The “disaster movie” is its own genre that has been around almost as long as movies (Fire! was made in 1901), starting with natural disasters in the 30s and 40s, and shifting to an atomic or nuclear tone during the 50s after the Second World War (War of the Worlds - 1953, Godzilla - 1956, The Day The Earth Caught Fire – 1961). The disaster movie really gained popularity in the 70s with Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Earthquake (1974), and the Towering Inferno (1974).
Essentially each of these has some huge disaster that begins with a buildup – then the disaster itself – then the aftermath, and they are often told from the point of view of a specific character that has been developed early in the movie so the audience cares about them and their loved ones and whether or not they make it through the disaster. It became enough of a thing that it was spoofed in 1980 with the brilliant Airplane!
With the upsurge in amazing computer-generated special effects in the 90s, Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin became the new modern masters of disaster movies with Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012. Previous to this past weekend, I would have told you that 2012 was the movie I had seen that best showcased every single cliché of the disaster movie genre.
I can now take that back and tell you that officially San Andreas is the movie that best showcases every single disaster movie cliché: hero with angst and family in danger, small preliminary danger before the big danger, an asshole character who makes things worse for the leads, a scientist who is working to stop/correct/predict the disaster and is trying to warn everyone but also being ignored, family members in jeopardy, strangers coming together to help each other, an honest reporter/press person trying to get the word out, someone sacrificing themselves to save someone else, idiots looting, almost losing one of the leads, family reuniting, and finally – a big epic final shot as the hero/family looks over the aftermath of the disaster and is grateful/hopeful/rebuilding. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to use all these clichés, but man, it really does have all of them.
We are introduced to our hero Ray, as he works with LA Fire and Rescue to save a girl who seems to have driven her car into a ravine and is now stuck there. There were no trailers in front of my showing - resulting in me missing the first 2 minutes, so I honestly don’t know if we saw how she managed to get stuck there. I’m going to go with she was texting and driving and then drove into a ravine. Ray and his crew arrive on their helicopter with a camera crew who is doing a piece on them. You get all the character development you need on how heroic Ray is when he wiggles the helicopter into the ravine, and goes in to save both the girl and Arsenal who has gone in after the girl and gotten pinned under the car while trying to secure it. Back at base, Ray is about to start a weekend vacation (of course he is) which he will use to drive his daughter up to college. He we get some further development as we learn that the daughter, Blake and her mother Emma, are about to move in with Emma’s new beau – Daniel, who is crazy rich (of course he is). We also learn that Ray and Emma are estranged (of course they are) because they lost their other daughter in an accidental drowning incident years ago.
Meanwhile, two seismologists are working with their team on earthquake prediction technology and head out to the Hoover Dam to see if they have something that is working. While there, Dr. Park is down in the tunnels studying the wave readings and Lawrence is up top comparing them and sure enough, they realize their readings are predicting that an earthquake is about to hit – which then hits, and Dr. Park sacrifices himself to save a random girl (of course he does). Lawrence heads back to L.A. with his data – and suddenly has an interview with the same press crew that was on the helicopter with Ray and team.
Ray gets called in from his weekend off due to the destruction from the Dam collapsing in a spectacular CGI catastrophe, and Daniel volunteers to take Blake up to San Francisco from L.A. Emma heads out to lunch with Kylie Minogue…I mean with Daniel’s sister, Susan. But seriously, it’s Kylie Minogue! In any case, Blake gets to Daniel’s headquarters in San Francisco, where they do some brief bonding, and we learn that his company builds skyscrapers. While waiting on him in the lobby, she meets Ben, who is there for an interview for an engineering position, and his younger brother Ollie, who is there because their parents are out seeing the city? It appears that Ben had this interview, and so they all came along to make it a holiday (they’re British). After some flirting, Blake gives her phone number to Ollie to give to Ben, then Daniel comes to get her and they head to his limo to drive her to school.
Lawrence predicts the earthquake, and it hits L.A. – hard. The restaurant that Emma is in starts to collapse, as Ray is flying his helicopter back to L.A. (of course he is). Emma’s phone works enough (of course it does) that she calls Ray and he tells her he will pick her up on the roof of the building. He gets her just as the building collapses (of course he does). The quake hits San Francisco as Blake was in the limo with Daniel. Daniel shows his true colors (of course he does) and leaves her there, but she gets one call out to her parents, who are in the helicopter and head up to her. Daniel wanders out of the building past Ben and Ollie, who realize he left Blake in the car and go after her (of course they do). Things go from bad to worse as Lawrence realizes that San Francisco is going to get hit again, and harder. Ray and Emma crash in Bakersfield, where they have to deal with looters and a kindly old couple (of course they do). They get in a small plane and keep going. Meanwhile Ben and Ollie rescue Blake, who knows a lot of rescue tips because of her dad’s job (of course she does), she gets word to her parents that she is fine and heading to the highest point in the city. Ray and Emma decide to parachute into the baseball stadium because there’s no place to land the plane (okay, that one was new). They then realize they can’t get to the tower they were supposed to meet Blake at, and grab a boat. Then, there’s a tsunami (of course there is).
