3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, constant mayhem and fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.29.15
I had my doubts, but director Brad Peyton pulled it off: San Andreas deserves to become summer’s second surprise movie hit (following the utterly delightful Pitch Perfect 2).
Peyton had help, starting with a reasonably intelligent script from Carlton Cuse, Andre Fabrizio and Jeremy Passmore — which, thankfully, eschews sudsy melodrama — along with a solid cast toplined by Dwayne Johnson.
Absolutely the guy I’d want by my side, during any sort of crisis.
But this isn’t a one-man show. Peyton draws equally persuasive performances from co-stars Paul Giamatti, Carla Gugino and Alexandra Daddario, and (slightly) lesser players Hugo Johnstone-Burt and Art Parkinson comport themselves equally well.
More crucially, Peyton is to be congratulated for successfully walking the razor’s-edge fine line of tone: a very difficult task in this particular genre.
The original Airport and Poseidon Adventure may have played their crisis-laden dramas straight, when they kick-started the whole “disasterpiece” franchise four decades ago, but things had turned eye-rollingly silly by the time Rollercoaster, The Swarm and When Time Ran Out came along. Fred MacMurray and Olivia de Havilland fleeing killer bees? Puh-leaze. Rarely have so many former A-list stars been subjected to so much puerile nonsense.
But the genre’s more recent revival, with a greater reliance on computer-generated calamity, offered an entirely different set of pitfalls. With soulless filmmakers eager to showcase all the catastrophe that money could throw onto a screen, the human element became second to gleefully orchestrated death and destruction ... much as slasher films earned their rep not for how plucky heroes survived, but instead for the way helpless victims got snuffed.
This tasteless sensibility reached its nadir a few years ago with director Roland Emmerich’s 2012, which played the end of the world as a spectator sport that invited giggles, as viewers watched untold millions perish in (sometimes) deliberately amusing ways. Truly reprehensible.
Peyton & Co. wisely avoided that blunder. While the earthquake-generated events here are undeniably grim — and rather close to home for those of us living in California, particularly in the wake of the recent tragedy in Nepal — cinematographer Steve Yedlin never lingers on the untold loss of life, nor does the film pander to baser instincts. Peyton and his writers simply concentrate on telling a saga of crisis, and the resourceful individuals who overcome one setback after another.
Besides which, you’ve gotta love a story that treats engineers with such respect, and makes champions of humble Caltech undergraduates. Not to mention getting not just one, but two impressively capable female characters in the bargain.
And hey ... if the heroics eventually become improbable, that’s the nature of the game. This film earns plenty of good will before unleashing its physics-defying stunts. So yes ... we’re treated to the world’s most resilient helicopter, quickly followed by the world’s sturdiest truck, and — without question — the world’s most amazing speedboat.
Go with it.