San Andreas (12A) | Close-Up Film Review

san andreas

Dir. Brad Peyton, US, 2015, 114 mins
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Paul Giamatti, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson, Will Yun Lee, Kylie Minogue
There are two over-arching facts regarding the modern disaster flick; they always have orgasmic scenes of wanton destruction, and they always have paper-thin characters. The reason being that between said apocalyptic CGI destruction and necessary pseudo-scientific exposition, it doesn’t really leave much time for well-rounded characters. The exception to this is perhaps The Impossible, the biggest thing it has going for it mostly being that it deals with the aftermath of disaster, leaving much more room for character growth and understanding.

When it comes to San Andreas, it not only adheres to those two rules, but adds cheesy, wooden dialogue on top of it. You never once believe that this is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s wife and not-Dwayne-“The-Rock”-Johnson-like-at-all daughter in mortal peril; this is Johnson, and Carla Gugino, and Alexandra Daddario acting like they’re in mortal peril. Standardly going through a divorce at the onset of the film (I don’t know where I saw that plot point last, but it was definitely recently, and it wasn’t the first time), Johnson’s character Ray Gaines spends the movie saving his soon to be ex-wife Emma (Gugino) in LA and moving on to save his daughter Blake (Daddario) in San Francisco as the San Andreas fault decides it’s had enough of being attached to the rest of the United States.

Meanwhile, Paul Giamatti ably plays the part of walking, talking exposition man, spending half his time in front of a camera and the other half under a table after a spectacular sequence set at the Hoover Dam, or, within the context of the film, what used to be the Hoover Dam.

To set the record straight, the disaster sequences in this film are among the best of the best in its genre. Brad Peyton takes the pizzazz he honed on Journey 2: The Mysterious Island and amplifies it, his and cinematographer Steve Yedlin’s camera presenting same-old-same-old footage of computer generated mayhem and urban destruction in a way that consistently feels fresh and exciting. If you think the trailer gave the best bits away, just wait till you see the climax of that tidal wave scene. It’s as nail-biting as it gets, without actually biting your nails.

The fact remains however that the characters don’t cut the mustard as being engaging enough; a “why not, eh?” approach to the family’s backstory gives them all a deceased daughter/sister from the past to deal with, who tragically drowned; it’s enough to give Johnson a surprisingly heartfelt monologue and an unsurprisingly rote arc where daughter #2 is at risk in the finale by, you guessed it, drowning (information that exists within the trailer, so no true spoilers there). Although it gives the film equilibrium, it also feels like Cliffhanger all over again.

The dialogue is surprisingly wooden being that the credited writer is Carlton Cuse, who has done exemplary, authentic dialogue work on Lost; the cast try their very best, but other than one or two great one-liners (Johnson gives the contender for double entendre of the year around the end of the second act) it’s mostly cheesy, uninspired and rather on-the-nose. A paint-by-numbers backstory for the main characters is almost acceptable for a disaster flick; bad dialogue takes the piss. Hammy character decisions also affect the overall product, with Mum’s cowardly new boyf Ioan Gruffudd becoming a bit of a panto disaster survivor. His comeuppance is entertaining, if needless; it would have been more interesting to have Johnson’s romantic competition actually be a stand-up guy.

By and large, Johnson sells it, because let’s face it – he is a gigantic, lovable cheeseball, and the story running through the veins of this large-scale is cheesy as hell. But it doesn’t make up for a lot of the other bad character-based decisions, which include a foppy British love interest for Daddario – with an accent that will have English audiences screaming out for a Brit in Hollywood that for the love of God just once isn’t as posh as Hugh Grant (note to filmmakers; please don’t go too far the other way and give us cockneys either – a middle ground does exist!). Also, precocious little children are in fact incredibly annoying, and not as endearing as Hollywood likes to imagine, no matter how posh and English they are.

Another facet of the disaster film is that, understandably, its characters have to survive through a certain amount of luck; it’s just the nature of the beast. But if you weren’t rolling your eyes the first time The Rock just so happens to find a new mode of transport thanks to the tilt of an old man’s head and the insignia on the cap sitting atop it; they’ll be positively doing a 360 by the second time he fortuitously finds himself near the next one. Us audiences can take a fair amount of narrative necessity, but you don’t have to break into our homes and beat us up with it.

The summary of the film will be clear for those who watch it; great action, cheesy dialogue, hammy acting. It’s a cheese-and-ham toastie of a film, but I get the impression it kinda knows it. Bonus points to anyone who explain why Kylie Minogue is in it for one scene before literally disappearing.

Review by Daniel Woburn
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