Friday, May 29, 2015

Review: San Andreas (2015)

San Andreas (2015)

Rated PG-13 for intense disaster action and mayhem throughout, and brief strong language

San Andreas is one of the dumbest movies I have ever seen, but in this case, that's a compliment. It's virtually nothing but empty spectacle, with plot developments you'll see coming from a mile away, a cast of one-note characters who fill every stereotype in the disaster flick playbook, a subplot that has literally nothing to do with the rest of the film, and a grasp on geologic science that is, to put it kindly, about as shaky as the ground beneath the protagonists' feet. But fortunately, the makers of this movie knew exactly what it was, and I knew exactly what I was getting myself into. It sets a singular goal for itself, and never tries and fails to be anything more than it is, which is two hours of pure destruction porn. There's no asking us to root for the superpowered beings causing the destruction, just people screaming in terror as buildings collapse, fires erupt, tsunamis toss ocean liners and freighters like rubber duckies in a bathtub, the ground opens up and swallows cars whole, and Mutha Nature goes apeshit. In other words, it is popcorn entertainment at its purest.

From the moment we meet the main characters, we know exactly who is going to live, who is going to die, and how they are going to die. Dwayne Johnson plays our hero, an Afghanistan veteran turned LAFD rescue helicopter pilot named Ray Gaines, and he is as much a Marty Stu paragon of masculinity as you can guess from his background, his job description, and the actor playing him. When we learn that his estranged wife Emma (Carla Gugino) is divorcing him for the rich architect Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffudd), you can automatically see several things coming: that Daniel's gonna turn out to be a major league asshole (he is -- my God he is), that he's gonna die spectacularly (woohoo!), that the skyscraper he's building is gonna get utterly smashed (hell yeah!), and that Ray and Emma are gonna get back together (awww!). Likewise, when Ray's gorgeous college co-ed daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario, who spends half the film in either a bikini or a tight tank top) has a meet cute with a handsome young English gent named Ben Taylor and his obnoxious little brother Ollie, you better believe that the three of them will band together for survival, and that Blake and Ben are gonna fall in love (again, say it with me: awww!) And when we learn that Ray's other daughter, and Blake's sister, had drowned in a kayaking accident? You better believe that the final scene is gonna be of Ray desperately fighting to save Blake after she's seemingly drowned, with Blake coughing up water and proving she's alive just as it seems that it's too late to save her, complete with Ray saying something along the lines of "I'm not gonna lose you too!" (paraphrasing there, but it's pretty close) while administering CPR. Of course, not a whit is given for any of the other people screaming like headless chickens; even though Ray's job is to rescue people, he abandons that job to save one person hundreds of miles away. Yeah, all this is technically spoilers, but really, when the film seemingly goes out of its way to stick to every cliche in the disaster movie guidebook, none of it really is. I called every plot twist in this movie from the moment all the main characters were established about twenty minutes in, and with one exception (Ben didn't sacrifice his life to save Blake like I thought he would), I was dead-on about all of them.

And that's without even getting into the whole subplot with Paul Giamatti as a Caltech geologist/professor who's figured out how to predict earthquakes. He and his team of students, along with a young female reporter interviewing him, have literally no connection to the main plot except to serve as a Greek chorus of sorts, there to tell us where the next big-ass quake is gonna hit and how big its ass is gonna be. Past the first act or so, during which Giamatti escapes from the collapsing Hoover Dam, they spend the entire movie safely encased in their ridiculously earthquake-proof building at Caltech. That whole subplot felt like the product of serious rewrites, with the film originally having an entirely different story focused on them, which was trimmed down but kept in simply to provide exposition for the (laughable) science underpinning this film. And on that note, pretty much every science goof you've ever seen in an earthquake-related movie is on proud display here, blown up to billboard-size. The strike-slip San Andreas Fault causing a tsunami and a magnitude 9.6 earthquake, gigantic fissures opening up, an earthquake so powerful it can cause shaking on the East Coast three thousand miles away, the science of earthquake prediction being able to pinpoint exactly where a quake will strike and how big it'll be (which is the holy grail for seismic geologists today)... any Geology 101 class could tell you why nearly every single point is wrong. The one thing it did get right was that fire is typically a huge problem after any major earthquake, and I'm pretty sure that was included more because the sight of San Francisco's Coit Tower surrounded by a raging firestorm looked really cool than for any consideration of science.

And that right there is why I was able to enjoy this film in any way whatsoever. The cast all give decent-to-good performances; Dwayne Johnson was the standout (even if he could probably do this role in his sleep), but they all helped make me at least somewhat interested in the fates of their one-note characters. Daddario was refreshingly capable, Gugino got some of the film's best lines, Gruffudd utterly dripped with sleaze, Australian actor Hugo Johnstone-Burt was appropriately charming, and even the kid wasn't annoying! However, none of the human cast are the stars of this show. No, that was watching nearly every major landmark in Los Angeles and San Francisco get torn apart by monster quakes. For this film's fairly modest budget by summer blockbuster standards ($100 million), the special effects are outstanding, even if the 3D served practically no purpose. (About once a year, I see a movie in 3D just to remind myself why it's a waste of money 95% of the time. This was 2015's movie.) When Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino were racing a boat straight up the face of a gigantic mega-tsunami, hoping to clear the top of it before it started cresting and breaking, it looked absolutely epic. When towering skyscrapers started collapsing, they fell with force, even if it was all CGI. Director Brad Peyton doesn't do anything spectacular behind the camera, but he does his job, avoids many of the pitfalls of lesser action movies, and puts the destruction on prime display. Most of all, though, this movie had a refreshing lack of pretension and self-seriousness that made all the ridiculous cliches and bad science go down much easier. It was like everybody in this film knew they were making pure cheese, and so, with gigantic smirks on their faces, they made a whole plate of delicious grilled cheese sandwiches. When this film telegraphs what's about to happen in the next five or ten minutes, it never felt like the writers were doing it out of laziness (even if they probably kind of were), but rather, to let you know that you were about to see the next awesome set piece.

Score: 3 out of 5

It's a dumb, entertaining blockbuster, and absolutely nothing more. If you want a nuanced take on a natural disaster, then a) go watch the original Godzilla or The Impossible, and b) you should've known better than to see a movie starring The Rock. This movie is absolutely nothing but a big bowl of empty calories, but damn it, popcorn and chips taste friggin' good.

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