San Andreas is a venture into mass destruction porn from Brad Peyton. Peyton had previously made banal content-free family formula fluff like Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore (2009) and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012), the latter of which also starred Dwayne Johnson, and subsequently the possession film Incarnate (2016) and the videogame adaptation Rampage (2018). The script (such as it is) is from Carlton Cuse, regarded as one of the better writers on tvs Lost (2004-10) and other tv series such as the great The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. (1993-4) and Nash Bridges (1996-2001), while he also created Bates Motel (2013-7) and Tom Clancys Jack Ryan (2018- ).
San Andreas is exactly the film that one expected it would be before sitting down to watch it. That is to say it is loud, things get blown up and lots of large buildings fall down in an orgy of mass destruction, there are occasional cuts back to the dramas of various people caught in the disaster, while Dwayne Johnson is cast as a near-superheroic ordinary man who tackles the destruction face-on to save his daughter. The visual effects are expectedly stunning entire buildings collapsing in extraordinary detail, a tsunami, cities on fire and flooded, dams exploding. The film feels like it is duty bound to offer up one such orgiastic display or dramatic set-piece every few minutes be it Dwayne Johnson rescuing Alexandra Daddario from a drowning building; seat-edge helicopter rescues; a tsunami with the added effect of a toppling cargo container poised on their very tip and upturned ships being impelled through the streets of San Francisco. Some of the shots of cars teetering on cliff edges and people opening stairwell doors into empty space up the side of a building have an intensely vertiginous effect watching them in 3D.
Ill leave the technical nit-picking here to people who are more geologically knowledgeable than me suffice to say, it did seem rather absurd to me that you could have a tsunami hit San Francisco Bay when the epicentre of the quake was inland. To create a tsunami there needs to be underwater shockwaves travelling in towards land the tsunami is created when the swell of waves hits shallow ground and the water crests into a wave or else the water having bounced off the other side of a sea basin. (Given that this is the Pacific Ocean we are talking about, the nearest place to do so would be the wave travelling all the way to Japan and back). The other thing about tsunamis are that they are waves and like all waves they come in and then go back out. The film has much of inland San Francisco being flooded at least up several stories of a high-rise building at a guess, at least a hundred feet. Firstly, there is not enough water that would be coming in to raise the overall sea level by more than a dozen feet and the second point is that, like any tide, the sea level doesnt remain elevated, the tide goes back out again in fairly short course.
As epic-sized mass destruction goes, you could probably not get much better than San Andreas. That said, there is the other side of the coin. For me, it is a personal one. The city I called home for many years (Christchurch) was devastated by such an earthquake in 2011. A dear friend lost her life in a building collapse, relatives and other friends are still living in tents and caravans four years later because their homes have been flooded by mud or rendered unsafe. Many others those that could afford to have fled the city and those that remain live in an economically downcast ghost town. Government aid and the insurance industry seem to be dragging their feet in terms of helping these people rebuild their lives. It seems kind of hard going from something that has personally affected you to watching buildings falling down, waves flooding through the streets all prettily arranged for your edification. Another part of your brains kicks in and thinks What about all the people we see that didnt have a wannabe superhero father to rescue them ... Or its really amazing watching an entire ship upended and crashing through the streets but what about the masses of crowds we see running along that would have been obliterated by that. Are they just faceless victims there as part of the spectacle?
And that seems to be the way San Andreas wants to regard the disaster we see a kid being rescued and Dwayne Johnson getting a handful of people to safety but all the other people are ancillary, the entire disaster seems arranged so that one man can bring his family back together and emerge stronger from the experience. We barely even see anybody killed throughout just a property developer and Ioan Gruffudd who has been painted as a cowardly and thus is justified in being killed. The only other person I remember actually see being killed on screen is one person that Gruffudd shoves out of the way to seek shelter. We sit in safety in an air-conditioned theatre, eat popcorn and wow at the mass destruction; five days before the preview screening I caught, the people of Nepal were caught in an earthquake of 7.8 magnitude and the headlines are awash with human tragedy. Compared to that, all that seems taken from the disaster here is the gleeful pornography of mass destruction and the faux drama of one mans reconciliation and heroism. I mean if the disaster being depicted were 9/11, would people not find it perverse if all that the film was interested in was awe-inspiring images of buildings being hit by planes and collapsing, while the fact that so many people died has been completely edited out? It might be noted that despite the fact that a large percentage of San Andreas is set in San Francisco, which is the gay capital of the USA, there is not a single gay person in the film. It is as though the film has simply edited them out of its vision roo, along with anybody who is killed.
The film ends with Dwayne Johnson and family reunited, arms around each other as the sun sets across the ruins of the Golden Gate Bridge. The last line of the film is Carla Gugino asking Dwayne Johnson So what now? just as an American flag unfurls from the Golden Gate and he heroically stands tall to declare We rebuild. This makes San Andreas into another fable about rebuilding a shattered America. This is what we saw a bunch of films searching for in the few years after 9/11 see the likes of War of the Worlds (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007), The Mist (2007), The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) and 2012 (2009). San Andreas ends up being far more simplistic than all of these and simply offers the unthinking patriotic appeal of a flag in the background as its answer. To rebuild sure but methinks, like the forgotten victims and a large sector of San Franciscos population that the film simply seems to ignore, the film seems oblivious to the realities and that rebuilding might be a few steps further away than that. In reality, those that survive a disaster are numbed with loss and just want someone to help them. But then theyre another part of the disaster that the film seems to have conveniently written out.
(Winner for Best Special Effects at this sites Best of 2015 Awards).