In an unusual twist, almost everything you need to know about San Andreas, the newest disaster porn debacle to assault your local multiplexes this week, can be found in the film’s final two minutes. Without spoiling anything (not that anything is worth spoiling anything anyway), the final shot is Dwayne Johnson’s LAFD rescue specialist Ray, standing atop Nob Hill with his arms around his battered and bruised family, wife Emma (Carla Gugino) and daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario). A magnificent crane shot spins around them as he casts a steely gaze on the devastation around them. Gugino stares adoringly up at him and whispers, “What do we do now?” The camera swoops over to the Golden Gate Bridge, a ruined collection of matchstick-like girders with a gigantic American flag hanging from the top, flapping defiantly in the wind. We cut back to Johnson, who with jaw tight and a glint in his eye, says solemnly “Now? We rebuild.”
And the credits roll.
Jesus frog-fucking Christ is this movie terrible.
San Andreas is a breathtaking demonstration of emotional manipulation, buried in the the middle of an aggressively terrible disaster porn film. It’s an hour and forty-five minutes of absolute bedlam, with a handful of leaden, painfully poorly written exposition dumps rudely jammed into it in an effort to provide the illusion of cohesion. What’s remarkable is that the story is surprisingly straightforward — a massive earthquake hits San Francisco, destroying much of the California coast, and a man (Johnson’s Ray) tries to find his family amidst the chaos. And yet, the entire story feels like an alcohol and ritalin-wasted teenager drunkenly hammering square pegs into round holes, and we’re somehow expected to find order in the midst of so much poorly scripted, lazily acted chaos. It’s so awful, so sloppily, idiotically assembled that there’s little enjoyment to be found other than a handful of terribly telegraphed jokes that leave an unpleasant aftertaste given the despair and chaos framing them.
The good news is, San Andreas is also abominably dumb (our own Rebecca Pahle brilliantly described it as “a really stupid puppy”). Ray is supposed to be one of the most dedicated, intelligent, loyal rescue workers ever. He’s flying a helicopter towards a disaster zone where hundreds, if not thousands, of people are at risk, when the big one hits. He immediately redirects without telling anyone and begins to search for his family. I mean, he’s effectively abandoning his post and condemning hundreds to die without his help. But we gloss over that as he hurtles through a series of increasingly ridiculous setpieces in an effort to reclaim his loved ones. His family is, of course, a damaged mess — his wife (Gugino) has filed for divorce because he never got over the death of their other daughter, while they’re both still very much loving and caring parents for their college-bound daughter Blake. Gugino (in full-blown Lifetime movie mode here) is also moving in with her atrociously written new boyfriend, played by an utterly wasted Ioan Gruffudd. It’s a common theme in disaster movies — The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, Volcano — all of them inexplicably feel the need to shatter families in order for us to believe that they love each other. The film is rife with that kind of manufactured, artificial-feeling melodrama, and every attempt at creating a real sense of humanity or emotion feels just so coldly calculated, so self-serving that you just want to watch something else explode or collapse or whatever. It’s certainly not helped by the fact that every second line is a brutally overused cliche — lines like “let’s go get our daughter” and “promise me you’ll save her/come back to me/be alright” and “don’t you quit on me!” are all too commonplace.
As for the disaster itself, it’s big and loud and often rather terrifying, full of collapsing buildings and vehicles being tossed to and fro. Things are exploding and on fire and people are screaming and often they’re also on fire and being tossed in the air, when they’re not being crushed. Sometimes they’re crushed by things that are on fire. Sometimes they’re on fire when they’re being crushed. Eventually, a tsunami hits and those people who were being burned or crushed are now drowning, when they aren’t being tossed in the air. You may sense a theme. There’s so much massively-scaled suffering that the film’s occasional quips ultimately feel just so tacky (not to mention tacked on). And while the disaster itself is filmed in a mostly convincing fashion, and is technically competent and often impressive in parts (thanks to competent, if unspectacular directing from Brad Peyton), it’s all just so stupid and senseless and unpleasant that it’s hard to get any sense of intensity, let alone enjoyment from the film.
Perhaps most astonishing is the film’s reliance on an absolutely bonkers series of coincidences in order to progress its story. It’s a surefire sign that the story was written around the action, rather than the action serving the story, which is itself a tell that the script is weaker than a stale teabag steeped in boiling urine. I’m going to try to recapture the glory of this sequence of events, and likely spoil the shit out of the movie but fuck you.
Let’s start with when Blake is rescued by Ben because he can figure out how to get her out of a crushed car because he happens to be an engineer. And then they figure out how to call for help because her dad happened to teach her survival skills. And they don’t get lost because Ollie happens to be a precocious map enthusiast. Then, there’s the insane game of vehicle duck-duck-goose that the Rock plays. He flies a helicopter and gets to the skyscraper where his wife is trapped just in the nick of time, then crashes it into a building filled with looters who conveniently left their truck running. So he steals the truck and is driving but almost drives it into a massive crack in the earth, but is flagged down just in time by a kindly old-timer. Who happens to own an aviation business, so they take a plane and fly to San Francisco and parachute into the baseball park, just as a tsunami hits but fortunately they happen to be standing right next to a motor boat. It’s like the drunken idiot’s version of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles but with massive devastation and repeated mallet blows to the temple.
That’s what you’re looking at here. It’s just a series of convoluted lucky breaks, one after another after another. I haven’t even talked about the rest of the cast, which includes Paul Giamatti as a seismology professor who’s either half asleep or shouting (in a school where people are constantly bursting in and shouting “PROFESSOR! YOU HAVE TO SEE THIS!”), Archie Panjabi as a reporter, Colton Haynes, Will Yun Lee, and Kylie freakin’ Minogue. I’m not going to, either, because they all serve next to no purpose and this has been long enough. The entire film is exhausting and dumb and pointless and I don’t want to write about it anymore. I think I’m just going to slam my head into a steel door and enjoy whatever sensation that brings, because it’s likely to be more enjoyable, and maybe, if I’m just lucky enough, it’ll wipe my memory clean of this hideous, overwrought, bloated, screaming waste of time.