9.7 on the Cliche Scale
When you go to the cinema as often as I do, one of the resulting perks is that your accumulated loyalty points earn you a free ticket that little bit more often. This brings with it an important philosophical question – namely, is it more satisfying when your free ticket takes you in to see a truly great movie, meaning you've had a fantastic time gratis? Or is it better when the freebie turns out to be for a complete yapper, meaning you at least haven't had to pay to watch a really bad film?
Which brings us to Brad Peyton's San Andreas, the most recent film I managed to snag a free ticket for. Now, while Spanish-speaking readers may be wondering if this is a film about a golf course outside Edinburgh, most other people will rightly assume this is going to be a story concerning earthquakes and how best to prosper during and immediately after them. San Andreas' top tip seems to be 'find something sturdy and hang onto it', which is probably why it stars Dwayne Johnson, surely the – er – sturdiest leading man in Hollywood. Sometimes he's so sturdy he's practically immobile.
Anyway, this time round Dwayne plays Ray Gaines, an enormous rescue helicopter pilot working for the LA fire department, following an illustrious career in Afghanistan (etc, etc). However, Dwayne is struggling with some personal angst, which has led to his wife (Carla Gugino) filing divorce papers and planning to shack up with a rich but worthless property tycoon who you just know is going to let everybody down quite badly when the crunch arrives (Ioan Gruffudd). Now, you and I both know that when someone gets sent divorce papers at the start of a film, this is a flag to the effect that the film is going to be about their reconciliation and a second chance for their family, and so it proves here: there are a lot of special effects and things going bang (crash, crunch, tinkle, etc) in San Andreas, but the main thrust of the film is ultimately about Dwayne and his wife getting back together, not to mention his comely daughter (Alexandra Daddario) finding a nicely non-threatening boyfriend. It just so happens that the piquant backdrop to all this is one of colossal devastation with nameless other characters being mown down horribly by the truckload – but as they have no connection to the Rock family, we are encouraged not to care about them, rather to just enjoy the spectacle of their lovingly-rendered deaths.
Off in another section of the film entirely, Paul Giamatti plays a seismic boffin who is responsible for this film's Gravitas Provision Department. Giamatti spends a lot of time looking grave and professorial before one of young assistants bursts in and shouts 'Sir, you've got to see this!' about something. This is invariably followed by Giamatti looking pop-eyed with concern and crying 'People have to be warned!' before hiding under a table. This stuff has no connection with the Rock family's various travails, it's just here to provide context and some sort of bafflegab explanation for why most of California now seems to be sliding into the sea. (Giamatti gives a decent performance in the circumstances, by the way.)
Or, to put it another way, this is another Roland Emmerich disaster movie pastiche. Emmerich has never been a particularly lauded or cool director, but in films like Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012, he did at least manage to reinvent the disaster movie formula in a way that had a certain lightness of touch and tongue-in-cheek quality, and while those films may have been cheesy and absurd, they were also very entertaining. San Andreas is just grindingly earnest and more than a bit annoying as a result.
You find yourself noticing things like the way the Rock family cheerfully loot everything in sight – boats, cars, shops, planes, fire appliances – and questioning the film's assumption that it's perfectly acceptable for a hugely experienced First Responder to basically walk out on his duties and put his personal interests ahead of those of the public he's actually supposed to be serving. If the film acknowledged even slightly how improbable and laboured (and yet also, somehow, obvious) its plotting was, that might make it more acceptable: but it doesn't, which somehow makes it worse.
San Andreas is a classically modern movie in that the whole enterprise is built around lavish special effects the like of which didn't exist even twenty-five years ago. Back in ye olden days, films couldn't just rely on empty CGI spectacle, and so they had to worry about things like engaging characters, innovative plots and interesting dialogue. What San Andreas repeatedly proves is that you can have all the wibbly-wobbly skyscrapers, burning buildings, collapsing bridges, and Kylie Minogue cameos you want, but if you use them as a subsitute for those old-fashioned narrative virtues rather than a supplement to them, you're going to end up with something which is pretty to look at but ultimately rather uninvolving (this happens in the first few minutes, when a character we barely know has a spectacular, visually striking car crash and you find yourself thinking 'Why should I care, particularly?').
Give the Rock some credit, he takes a fair swing at some of the more emotional moments in the script, and the results are not exactly painful to watch. I expect most of the people involved in this film will work again, because it will probably make money: this film most likely scrapes into the 'too big to fail' category. But the story just isn't good enough – it's predictable and silly from the first scene to the last. Watching horrific natural disasters shouldn't be fun, but somehow it is when watching a well-done disaster movie. This isn't a well-done disaster movie, nor is it very much fun.