‘San Andreas’ just a lukewarm disaster film

by Trey Hock on May 31, 2015

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Down]

From the beginning, Brad Peyton’s San Andreas is a compromised film. Many of the choices to force in exposition and emotional depth undermine the strengths of the disaster film.

Now every film is a collection of compromises. Short cuts due to budgetary constraints, recasting because of actors’ availability, a change in location because of the weather, all of these things affect most productions, and clever filmmakers solve these problems seamlessly. What was an obstacle becomes a brilliant decision.

San Andreas’ compromises aren’t ones of budget or talent, but of story. Ray (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) is a Los Angeles firefighter, and leader of a helicopter rescue unit. He is estranged from his wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), and daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario), because of the death of a second daughter on a river rafting trip. When the largest earthquake ever recorded threatens to tear off a portion of California from L.A. to San Francisco, Ray attempts to rescue Emma and Blake, who are strewn across the state.

Brad Peyton and screenwriter Carlton Cuse seem intent on making Ray not only a classic hero character, but also emotionally sensitive and vulnerable. This undermines the strengths of the disaster film, or as Susan Sontag so brilliantly put it in her essay “The Imagination of Disaster,” “The lure of such generalized disaster as a fantasy is that it releases one from normal obligations.”

Ray could be crippled by the loss of his younger daughter, but when the earthquake hits finally he can become the strong, unbending hero. The rules of society no longer apply. Ray is about saving Emma and Blake regardless of what he has to steal and whomever he has to punch.

While I am interested in any complication to the annual disaster film offering, this decision to water down what the disaster film is good at, seems strange.

And come on Peyton, you are working with the Rock!? He’s great at humanizing over the top action characters. Restraint and good taste do not apply to a film that has two heavily populated California cities ripping in two and falling into the ocean. I don’t want to consider the human cost. I just want a stupid, self-referential, catharsis. If the film’s plot is overly simplified, and so apparently constructed that it must be a movie, then I could enjoy the fact that Ray can finally get things done, unfettered by the system that has fallen into the San Andreas fault.

As much as it pains me to say it, Michael Bay could have made this film better. As a point of fact, he already did. It is called Armageddon.

San Andreas could have allowed us a brief release from the drudgery of our service jobs, middle management, and daily grinds of all sorts. Instead, Peyton gives us all our emotional constraints and throws in an earthquake too.

It’s a compromise, and an unwelcome one.

Click here to watch my review on KCTV5.

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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