I grew up watching super-producer Irwin Allen's disaster films. They were always filled with stars, featured great special effects and were really thrilling - to a ten-year old. I can't remember the Allen film I first watched, but I remember thinking "The Towering Inferno" was very good. And the reason I would have watched this was because of Fred Astaire - I have always loved his films. I also have fond memories of "When Time Ran Out", featuring Paul Newman (again), William Holden, Jacqueline Bisset and an active volcano threatening a posh island resort. Somehow he managed to get A-Listers like Newman, Steve McQueen, Gene Hackman and many others to appear in his films. Allen must have really lavished these stars with some money because, let's face it, they aren't very good films. Sure, they are campy fun, but they don't hold up. They don't have very good acting and the stories are pretty ludicrous. Because each film had a huge cast, they also attracted many aging stars and up and comers, eager for a big break. They were a bit like big screen versions of "The Love Boat".
The films follow a pretty rigid formula. A greedy man builds something he shouldn't (it's too big to be safe, he's rushing the construction, it's built next to an active volcano) and his former right-hand man returns for the opening to voice one last objection and to rekindle his relationship with the greedy man's daughter. And all of this happens just as something happens (fire, tidal wave, volcano) to threaten the lives of everyone. The right-hand man becomes a hero and wins the heart of his ex.
When I first saw the trailer for "San Andreas", it immediately brought back memories of these old disaster epics. And I wanted to see it, real bad, if for no other reason than to relive a little piece of my childhood.
Ray (Johnson), a pilot for the Los Angeles Fire and Rescue group, is flying his copter over the City of Angels just as a major earthquake hits. His ex-wife, Emma (Carla Gugino) calls because she is trapped on the top of a crumbling highrise. They soon learn their daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario, the "Percy Jackson" films, TV's "White Collar"), on her way to college and hitching a ride with Emma's boyfriend, real estate tycoon Daniel (Ioan Gruffud, "Fantastic Four"), on his private airplane, is stuck in a garage under one of Daniel's huge San Francisco highrises. They make their way to the Bay Area to save Blake, who has partnered with Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt, "Miss Fisher's Mysteries"), a young Brit who is applying for a job at Daniel's firm when the quake hits. Ben has his younger brother, Ollie (Art Parkinson, "Game of Thrones") along for the trip. Meanwhile, a professor of seismology (Paul Giamatti) runs around trying to get people to listen to his predictions about the quakes.
Directed by Brad Peyton (the sequels to "Cats and Dogs" and "Journey") and written by Carlton Cuse (one of the creators of "Lost"), "San Andreas" does a remarkable job of paying homage to the Allen films, but in a weird sort of copycat way, duplicating all of the bad. It would be great if they managed to pay homage by making a better film. But they didn't do that.
When you are making a film, you are creating the universe these characters live in. And there have been many stories about what this film gets right and what it gets wrong - I'll bet every expert was contacted for a quote. I can't speak about the science presented, because I'm not an expert. But what I can speak to is the fact that characters talk about various things, presenting them as facts, and the filmmakers don't seem to be listening to their own creations and their own words. This creates plot holes that are about as big as the San Andreas fault is long. Worse yet, they stick out like sore thumbs.
Dwayne Johnson is an extremely likable guy and he is almost always watchable. He doesn't do anything wrong here, he is the hero and he does this well, as expected.
In fact, everyone is about what you would expect, because "San Andreas" doesn't really do anything to elevate the genre. As soon as we hear Blake and her mother's new boyfriend are headed to San Francisco, we know what will happen. As soon as Lawrence (Giamatti) and his trusted sidekick Dr. Kim Park (Will Yun Lee, "The Wolverine", TV's "Hawaii Five-O") head to Hoover Dam, we know what will happen. As soon as Ray and Emma head to San Francisco in his helicopter, we know what will happen.
The one character that should be allowed to play it pretty big and hammy, CalTech scientist Lawrence, is played with far too much earnestness by Giamatti. Most of the time, he is attached to a television reporter (Archie Panjabi, TV's "The Good Wife"), trying to explain everything that he knows about earthquakes - which is, of course, a way for him to explain to us everything he knows about earthquakes. He almost seems to be channeling a real scientist, when in fact he needs to find a little more of the mad scientist in him. When he should be shouting and fuming, he simply speaks in hushed tones.
In a way, "San Andreas" is almost the disaster movie cousin of "Planes, Trains and Automobiles". Ray and Emma use just about every form of transportation in their quest to find and save their daughter.
The problem with "San Andreas" (and so many other films) is that everything in the film and everyone involved falls short of helping the material go above and beyond the hokey parameters of the genre. Maybe a more talented and experienced director would have fixed the plot holes? Maybe a better cast would have caused us to feel more empathy for the characters? Maybe? Maybe? Maybe?
Also, there is a tremendous amount of none-too-subtle foreshadowing for the big dramatic moment that will close the film. Because these moments are so obvious, you see this big moment coming far in advance and can guess, again, far in advance, how it will play out. This robs the scene of any drama and surprise. And this is the last moment of the story, our last impression of the film.
The one thing I can say is that the special effects are good across the board. But this also points to a common problem in big budget studio films. Films are sold on concepts and someone thought this would be a cool idea to make into a film. Peyton was given a big toybox filled with money and special effects, and he was unable to see the plot holes and the merely acceptable performances of his actors.
"San Andreas" is fun - disaster movies always are - but it still isn't a very good film. And it is ultimately disappointing.