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.
Following a prologue that introduces gung-ho Los Angeles Fire Department search-and-rescue helicopter pilot Ray Gaines (Johnson), things settle long enough to introduce our other players. Poor Ray has just been served with divorce papers by his soon-to-be-ex-wife Emma (Gugino), who has moved in with über-wealthy architect boyfriend Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffudd).
The latter comes as a painful surprise to Ray, particularly when Riddick offers to escort Ray and Emma’s daughter Blake (Daddario) to college ... a potential father/daughter bonding trip that Ray hoped to take himself, until work interferes.
Truth is, Ray and Emma haven’t really fallen out of love; they’ve simply been driven apart by an earlier tragedy that claimed the life of their second child, Blake’s younger sister.
Elsewhere, Caltech seismologist Lawrence Hayes (Giamatti) and his colleague Kim Park (Will Yun Lee) believe they’ve found a way to anticipate and track earthquakes, thus granting people a valuable early warning opportunity to flee a given area. Sadly, their next successful test — having discovered a previously undetected fault near Nevada’s Hoover Dam — proves mere warm-up for what is to follow.
Blake, meanwhile, has arrived in San Francisco, where she meets flirtatiously cute with Ben (Johnstone-Burt), a young British engineer hoping to get a job working for Riddick. The somewhat shy Ben has turned this interview trip into a sight-seeing vacation with his precocious younger brother Ollie (Parkinson), who is armed with a thoroughly footnoted and earmarked travel guide to San Francisco.
Somehow, we just know that little book will come in handy...
Actually, all sorts of things come in handy as the situation goes from bad to worse. It’s refreshing to cheer characters who survive not merely because of their pluck, but also their intelligence. Most crucially, each flash of inspiration seems perfectly reasonable for a young engineer, or a veteran fireman’s daughter, or a gaggle of Caltech whiz kids.
Johnson continues his march toward becoming a well-rounded action hero: a guy believably heroic not merely because of his tree-trunk arms, but also thanks to the air of calm certainty that he projects. It has been fascinating to watch Johnson’s career arc, starting when he was little more than a muscle-bound wrestling veteran who retained his billing as The Rock in early films such as The Scorpion King and The Rundown.
Johnson’s modest beginnings paralleled those of Arnold Schwarzenegger two decades earlier, in equally blood-and-thunder flicks such as Conan the Barbarian and Commando. But whereas Schwarzenegger’s acting range never improved — forever extending from A to B — Johnson has grown into a more versatile talent.
Plus, Johnson can hurl a quip far better than Schwarzenegger on his best day.
I’ve long enjoyed Gugino, ever since her days supporting Michael J. Fox on television’s Spin City, and particularly when she kicked serious butt as Elmore Leonard’s ferociously determined U.S. marshal in the lamentably short-lived TV series Karen Sisco. Gugino radiates smart, tough and sultry, and she gets ample opportunity to display all three here.
She also gets the film’s most satisfyingly funny line, and you’ll know it when you hear it.
Giamatti displays the warmth, wisdom and quiet sincerity that we’d want from such a professional, at such a moment. Indeed, it’s almost a revelation, in this cynical era that seem to prize ignorance: a scientist as a modest, full-blown hero. What a concept!
Although at times seemingly placed before the camera to display her ample cleavage, Daddario compensates by making Blake a refreshingly gutsy young woman: far from a helpless damsel in distress.
Johnstone-Burt, immediately recognized as Constable Hugh Collins by viewers lucky enough to have caught the charming Australian TV series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, makes Ben an engagingly bashful yin to Blake’s take-control yang. Not that Ben is a helpless twit; he delivers when required, with Johnstone-Burt serving well as the surrogate young-engineer-to-the-rescue for the academic nerds in this film’s audience.
Gruffudd needs to be careful, lest he be permanently typecast as a despicable, condescending horse’s ass. I thought his smarmy jerk in 2011’s unsavory Sanctum represented the worst mankind had to offer, but his role here gives serious competition.
Parkinson is appropriately cute, granting a bit of depth to his role as a pesky-little-brother stereotype, and Archie Panjabi fares well as a TV journalist who happens to interview Giamatti’s Dr. Hayes at just the right moment.
Production designer Barry Chusid and visual effects supervisor Randall Starr do simply amazing things; the on-camera calamity is frighteningly realistic, even scary. Peyton and editor Bob Ducsay also pace events wisely, building to ever-more-horrific natural disasters.
That said, this film gains nothing from its 3D effects, which are mostly wasted.
Engaging as the narrative is, it’s by no means perfect. I can’t approve of a veteran search-and-rescue fireman who deserts his Los Angeles associates — and countless endangered Southern Californians — to hare off on a personal mission to rescue his daughter. It’s also odd when the prologue introduces several of Ray’s “longtime colleagues, all loyal to each other” — most notably Todd Williams’ Marcus — and then abandons them, never to be seen again.