It was Rick from Casablanca who famously said, “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” In that sense, San Andreas is the “reverse Casablanca.” In this film, a massive earthquake takes out much of the west coast, likely killing millions. But all is okay, as long as LA search and rescue expert Ray (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) can save his estranged wife Emma (Carla Gugino) and their hot, college-aged daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario).
There is something hilariously retro about the kind of film where the male protagonist has to prove himself worthy to the women in his life by saving them. There’s even a “working class hero vs. pantywaist rich guy” aspect to all of this: Emma’s new boyfriend Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd), a multimillionaire developer who wears expensive suits and flies a private jet, proves to be a coward, leaving Blake behind when she’s trapped in a garage so that he can save himself. Of course, Emma will soon see the error of her bad judgment. (At one point, Ray advises a crowd escaping a big tremor to “Grab something sturdy!” And Emma looks at him adoringly: Turns out she had something sturdy all along.)
San Andreas is ridiculous, but at least it knows it’s ridiculous. (God, I hope it knows it’s ridiculous.) Certainly Paul Giamatti, playing the seismologist who predicts the giant quake in advance, hams it up with even more than his usual helping of flying spittle. But the film even manages to botch the “you were all warned, but chose not to listen” trope; basically Giamatti tells everyone the big one is coming and they…believe him. (Alas, it’s too late for many to get out in time.)
All the moving parts are expertly juggled by director Brad Peyton and, yes, the special effects are impressive. But the disaster stuff is laid on way too thick. In one of the film’s typical over-the-top set pieces: Ray steals a skiff, has to ride through a tsunami, nearly gets sliced by the motor of a passing cargo ship, then has to dodge the giant cargo that falls into the water. Various daring rescues—involving hovering helicopters, impossible reunions amid the chaos, emergency plane landings, and buildings that collapse the split second after someone is rescued—bend credulity way past the point of breakage. And the truth is, 9/11 has sort of ruined me for images of collapsing buildings and terrified people—I simply have a hard time finding them “escapist” anymore.
Through it all, the filmmakers try to have some fun—they tack on a cutesy romance between Blake and an earnest young Brit (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) who’s visiting San Francisco with his kid brother—but the scope of the disaster proves to be distracting. I kept thinking: Where are the bodies?
Here’s the thing: As CGI has reached a point where you can decimate cities at the click of a mouse, filmmakers need to start being a little more thoughtful about their “bigger is better” ethos. Bigger, in this case, means more widespread death. But this is the tidiest disaster ever: Skyscrapers collapse, streets are flooded, and the Golden Gate Bridge buckles into the bay, but not a single corpse is shown. But, hey, at least The Rock wins back his family!