It just wouldn’t be the summer movie season without a disaster movie, would it? There’s something about the blockbuster months that inspires the teeming masses to show up to theaters in droves to witness yet another round of mindless destruction porn masquerading as escapism. In recent years, this niche has been filled by the superhero renaissance. The Avengers and The Transformers have all but usurped Mother Nature in terms of raw destructive power, their exploits replacing the more traditional meteor strikes and volcanoes as our go-to source for utter devastation.
Maybe that’s why San Andreas—a movie that doesn’t hold back as far as wanton death and destruction go—feels so quaint. For all its attempts at epic scale, in this day and age, the idea of seeing a movie about a non-superhero or alien robot made disaster almost seems like a throwback to a simpler time. It’s the sort of movie you feel like you’ve already seen before the first reel even begins, transcending predictability altogether to become downright familiar. Scenes and set ups are cut and pasted from the disaster movies of yore—you can almost feel them taking an older script and performing a “find all and replace” to change one disaster to another. The movie is populated by characters you already know, with nothing different but their names.
I’m almost certain these characters must have names, anyway—that’s something movies typically do right? Then again, I’m equally certain that, in this case, names don’t matter. The characters of San Andreas are less characters than they are cardboard cutouts, identifiable by type more than personality. The Rock, for example, plays The Hero—he says things like “I’m just doing my job, ma’am” and “that’s why I am the boss” just so you know how much he’s The Hero, in case his job piloting helicopters for the LA fire department didn’t tell you that already. Then of course there is The Hero’s Daughter (Alexandra Daddario) who, dammit, is just growing up so fast. She’s headed off to college soon and is just chock full of virginal purity and innocence, just as you’d expect. Her parents are divorced, because of course they are—The Hero so rarely has the time and energy to devote to his relationship in stories such as these and, besides, how else are we supposed to care for him if we don’t immediately feel bad that The Ex-Wife (Carla Gugino) has found The New Boyfriend (Ioan Gruffudd)?
Oh, and let us not forget about The Scientist, played, in this movie, by the inimitable Paul Giamatti who, if nothing else, is definitely earning a paycheck. The Scientist studies earthquakes at Cal-Tech and is working on a way to predict their occurrence which, it turns out, he can. With magnets. That’s a thing scientists do, right? Use magnets? Man…what can’t magnets do? His discovery of earthquake magnetism leads him to the shocking revelation that the San Andreas fault line is about ready to blow—and it’s gonna be the big one.
All of these character types converge as The Scientist is proven correct when a massive earthquake nearly levels Los Angeles. The Hero and The-Ex Wife are reunited when he saves her from a crumbling LA skyscraper (which thankfully had the common decency to collapse according to The Hero’s schedule). Together again, the two must journey to San Francisco to rescue The Hero’s Daughter who, while visiting the city with The New Boyfriend, was abandoned because it’s super-convenient for the plot. Along the way, The Hero steals so many vehicles of so many types that I was forced to wonder if San Andreas wasn’t originally written as an adaptation of the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. I’m not entirely joking, either. Technically, he’s stolen his helicopter from work, later he steals a truck (it’s cool though, because he stole it from someone who stole it first), an airplane (it’s cool though, because um…he was nice to some old man?), and finally a boat (it’s cool though because…ah, screw it).
Meanwhile, cities collapse, the earth rips in two, people are killed, lives are changed. A lot happens in San Andreas; unfortunately, none of it feels at all consequential. This is a movie that exists solely to get from A to B along the path of least resistance. There are no twists or turns—that would probably require its audience to think, and this is not a movie for a thinking audience. This is a movie designed to be as brainless as humanly possible, kowtowing to the absolute lowest common denominator in order to maximize its profit potential.
Which is all well and good. Those types of movies have their place in the movie market and if it weren’t for the big bucks they bring in we wouldn’t get the thought provoking movies of the autumn/winter Oscar bait season. So more power to you, high budget disaster movies. Keep doing your thing. The problem is that San Andreas doesn’t even necessarily do what it does that well. Call me a snob if you must, but I’m the kind of moviegoer who isn’t interested in watching a movie just to see a city destroyed (although, I must admit, the idea of LA crumbling to dust does appeal to certain sensibilities). I need agency, goddammit. I need a story I can connect to, populated by characters I give a shit about.
And you’ll find none of that in San Andreas. It’s one meaningless scenario after another leading to an inevitable conclusion that you already know. That’s probably perfectly acceptable for a great deal of moviegoers out there, as evidenced by the continuing success of the disaster movie as a genre. Hey, if that’s your thing then have at it. You’re probably going to love it and think it’s an absolute blast. Be warned, however: If this type of movie is not your thing then San Andreas is about as much fun as dental surgery, without the added benefit of killer drugs. Now that I think about it, maybe that’s an angle Hollywood should consider for its next big budget disaster movie. A few liberal doses of medical grade painkillers might make something like this, at the very least, seem enjoyable.
San Andreas is in theaters now.