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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

DISASTER MOVIES MONTH: San Andreas (2015)




The disaster movie has not quite receded from the public's mind. The blockbuster market is primarily dominated by superhero movies and other forms of rebooted, sci-fi spectacle these days. In this world of high-tech distraction, just watching a city get shaken apart or blown away probably seems a little quint. Yet, when paired with the right A-list star or spiffy enough trailer, audiences will turn out for such films. Despite being as stock-parts as a disaster movie could be, so much so that it's practically a remake of “Earthquake,”  “San Andreas” managed to be a decent sized hit in 2015.

Ray Gaines is a rescue helicopter pilot, working in Los Angeles. He's very good at his job. He separated from his wife, Emma, when their first daughter died in a boating accident. Their second daughter, Blake, is heading to college in San Francisco. Emma is re-marrying a famous architect. This normal day is interrupted when a series of massive earthquake shakes through Nevada. The quakes only grow as they progress up the San Andreas fault line. The biggest earthquake on record – a 9.6 – absolutely decimates all of California. Through this chaos, Ray and Emma become determined to find Blake and ensure she's safe.

If watching a month of disaster movies have taught me anything, it's that most of these films have pacing problems. It's pretty common for there to be a half-hour or so devoted to developing our characters. After that, disaster strikes. Once the mayhem cools down, we have a slower second half, perhaps building to a smaller calamity. “San Andreas” tries to get around these frequent issues by filling the film with constant calamity. A large earthquake destroying the Hoover Dam is just the beginning. A series of successively bigger earthquakes shake through the state of California, destroying each of its biggest cities. Cue a shit ton of buildings shaking, falling over, and collapsing. And, after that, the tidal waves strike!

From the perspective of navigating the genre's usual pacing problems, this is pretty clever. Yet this approach, of the film constantly topping itself with even bigger destruction, introduces problems of its own. Director Brad Peyton and his effects crew do create some memorable set pieces. Carla Gugino trying to escape a skyscraper as he falls down around her, eventually running across the roof to Johnson's helicopter, is suitably tense. A later scene has the parents racing a boat up a tidal wave, just avoiding collision with a massive freighter. That's ridiculous but pretty cool, especially when shipping crates slide across the Golden Gate Bridge. However, “San Andreas'” non-stop devastation causes few of the set-pieces to stand out. The film borders on the repetitive, maybe even the exhausting, at times.

“San Andreas” is unapologetic about the cliches it utilizes. There's an expert delivering grim warnings. A minor character sacrifices himself to save a child. The stock element the movie leans on the hardest is an estranged couple reconciling through the disaster. Carla and Dwayne confront the pain that led to their split-up and forgive each other. She realizes that her current boyfriend is an asshole. By saving their living daughter, they symbolically save their deceased one. It's routine stuff. However, the charms of Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino go a long way. The two have great chemistry together, joking and chatting in a believable fashion. The film emphasizes their sense of adventure over the destruction they see, such as when they intentionally crash a copter or make a daring escape via parachute. It's not exactly fresh but it is a lot of fun.

I'm not sure if “San Andreas'” cast quite classifies as star-studded. The Rock is, of course, a huge star. Paul Giametti, beloved and widely recognized, appears as the geologist who predicts the worse? Is Gugino, beloved character actress though she might be, a star? What about Ioan Gruffudd, as the new boyfriend who is punished for unworthiness? His leading man career never really took off, even after playing Mister Fantastic. Alexandra Daddario, who is a good choice to play Gugino's daughter, is more up-and-comer than full-blown star. (Though the movie does feature a random appearance from a pop star, Kylie Minogue which seems in keeping with the all-star cast tradition.) Either way, the supporting cast is very likable. Daddario is gorgeous and believable as a young but tough girl. Hugo Johnson-Burt is down-to-Earth as the guy who accompanies her while Art Parkinson is never obnoxious as his little brother.

“San Andreas” gets a lot out of its memorable images. Those shots of the California skyline literally rippling are so cool, the film repeats them several times. The cast, Johnson and his immense shoulders, carry much of the movie too. Otherwise, “San Andreas” is a destruction-filled disaster flick that doesn't bring anything special to the table. It was successful enough that a sequel entitled “Ring of Fire” is supposedly in development. Watching the Rock fight a volcano will probably be pretty fun but part two will hopefully – but not likely – be not so excessive that it becomes deafening. [6/10]

[THE DISASTER MOVIE CHECKLIST: 7 outta 10]
[] Awards Bait Ballad
[X] Corrupt or Incompetent Authority Figures
[X] Destruction of Famous Landmarks
[X] Grim Predictions
[] Group In-Fighting
[X] Heroic Sacrifices
[X] Massive Collateral Damage or Explosions
[X] Pets or Kids are Imperiled but Survive
[X] Romantic Couple Resolves Problems
[] Star-Studded Cast


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