Finally they happen across the building that Blake, Ben and Ollie are in (literally, they seem to find them by happenstance), and Ray goes in to get them. There’s some desperate last minute heroics, but everyone is okay as they make it to high ground, and hopefully look over the wreckage and decide to rebuild.
Brady Peyton has worked with the Rock in Journey 2 the Mysterious Island, so they clearly work well together. The movie is cheesy, but the effects are great, and it really looks amazing. Well, all the earthquake damage looks amazing, but there are some moments where Ray and Emma are just in the boat in the city, and you can clearly see that they’re in front of a green screen - even the shot below looks a bit weird and green-screen-y.
Interesting that some of the really big epic moments look fantastic, but the moment of them standing still looks a bit off. Every cast member commits to the nonsense 100%, and that really helps the movie.
- Dwayne Johnson – look, whatever, I’m going to still call him the Rock. In fact, how much more excited about this movie would you have been if it had been called “Rock vs. Earthquake”? In any case – he’s great, he’s always great. He actually shows a bit more range in this than he has in past movies in the quiet moments where Ray is thinking of the daughter he lost. Also – he looks amazing.
- Carla Gugino plays Emma, and is certainly game to run through as much earthquake disaster as possible. She’s always good, and she’s actually a good counterpart for the Rock here. Just like in Faster – if you haven’t seen Faster, see it.
- Alexandra Daddario – who I know from the Percy Jackson movies – plays Blake, and even though she’s actually only 13 years younger than the Rock, she plays his daughter in this. She’s certainly capable, and I really enjoyed how once Ben and Ollie got her out of the limo, she basically saves them because of all her disaster prep know-how.
- Ioan Gruffudd plays Daniel, and you know it’s coming - but the moment that he leaves Blake in the car makes you so angry! It does pay off, when he finally gets his. Spoiler alert - he gets his.
- Archie Panjabi plays Serena, the one reporter who is able to get the story out! I’m not sure why she was in the helicopter in the beginning and then with the seismologists, but it proved to really help out.
- Paul Giamatti goes into full panic mode as Lawrence, who is working really hard on predicting earthquakes, and getting the message out that another one is going to hit hard and soon. He’s all exposition, but he does that really well, so I’m okay with it.
- Hugo Johnston-Burt plays Ben, who helps Blake, then just hangs out with her as they wander through the city looking for higher ground.
- Art Parkinson plays Ollie, and I’m not sure I understand the mentality of their parents leaving him with Ben as Ben is going to his interview, but maybe that worked out for the best, since we never see the parents – and never find out if they made it.
- Will Yun Lee does his best Michael deLorenzo in this movie as Dr. Kim Park. He lives for maybe 5 minutes, just enough to get excited that they can predict the earthquake, then panicked as they are correct and it happens, then determined as he saves a random little girl on his way out. Go watch the Wolverine again if you want to see him for a lot longer.
- Kylie Minogue plays Susan – so random. I mean, not unprecedented…she has acted before (yes, go back and watch the Jean Claude Van Damme Streetfighter to see more of that), but still – really random that she’s in this.
Like I said – every cliché from every disaster movie, ever. If you’re into disaster movies – this one is really well done, and you’ll enjoy it. If you’re into watching the Rock save everyone, you’ll enjoy it. If you’re a Carla Gugino fan, she’s good in this, you’ll probably enjoy this. Check your brain at the door, because if you think too hard about any piece of this movie, it may start to fall apart on you. Buy the big popcorn and go for the spectacle.
6 out of 10 – Gained points for the amazing CGI, really – it looked great. Also gained points for making me super happy I live in the Midwest. Lost points for all the clichés, but then gained points for all the clichés, because it became fun the more of them that showed up.
Bonus Video 1: Some Kylie for you.
Bonus Video 2: Faster, which is an old-school action flick. They let the Rock out of jail, and he goes after everyone who put him there.
Bonus Video 3: The super creepy Sia version of California Dreamin' from the movie:
Bonus Video 4: Cast Interviews.