In San Andreas, San Francisco disintegrates while a disintegrated family is restored to wholeness, which the movie presents as a net plus for humankind. Dwayne Johnson and his torso occupy their usual two thirds of the wide screen as an L.A. fire and rescue chief who comes home — after swinging from a helicopter and pulling a blonde from a car perpendicular to the side of cliff a millisecond before the vehicle plunges thousands of feet into the crevice — to find divorce papers waiting. It seems that his wife, played by Carla Gugino, is moving in with a Richie Rich architect (Ioan Gruffud) and bringing along their teenage daughter, played by Alexandra Daddario, whose luminous blue eyes make her plainly the child of neither of these people. Fortunately for Dwayne, the San Andreas Fault cracks along its entire length, sending millions of Californians and Nevadans to their deaths and giving him one last chance to prove that he can be more present in his wife and daughter’s lives.
Patriarchal responsibility, filial devotion: big themes. Dwayne, it turns out, hadn’t been able to save his other daughter, Mallory, from drowning on a rafting trip, which led to the crisis of masculinity that led to the divorce that led to the earthquake (metaphorically). Now he must rescue his wife (still his wife, barely) from the top of a crumbling L.A. skyscraper. (Did I mention that much of Los Angeles is also leveled?) Then he must fly with her to San Francisco to rescue their daughter. (Did I mention that the daughter was starting school there? It’s every parent’s nightmare that his or her child will leave the nest and arrive at college on the exact same day as an earthquake of world-historic proportions.) Dwayne and Carla’s journey from L.A. to S.F. is the film’s emotional spine, considerably lengthened for a scene in which she muses on what life would have been like if Mallory had lived. Says Dwayne: “She’s gone, you’re gone, what’s the point?” He might have added, “L.A.’s gone, San Fran’s gone, most of California’s gone ... ” But the “point,” it emerges, is that Dwayne will not lose another daughter to drowning, incoming killer tsunami be damned. Americans don’t roll over, not even when they’re hit by hundred-foot walls of water.
Clunky as the movie is, I can’t laugh off the evolutionary needs to which San Andreas speaks. A child does indeed long for proof that its parent will not run away. A parent rehearses in his or her mind the rescue of a child. There might well be a desire — rooted in an ancient region of the human brain — to inoculate oneself against fear by envisioning the worst. There is also, I’m convinced, a more modern yearning to watch a lab assistant gasp, “Professor, you need to see this,” and the professor fasten his eyes on the read-out and say, “Oh ... my ... God.” I love that stuff. In San Andreas, Paul Giamatti plays the Caltech seismologist who compels his students to hack into a live news feed so he can tell San Francisco (I’m paraphrasing), Motherfucking run!!!!!!! Giamatti is actually very good — more credible, I think, than he is in the upcoming prestige indie biopic Love and Mercy, in which he plays Brian Wilson’s therapist, Eugene Landy, as a frothing Rasputin. He hits more realistic, complicated notes as a nice guy than a jerk.
San Andreas certainly delivers the goods, effects-wise, although no one over five will buy the part where Dwayne and Carla cruise through downtown San Francisco in a motorboat while managing not to hit the floating remnants of the whole frigging city. The PG-13 rating has the effect of making the most consequential element of the story — the deaths of millions — happen tastefully offscreen, out of sight, out of mind. Skyscrapers buckle, highways crumple, seas rise, metropolises collapse ... But since we’re mainly concerned with whether Dwayne will sign his divorce papers (as if a divorce court would be in session anytime soon) and Hugo will summon the courage to ask Alexandra if she, you know, likes him, it’s all a lot of CGI mood music.
Though directed by Brad Peyton, parts of San Andreas have the distinctively tin-eared vibe of Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow, in which Jake Gyllenhaal nearly drowns in icy waters trying to swim to a pay phone to call his father and say he’s okay. (Emmerich’s brother Toby is one of the producers of San Andreas.) (Oops, turns out Toby is Noah’s and not Roland’s brother — though the sensibilities are sibling-close.) Daddario, too, has a drive to call Dad while buildings collapse all around her. The filmmakers give her an excellent B (maybe B+, possibly A-) story line in which a ditheringly abashed young Hugh Grant type (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his wisecracking little brother (Art Parkinson) save her, and (this being 2015, when distressed damsels need to reciprocate) are saved by her. And Parkinson has the kind of cutie-freakie physiognomy you can sell as a delightful departure from the norm to talk shows — his survival here is paramount. But the story isn’t complete until Mom and Dad are reunited with Child in a world in which everyone else is an extra.
Movies like San Andreas are more enjoyable if, after every breathless, hair’s-breadth cliff-hanger, you holler, “WHEW! THAT WAS CLOSE!” and do a shot. The film is not, when taken in the right spirit, un-fun, though getting in that right (derisive, camp) spirit requires desensitizing yourself to the possibility that the horrors you’re watching bear any relation to anything that could actually happen. Having been in both San Francisco for Loma Prieta and New York for 9/11, I’ve set a higher bar than some for urban disaster movies. Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds struck me as a powerful depiction of armageddon as seen through the eyes of a desperate father. And last year’s spotty Godzilla at least wasted San Francisco with the proper reverence for what was at stake. San Andreas has more mayhem than both of those films combined, but its world is utterly disposable. I came away thinking the director had never been to San Francisco.
Recently, an acquaintance wondered about the larger cultural meaning of so many films in which cities are annihilated. Could this be — as Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland argues — the result of our collective resignation or, worse, our fetish for apocalypse? Er, no. Studios make so many disaster movies these days because (a) the all-mighty Asian market wants them and (b) they can. Because disaster movies are easy. I don’t mean “easy” in the sense that I could make one or that the artists and programmers who worked on San Andreas aren’t talented, hardworking, etc. I mean they’re easy because, with CGI, miracles are cheap. There are things in San Andreas that no one would have dreamed of seeing 40 years ago, when Earthquake (with its tacky, plaster-cracking “Sensurround”) represented the state of the art. But nothing means anything. The spectacle feels less earned than Dwayne Johnson’s biceps, which are ludicrous but not hollow.