1. San Andreas doesn’t hit a single beat you don’t expect, and there’s comfort in that. It feels like a ritual, like a visit to a loud but harmless elderly aunt’s house where you know nothing exciting is going to happen, but you’re okay with that. Sometimes you just need some quiet time, no? This movie certainly isn’t “quiet,” but it so steadfastly adheres to every single disaster-porn cliché—and in such studious, straightforward fashion—that it’s almost soothing. This is the most reassuring, least unsettling film ever made where millions of people (well, computer people) perish in a matter of seconds. It aspires to be neither smart nor stupid; it’s just trying to make it look like some national landmarks are blowing up.
2. You find yourself calling out scenes the minute they begin. Look, here’s the part where the father (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) and his estranged wife (Carla Gugino) gaze longingly at each other while physically separated. There’s their part where their other daughter (True Detective’s Alexandra Daddario, proving that the women in this movie were rather obviously cast based on how they look running in slow-motion while wearing tight, low-cut shirts) pines for her family to get back together. And there’s the frazzled seismologist who just Can’t Get People to Listen to Him. (If someone has to play this part, it might as well be Paul Giamatti.) You have your People at a Fancy Restaurant Who Don’t Know How Dead They’re About to Be, your Suddenly Appearing Child at a Moment of High Urgency Who Must Be Saved Heroically by an Expendable Supporting Character, your Elderly Couple Who Embrace Right as the Natural Disaster Destroys Them Both. This is a genre greatest-hits package: a Replacement-Level Disaster Movie.
3. The one advantage it does have is the Rock. Johnson has become such a relaxed, determinedly unfussy presence that he’s starting to feel more and more like an old-time Hollywood star who can drop in and capably handle any role. The joke that he should be in every movie—which, this summer, feels like reality, especially when you realize there’s a freaking HBO show too—is less a joke than a wish. There hasn’t been a movie yet he hasn’t improved. The strangest thing about his success as an actor is he’s an instantly believable everyman, even though he looks like no human who has ever really existed on this planet. You relate, instinctively, to the Rock, even though you have nothing in common with him. Here, his character has split up from his wife after the accidental drowning of their daughter years earlier, and he sort of effortlessly conveys that quiet sadness without ever making too big a deal out of it. A more classically trained or even experienced actor would feel the need to keep showing us his sadness, but the Rock doesn’t care about any of that: He just plugs it in and keeps moving. He’s at the center of every scene here, and he carries them all effortlessly. This is a dumb movie, and he knows it, but doesn’t care: You’re getting his best regardless. The Rock makes being a movie star look a lot easier than it is.
4. You know when you first saw all the digital people in Titanic and you were impressed, and then when you saw them on television a few years later, they looked ridiculous, like you could find more convincing human movements in Madden? Well, I bet that happens to San Andreas when you inevitably stumble across it on TNT at 4 p.m. on a Tuesday three years from now. For a movie with so much CGI, the human renderings are consistently unconvincing; there are several points when it’s rather obvious you’re watching an animator’s impression of what the Rock looks like. (One scene, when he’s driving a boat through the Embarcadero, he appears to resembles a shaven, muscular Q*bert.) The destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge and other important California landmarks looks fine enough, I guess, but it’s hardly state of the art, and hardly anything new: The technical details have improved, but there’s still nothing here with the cathartic kick of aliens blowing up the damn White House in Independence Day. It’s enjoyable enough to see California dragged into the sea, but the CGI is, at best, serviceable. The whole thing is, at best, serviceable.
5. All told, I’m not sure they needed to make another of these disaster movies after 2012, Roland Emmerich’s massive, profoundly stupid, but almost compulsively absorbing and batshit End of the World movie. That one actually destroys the entire planet, the disaster movie to end all disaster movies, with tornados and earthquakes and hurricanes and volcanoes, the whole shebang. (The movie ends with an ark crashing into Mount Everest.) By comparison, watching San Andreas is like watching a solo Thor movie after taking in The Avengers. “Oh, so it’s just earthquakes this time? Well, I guess that’ll be fine.” We have far more experience—some of it real-life experience!—with global destruction now, so you’re gonna have to do a little bit more than just shake AT&T Park a little bit.
These movies are always going to be ludicrous. The amusement of San Andreas is that it’s a complete conventional, risk-free film about horrible things happening; you see millions die, and you still never feel like anyone’s in any actual peril. But maybe that’s the next step in this genre: the easy-to-digest, no-stress disaster movie. You will see the world burn, and it won’t raise your pulse rate. That’s by design. That means it’s working.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
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