Box Office Democracy: San Andreas
I’ve been dreading San Andreas since the first trailer I saw of it. I don’t like movies where cities get destroyed especially if they’re cities I happen to live in, I think 9/11 ruined that for me forever. I do, however, have a deep, profound, love for Dawyne “The Rock” Johnson going back to the late 90s, long before any buildings fell down around me. San Andreas is a battle between a genre that’s felt stale for as long as I’ve been aware of it, one that offends me personally, and a man who is possibly the greatest American action star in history. Unfortunately, not even The Rock can carry this movie and judging from the size of his arms these days that’s probably the only thing he can’t carry.
San Andreas is the same as Volcano, which is the same as The Day After Tomorrow, which is the same as 2012. It hits all of the same beats and has basically all the same characters. The Rock plays the action hero, in this case a LAFD rescue chopper pilot his family is collapsing around him but nothing that can’t be patched up by saving them from a cataclysmic once-in-a-lifetime disaster. Paul Giamatti’s considerable talent is wasted as the scientist who tries to warn people but is ultimately useless because no warnings he gives could possibly be useful and all of the science is nonsesne anyway. There’s the smug rich guy (played by Ioan Gruffudd) who treats everyone like garbage as soon as things start going wrong and gets his comeuppance in a seemingly random twist of fate. There’s the attractive young woman, in this case Alexandra Daddario playing Johnson’s alarmingly white daughter, who is constantly in peril while wearing impractical clothing. I suppose the twist on the formula is that Daddario’s character is stunningly competent and frequently saves the men around her as opposed to the other way around but I’m not sure it counts for anything when none of these characters have any sort of depth or even narrative arcs. Every character just sort of runs towards or away from things as needed and the movie doesn’t end with any resolution just by the characters all being in the same place.
Johnson tries his best to save this movie and he very nearly pulls it off. He has the same effortless physicality he brings to all his movies; impossible things look more possible when he does them. He gets all the best stunts, approximately 90% of the emotional content of the movie, and he gets to perfectly pilot three different vehicles through every manner of hell imaginable. Everything that works in the movie works because of him but that doesn’t save it from being a bland, predictable film with a script that feels two levels above a Syfy original movie.
I suppose it’s the spectacle of San Andreas that’s supposed to make me fall in love with it but it doesn’t do it for me. The grandness of the destruction is counterbalanced frequently by just how blatantly the film ignores how things would actually happen. Not that I expect this to be some kind of slavishly accurate depiction of a big earthquake but I feel like with all the tsunamis that have caused such devastation in recent years that I’ve been told so many times how they work to just completely ignore that. There are also some particularly pandering shots of things like the American flag being flown in the rubble of the Golden Gate Bridge and fences full of fliers looking for missing persons that are designed to evoke real world tragedies in a way that feels less authentic than exploitative. In a movie with more genuine heart I might give it a pass but everything feels just a bit too slick and phony in San Andreas.