proyas’ sadly overlooked Knowing) San Andreas does feel the need to add some unnecessary back story and to make one character wholly unlikable solely to create pathos for our hero, and it stretches the levels as to how much we actually care about the characters towards the end (we know they aren’t going to die, why pretend otherwise?), but these are minor issues and barely detract from the fun. The end message is far too heavy handed too, as if the screenplay was a first draft written on September 12 2001 when the poignancy of ‘rebuilding’ was rightfully heavy in every American’s hearts. In 2015 the very end of San Andreas feels like it’s from another time and is perhaps the film’s worst offence.

Minor niggles aside, however, and the only reason you walk out of the cinema disappointed is if you don’t know or like the genre. Of course it’s ridiculous and preposterous and of course all logic goes out of the window, but do we expect anything else from a disaster picture? I’d even go further and ask; isn’t this what we secretly want?

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