‘San Andreas’ is good, stupid fun
Sometimes as critics, we boil down a movie into too few elements. Is “San Andreas” stupid? Absolutely. Is it cliché? Oh yeah. Is it still pretty good? Mm-hmm.
A stupid movie can still be good. A cheesy movie can still be touching at points. A cliché movie can even rely on those cliches to choose precise moments in which to be clever. “San Andreas” does all these things. It’s a 90s-style disaster film featuring somewhat modern special effects and centered around a thankfully limited number of central characters.
Ray (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) is the helicopter pilot for an emergency response team. His soon to be ex-wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), has just moved in with a millionaire architect. Their daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario), just wants her family to get back together. California wants to help this happen, so it has three giant earthquakes that help them grow closer. Well, okay, the earthquakes are just forces of nature, but they sure seem built to help Ray and Emma fall for each other all over again.
Wait, three? Don’t worry, a CalTech professor will explain whatever science or lack thereof is behind this. As the audience, we don’t exactly care, but it’s a good chance to see Paul Giamatti do his best Richard Dreyfuss impression.
Ray has to save Emma as Los Angeles falls apart, and then head up to San Francisco to save Blake. The movie switches back and forth very episodically between Ray and Emma’s adventurous road trip, Blake helping two British tourists survive, and the professor looking very sternly into the camera to deliver grave warnings.
Disaster movies build tension by following multiple groups of survivors, and the movie essentially boasts three action heroes. Obviously, Johnson is one -- the guy playing him is known as The Rock, so that’s a given.
Gugino, who you may recognize from “Watchmen” or the current “Wayward Pines” TV series, is the second action hero. Too often, she’s been relegated to supporting roles in films like these. While she follows Ray’s lead, she has both the film’s best line (and terrific use of a PG-13 film’s one swear) as well as the film’s standout action moment.
The third hero is unexpected. Daddario sells us on being Johnson’s daughter by rigging impromptu phones together, scavenging supplies, and pulling debris out of other people’s legs. She is unquestionably the leader of her group.
This is incredibly smart not just for reasons of equal representation, but also because “San Andreas” is a surprisingly inexpensive film for this kind of movie at $110 million (for instance, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” cost at least $250 million). You get your money’s worth in terms of action. Buildings fall onto helicopters. Bridges fall onto people. Vast chasms open up in the ground. Johnson is charismatic enough to keep us believing it all.
Yet the technical elements are limited and when the visual effects budget starts to run out, Daddario’s a better actor than Johnson and Gugino leaves them both in the dust. The two women are the actors the film leans on. Let me just stress this: Carla Gugino absolutely demolishes this movie. There’s a moment later in the film -- it comes out of nowhere and develops emotion “San Andreas” really hasn’t earned. Gugino earns it for the film at the drop of a hat in a heartbreakingly human moment. Few actors are powerful enough to chuck an entire film to the side and lift all of its emotional stakes on their shoulders. The film may sell itself on Johnson’s charm and you do get exactly what you expect out of him -- he’s nothing if not reliable. Yet this is equally Gugino’s film by the time it’s done and she doesn’t let down.
“San Andreas” isn’t good, but we shouldn’t judge it as if it wants to be. It’s a movie where Dwayne Johnson talks about finding something sturdy during an earthquake, Carla Gugino looks up at him, and the film hangs there for a second just in case we didn’t get the metaphor that -- hey, The Rock’s pretty sturdy, right? It’s not interested in being good. It’s interested in being fun, and it is fun.
Two-and-a-half stars out of four. “Mad Max: Fury Road” is better. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is worse. “Tomorrowland” is both better and worse in equal measure. Going to the movies right now is like going out for ice cream -- you really can’t go wrong. “San Andreas” is rated PG-13 for a lot of people getting smushed under buildings.
Gabe Valdez grew up in Chicago, went to college in Massachusetts, is a former news reporter in Floresville, Texas, and worked in politics in Oregon. He writes and directs films when he can find the time. Reviews, views, photos and more can be found at http://basilmarinerchase.wordpress.com. Email him at email@example.com.
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