Unless you’ve never actually seen a disaster movie before, the chances are you’ll know exactly where this one is going. As a record-busting earthquake threatens to destroy the entire west coast of America, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s heroic search-and-rescue pilot takes on everything Mother Nature has to throw at him in a bid to save his family from the impending disaster.
But while San Andreas, Hollywood’s latest city-shattering blockbuster, hardly puts a fresh spin on the well-worn genre, it’s still an explosive and relentlessly gripping actioner that boasts an impressive range of visuals and an unexpectedly high level of emotional resonance that is ably delivered by its stellar cast.
The Rock plays Ray Gaines, a Los Angeles Fire Department first-responder who has recently divorced his estranged wife Emma after a family tragedy leaves him riddled with guilt. With Emma (Gugino) moving on with wealthy property developer Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd) and his daughter Blake (Daddario) heading off to college, Ray struggles to adjust to life away from his family. Meanwhile, Paul Giamatti’s Lawrence Haynes, a Caltech seismologist, has finally perfected the technology needed to successfully predict earthquakes, just as a major seismic catastrophe erupts along the San Andreas Fault and obliterates every major city in its wake.
Director Brad Peyton makes ample use of all the CGI technology he has at his disposal to stage an array of visually arresting set-pieces; entire cities undulate under the force of shifting tectonic plates, Californian landmarks suffer the seemingly obligatory fate of being torn to the ground, and, in the film’s most mind-blowing sequence, Johnson tackles a giant tsunami in a speed boat as the elements take to using cargo ships and cruise liners as Nature’s baseball bats.
Though none of these sequences can realistically claim to have significantly raised the bar in comparison to every other blockbuster with a metropolis-mashing climax, the action is at least evocatively realised and has a genuine power to pin you back into your seat and leave you breathless.
What does distinguish San Andreas from the genre’s other heavy-hitters, however, is the surprising depth of pathos it manages to bestow on its core characters, with a central plot that focuses on a fractured family trying to rebuild their lives following an unexpected and devastating tragedy.
Is the film a realistic and exposing exploration of parental grief and broken relationships? No, but nor should it be. Disaster movies are designed as popcorn entertainment, their sole purpose is to thrill audiences with an audacious spectacle whilst requiring very little thought or attention.
Yet, screenwriter Carlton Cuse, a regular of the Lost writers’ room, still uses the film’s rare quiet moments to instil an effective level of emotional depth within his characters. This ensures we care deeply about Ray and his family’s fate and are drawn into their fight for survival, thus making Peyton’s well-orchestrated carnage all the more intense as we are desperate for our heroes to make it out alive.
This might sound simple enough, but it’s a feat so few movies of this ilk are able to pull-off and San Andreas deserves praise for executing it so superbly.
The plaudits must also go to the film’s excellent principal cast for portraying this emotional weight. Johnson is on fine form as Ray, demonstrating he is just as capable at pulling off moments of vulnerability as he is tackling the physical requirements of the role. Credit should also go to Cuse for making Emma and Blake refreshingly independent and resourceful characters – even if their looks are inevitably over-sexualised – while Hugo Johnstone-Burt and Art Parkinson provide much-needed levity as a lovelorn architect suffering from Hugh Grant-levels of fumbling nervousness and his cheeky little brother respectively.
There are, admittedly, a few cracks that need to be side-stepped, with Gruffudd wasted as a perfunctory a-hole and an oddly cheesy final scene that feels incongruously patriotic alongside the film’s simple family drama.
Still, while it might not break any new ground, San Andreas is a near faultless eruption of bombastic entertainment built on the sturdy foundations of earth-shattering visuals, spectacularly taut set-pieces and simple, effective character drama that is wonderfully realised by a strong cast.
Runtime: 114 mins; Genre: Action/Disaster; Released: 28 May 2015;
Director: Brad Peyton; Screenwriter: Carlton Cuse;
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Paul Giamatti
Click here to watch the trailer for San Andreas