If nothing else, SAN ANDREAS is one of the finest advertisements ever made for the importance of emergency preparedness. Those who survive the state-long earthquake that erupts on the eponymous fault line are either those who know to duck under a table or shelter by a solid wall, or those who are related to those who knows things like these. The rest are just so much fodder to remind us of just how gruesome a death by natural disaster can be. Fortunately, this film does more than just scare us all into wanting to sign up for the nearest class in CPR and/or first aid. It’s a whiz-bang of a disaster flick brimming over with close-calls, near misses, and the answer to that age-old question, “What would a cruise ship drifting through Chinatown look like?” Make no mistake we are not here for logic, we are here for a higher purpose that renders coherence a mere bagatelle. We are here to be reassured that in the midst of the apocalypse, someone will come to save us. And that man is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
In keeping with the cautionary subtext of the film, it begins with a sweet young thing driving through the canyons around Los Angeles and texting. Bad, bad sweet young thing, or so the film says as she is rewarded by not being able to deal with one of those rock slides that are inherent in the canyons. Fear not, Ray (Johnson) is helicoptering in for a rescue. Fear not, further, there is a pretty reporter riding with him and his LAFD rescue squad allowing us to learn that he’s a veteran working with the same squad, doing the same thing, that he had in Afghanistan. The car, and the pretty young thing, wedged precipitously in the very narrow crevice proves no obstacle to Ray as he throws protocol to the winds, thinks outside the box, and brings both her and his injured teammate back safely.
This is all very important to know because when the earthquake strikes, it explains why Ray would take the LAFD helicopter rogue to save his soon-to-be ex-wife, Emma (Carla Gugino) from a LA rooftop, and then off to San Francisco where their daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario) has been abandoned, trapped in a care in the basement of a high-rise by mom’s rich new boyfriend, Daniel (Ioan Gryffudd) Though, to be fair, Daniel’s biggest failing is not being Ray, and panicking in the face of a very large chunk of building flattening the front part of the car in which he and Blake were riding. He’s just a very successful architect.
Fear not, Blake is rescued from the car by Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt), the cute guy who was there for a job interview at Daniel’s company, and by Ben’s cute-as-a-button brother, Ollie (Art Parkinson). The film, it should be noted, has the grace to acknowledge that it’s weird to bring a little brother to a job interview, and to explain why two British brothers are there in San Francisco for the interview.
Blake returns the favor by essentially keeping those two brothers alive through the ensuing quakes, tsunami, tumbling buildings, and other assorted difficulties that otherwise make a major disruption like this so much more difficult than the initial shaking. She thereby joins the ranks of tough women with which this summer movie season is gifted, and that is another big point in the film’s favor. Sure, Ben the structural engineer knows how to retrieve trapped girls from smushed cars, but said girl knows how to get around downed cell phone towers and pillage abandoned fire trucks for useful equipment.
Also in the mix is sad-eyed Paul Giamatti as the geophysicist whose discovery of a way to predict earthquakes some just a little too late for Los Angeles, and for his assistant (Will Yun Lee), who is the first supporting player to demonstrate the fury of Mother Nature on a rampage as demonstrated by what happens at Hoover Dam. Giamatti also gets to say the immortal words about when the next big one will hit, as in that it’s not a question of if, but of when.
In the course of San Andreas, we see Ray save the day over and over again against insuperable odds, dodging tanker ships careening wildly in a tsunami wave, overcoming a looter with just his cat-like reflexes, facing down the gaping eponymous fault itself, and coming to terms with the drowning death of his other daughter. That last because this isn’t just a film about California coming apart at the seams, it’s about a broken family healing and coming together. On that level it works, even if it fails on the coincidence scale, not to mention the scale of just how much punishment the human body can take and still keep going, at least we have something to for which to root. A glass shard to the thigh would probably NOT allow the shardee to scale even a modest hill in San Francisco, much less Nob Hill. But never mind. In the midst of disaster, reuniting the family is paramount, and physiology be damned. There is no shame is just going with it.
The pacing is brisk, the special effects are devastatingly terrific, and the powers that be were kind enough to cast actors who are capable of giving solid, even engaging, performances in the most clichéd of moments. It makes even the most expected tropes easier to swallow, and, if anything, makes us respect all concerned all the more for making it work.
Full disclosure, I was in San Francisco during the 1989 quake, and seeing the Bay Bridge go down again evoked a more emotional response that it might for those who were here. Still, for all its hyperbole, SAN ANDREAS is a fun and nail-biting action-adventure flick well worth the effort to see it on the big screen. And if you stay through the credits, there are several listings of web sites to visit to get that preparedness training you will be considering after the show.