San Andreas is a disaster film in the classic ’70s / ’90s mould, when it was perhaps easier to enjoy cinematic destruction without the intrusion of real world tragedies. Part of the appeal of this genre is its sadism, but it’s a very fine line to walk tonally; San Andreas will make you cheer at one person’s death then follow it up with epic vistas of presumably millions dying, scored to choral music to make sure you’re taking it as seriously and dramatically as possible. There’s a strange punitive morality at work here. Along the lines of Roland Emmerich’s 2012 there’s also a lot of camp value, but anything with this many buildings falling is going to evoke 9/11 at which point the laughter is abruptly cut off. (More so if you’ve seen anything of the recent earthquake in Nepal, which the marketing department have tried to acknowledge with a “Support Nepal” box on the poster.)
The opening scene establishes the film’s tone and how it wants to play with your expectations. A teen drives through the San Fernando valley. She’s distracted, picks up her water bottle. A car drives past. Her phone goes off, she picks it up, a car goes past and… she’s fine. Then BAM! A rockslide out of nowhere knocks her off the road. But what’s playful and fun when it comes to this one person doesn’t work as well on the larger scale – it’s still very entertaining but it’s not enough to maintain the level of escapism, to stop you from questioning why we enjoy watching so much suffering and death.
This is partly because the actual plot is meant in earnest (or is too deeply ironic to discern otherwise), and this earnestness starts to infect the rest of the movie – e.g. the giant American flag, flying majestically in slow-motion. Ray (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) and his ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino) team up to find their daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) trapped in San Francisco. The Rock is perfectly cast as a rescue fireman who can fly helicopters and planes, drive SUVs and boats, parachute and swim like a badass. He even gets to punch a looter in the face.
His daughter has picked up many of his survival skills making her more than a mere damsel in distress. More often than not she’s actually saving the men she’s with, British Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his comic relief kid brother Ollie (Art Parkinson). There’s some emotional family backstory that doesn’t quite add up, and the pay-off can be seen coming a mile away, although at least it explains why anyone would ever divorce The Rock (the most unbelievable part of the premise). Paul Giamatti is once again sorely underused, sidelined with a subplot that’s wholly unnecessary exposition and slow pushes-in on his face as he says some variation of “God help San Francisco.”
SAN ANDREAS is in cinemas May 28th 2015