TR Review: San Andreas Rocks and Rolls


Stuff go boom. Stuff go BOOM.

If you’re one of the people who complained about Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla – specifically in that it took too long to show Godzilla smashing stuff, and had a weak, uncharismatic lead in the role of Guy With Crucial Skills – I have good news. Take that imaginary movie you wanted, digitally erase Godzilla himself (or, if you prefer, replace him with the invisible kaiju that is Mother Nature), and you have San Andreas, the kind of movie we always hope Roland Emmerich movies will be but never are.

Director Brad Peyton essentially repeats the formula he used for Journey 2: The Mysterious Island here – start with a money shot, then go directly from one cliffhanger to the next as your cinematic chain of consequences keeps leading to worse and worse situations, moving along so fast you barely have time to wonder what is or isn’t plausible. By the time Dwayne Johnson is trying to surf a tsunami in a small motorboat, only to then get sucked towards the giant spinning rotors of a cargo ship, which proceeds to start dumping massive metal containers around him while somersaulting towards the Golden Gate bridge, you’re either along for the ride or you ain’t, and if you ain’t, you really came in with the wrong idea.


One of the mistakes Roland Emmerich tends to make is putting somebody like Matthew Borderick or John Cusack front and center in these stories – for a guy who can believably beat the world’s biggest earthquake single-handedly, you need a lead so larger-than-life that he actually named himself after an immovable object. I entered the movie with the notion that I was tired of The Rock playing nice, normal family men, but once it gets to him digging people out of broken buildings with his bare hands, you realize there aren’t many other actors you’d go to.

Cinema gives us good big-dumb and bad big-dumb – a lot of times, stupid over-the-top action movies are irritating because the acting is terrible, the characters are poorly conceived, or the explosions and fights are so chopped to hell we have no idea what’s going on. San Andreas is definitely good big-dumb: the characters are given believable (rather than overly broad) quirks, the cast play it straight (Sia’s ultra-earnest cover of “California Dreamin'” is the funniest thing in the film), and most importantly, Peyton and cinematographer Steve Yedlin (of every Rian Johnson movie) favor wide shots in which we can actually see what’s going on – at one point, we even get a God’s-eye view from space.

Motherfuckin’ front and center, now that you’ve shown me this.

This isn’t just a movie about one earthquake that destroys Los Angeles – it’s about a rockslide that endangers one bad driver, then a swarm of earthquakes that destroy Hoover Dam, then a bigger swarm that trashes Los Angeles, then an even bigger one that starts working its way all the way up the San Andreas fault to San Francisco, where it strikes a few times, then a tsunami, then any buildings that haven’t already fallen gradually collapsing. I wouldn’t say this is exactly how earthquakes behave – it IS, however, the way Godzilla behaves, and I suggest hiring Peyton for that sequel immediately. Fortunately for the plot, while Johnson and ex-wife Carla Gugino are in L.A., daughter Alexandra Daddario is in San Francisco with her wicked stepdad-to-be Ioan Gruffudd (that he turns out to be such a caricature is the main storyline disappointment).

Daddario has to carry about half the movie, and carry it she does – I can totally wait for the 15,000 or so “thinkpieces” online arguing whether or not the movie qualifies as feminist, but there’s no question that she is constantly saving her dorky English love interest (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) with her skills and knowledge, and he’s the damsel in distress. Meanwhile, in the token character-actor role, Giamatti interacts with none of the other principals as he predicts doom, and tries to bond with students by awkwardly saying things like “bro,” because old people, amirite?

“You go punch stuff – I’ll be under the table”

There’s a fundamental, fun-and-mental misconception, I think, to the phrase “turn your brain off and enjoy it.” Too often, people believe it means you have to ignore glaringly obvious faults. The large-spectacle movies that do it right suck you in sufficiently that you don’t have time to turn your brain on and think too hard until afterwards, like when you realize that as part of the L.A. Fire Department, Johnson is totally wasting life-saving resources to save one person rather than many. To be completely honest, though, a realistic movie about an earthquake wouldn’t be much fun (trust me; I’ve been in them, and by the time you figure out you should be scared, it’s over) – if you want helicopters flying between giant domino-collapsing skyscrapers, you gotta go over the top. San Andreas does so gloriously.