Years ago I attended a showing of one of the first films in the disaster genre, 1936’s San Francisco, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The movie was written by Anita Loos and grafted a typical Hollywood story onto the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. Clark Gable played a slightly disreputable but heroic saloon owner on the Barbary Coast, Jeanette McDonald was the singer he loved, and Spencer Tracy played (as he did several times) Gable’s best friend, a priest. While the story was hackneyed, the special effects were excellent for that time, and would even hold up against the 1974 all-star extravaganza Earthquake, which wiped out Los Angeles. With digital effects, so much more can be done these days, and the makers of San Andreas not only take out both cities in one movie but much of the state and the Hoover Dam for good measure.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays LAFD Search and Rescue pilot Ray Gaines. We’re introduced to him when a young woman driving in the canyon country north of the San Fernando Valley has an accident that leaves her dangling over a cliff. While Gaines is the chopper pilot, he ends up swinging into action when one of his team gets hung up while trying to get to the girl.
Gaines is estranged from his wife Emma (Carla Gugino) following the death of their youngest daughter. Their surviving teenaged daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) is about to start college in San Francisco and Gaines makes plans to drive her north. The day before they’re to leave he finds that Emma’s sued for divorce and she and Blake have moved in with her boyfriend, multi-millionaire developer Daniel Riddick (Ioan Griffudd).
At CalTech, Seismologist Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) and a colleague are developing an early warning system for earthquakes. When they find a cluster of readings and tiny quakes centered on an unknown fault beneath the Hoover Dam, they set out to field-test their ideas, but while there a major quake strikes and the dam fails. The next day back at CalTech, Hayes is being interviewed by TV reporter Serena Johnson (Archie Panjabi from “The Good Wife”) when his system warns him that the San Andreas fault is about to break loose and hit LA with a monster quake.
Take it as a given that this is not a documentary. The level of destruction is far greater than what could be generated if the San Andreas did move, and construction in California plans for big earthquakes. Also, the San Andreas would move laterally, so you wouldn’t get a huge chasm along it – though the road you’re traveling on may suddenly move eight or ten feet to the side. What the movie does get right is that one earthquake can cause a series of quakes, and the actions of Johnson and Giamatti during the succeeding quakes are the right things to do. The San Andreas wouldn’t cause a tsunami – again, it doesn’t move in a way that cause those waves – but the signs of one are correctly depicted.
Director Brad Peyton had only done two features before this, though they both had extensive special effects. He does an excellent job with keeping the action flowing. It helps, too, that the script is a cut better than what you normally get in a disaster movie in that it focuses on real emotions and gives most of the characters enough intelligence for a fighting chance at survival. Credit for that goes to screenwriter Carlton Cuze, who was a writer and producer on “Lost” and currently does the same for “Bates Motel” on the A&E network.
Johnson has become a more than decent actor over the years, and while his physical prowess is on display in the movie, he’s just as strong handling the emotional element. Gugino matches him in both aspects, and her telephone message to Riddick midway through the movie is both priceless and perfect. Gruffudd’s role is a disappointment as it is a one-dimensional stereotype. You also have Kylie Minogue in a cameo role as Riddick’s sister that pretty much wastes her. But that’s more than made up for by Alexandra Daddario’s Blake. It’s nice to see a young female portrayed with brains and courage.
This isn’t a movie that will contend at the Oscars, apart from the technical categories. But if you want an action/adventure movie that’s truly thrilling, San Andreas is worth it.