California’s entire earthquake fault line goes haywire, with 9-point-plus shocks on the Jerry Lee Lewis Rigor Mortis scale! The geological wipeouts include Boulder Dam, downtown Los Angeles and most of the San Francisco peninsula. This expensive-looking Dwayne Johnson disaster spectacle looks sensationally good, with excellent 3-D effects and nearly wall-to-wall fun effects work, even if your Cal-tech experts will turn green at some of the overstated Temblor Tech Talk.
3-D Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD
Warner Home Video
2015 / Color / 2:40 widescreen / 114 min. / Street Date October 13, 2015 / 44.95
Starring Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, Paul Giamatti, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson, Will Yun Lee, Kylie Minogue.
Cinematography Steve Yedlin
Film Editor Barry Chusid
Production design Bob Ducsay
Original Music Andrew Lockinton
Written by Carlton Cruse, Andre Fabrizio, Jeremy Passmore
Produced by Beau Flynn
Directed by Brad Peyton
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Computer Generated Imagery has evolved to the point that most anything that can be imagined, can be visualized on film. So far the most extensive use of CGI has been in big-budget, low-ambition disaster films. Roland Emmerich cornered that market long ago with Independence Day, a movie that revitalized the appeal of blowing things up in ever more exciting ways. Despite recent history, audiences still enjoy seeing the spectacle of skyscrapers falling, crushing thousands of innocent victims. “Isn’t that terrible,” the films say, but we don’t go to something like 2012 to sympathize with our fellow men. If Godzilla is crushing people underfoot, we’re there to identify with Godzilla. Emmerich has kept this circus of social cynicism going for quite a while, and after producing a couple of smaller films, appears to be planning a continuance of his Independence Day franchise. The chant of The Rocking Horse Winner comes to mind, but Emmerich is just a newer and bluer Barnum & Bailey.
In the meantime, others have tried their hand at lavish disaster movies. One of this year’s entries is San Andreas, an action vehicle for the persistent middlebrow star Dwayne Johnson, who a few years ago insisted on being called The Rock, but now discourages the use of that euphonious appellation in word or speech. Image management is a definite skill in modern celebrity science, and Mr. Johnson is a pro. He’s extremely likeable in person, easy to work with and nice guy all around. Twelve years ago I had a lot of contact with the extras for a bow-wow movie called Be Cool. Johnson came off as a prince amid a sea of egotists and poseurs.
This new movie is built around Dwayne Johnson, as if it were put together from the top names on his cell phone’s fast-dial list. Nobody involved has terrific credits but they’re all more than competent at their jobs, and they’ve all worked with Johnson previously. Even the script is competent, from the standpoint that its shortcomings are exactly what was wanted. Brad Peyton’s San Andreas is lightweight action excitement designed not to impress critics, but to be commercially viable around the world. Sophisticated drama and thoughtful characterizations are not needed, just a strong emotion now and then. The show is a destruction-disaster fantasy, so realism means little, just so long as the chaos is Big and Spectacular.
L.A. Fire Department rescue whiz Ray (Dwayne Johnson) and his crew use extraordinary skills to pluck an unfortunate driver from a treacherous thousand-foot gorge not far from Los Angeles. [ I don’t think there are any. ] He’d like to take his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) to dinner, but her time has already been claimed by Emma and Daniel Riddick (Carla Cugino & Ioan Gruffudd), Ray’s estranged wife and her new boyfriend, a multi-zillionaire developer. Ray is unhappy to learn that Emma is moving in with Daniel, because deep down nothing is as important to him as putting his family back together. He doesn’t have much time to mull that over, for a massive earthquake destroys Boulder Dam. Then the entire San Andreas fault line goes haywire, with tremors so big that all of downtown Los Angeles is utterly destroyed. Alone in his helicopter, Ray pulls off another miraculous feat, plucking Emma from the rooftop of a downtown skyscraper, just before it crumbles. Then Blake calls from San Francisco, where she’s visiting with her new father-to-be Daniel, who is building what will be that city’s tallest skyscraper. Blake is pinned in the back seat of Daniel’s limo when a parking garage collapses, and the panicky Daniel abandons her to be horribly crushed to death, poor girl. But coming to the rescue is a young English job seeker, Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt), and his spunky younger brother Ollie (Art Parkinson). Ray and Emma race North to save their daughter, switching from ‘copter to a truck to a crop dusting plane. More super-duper brain shaking quakes wipe out San Francisco, and a huge tidal wave is on the way. No meteors or space aliens, though.
San Andreas honors its contract with the audience. Probably ninety minutes out of 114 are occupied by one form of catastrophic jeopardy or another, and it’s all engagingly spectacular. Star Johnson is in the thick of much of it, being heroic, and flexing his muscles. He does not take his shirt off, which we can take as a sign of serious dramatic ambition. That snipe aside, Dwayne’s acting is just fine for the demands of the script. When it comes time to look upset and heartbroken, he’s not bad. Somebody had to take over the roles vacated by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Complainers can go enjoy the collective career migraine represented by Vin Diesel.
The acting rewards aren’t there for anybody else either. Carla Cugino (Watchmen) has to perform soap opera gymnastics at the strangest times, such as putting her romantic priorities in order in the middle of a monstrous catastrophe. Ray needn’t have worried, because massive earthquakes have a way of separating the men from the boys. His wealthy rival Riddick becomes a wussified ninny the moment there’s a whole lotta shakin’ going on. “He abandoned Blake!” screams Emma, while Ray revisits dialogue made famous by Zelda Rubenstein in Poltergeist: “We’re going to Get Our DAUGHTER!” [ Screenwriting 101 — make sure character motivations are clear.] We don’t’ exactly see what was wrong with the Ray-Emma marriage, if it can be fixed this easily. A few minutes later, husband is back to entertaining the little woman with more macho-lite intimate humor: “It’s been a long time since I got you to second base!”
The action is fast and loud and spectacular, and by now most of us have heard that it doesn’t make a lick of sense. I won’t go down the list of absolute nonsense about earthquake science, tsunamis, etc; as some of the whoppers (a California earthquake felt in New York?) were noted in almost every newspaper review. Yet much of the action is aggressively silly. Ray maneuvers his helicopter into a gorge crevice barely big enough to clear his rotors? The ‘copter also functions when being bombarded by fragments of falling buildings, fireballs and flung debris.
San Andreas definitely subscribes to Roland Emmerich’s concept of Nickotime.™ Characters whose names appear high enough in the credit crawl can outrun everything Mother Nature throws at them — fire, water, falling skyscrapers, even giant cracks in Boulder Dam. Heard at least once, every five minutes or so, is the immortal line, “We’ve got to get out of here!”
The CGi isn’t as preposterous as was seen in 2012. That picture revealed our planet as hollow inside, with the consistency of crumbly feta cheese. Here plenty of giant buildings fall apart as they shake. Some San Francisco buildings create huge clouds of dust and debris as they crumble, which is realistic, but after forty buildings fall, one would think a cloud of dust would choke the air from Sausalito to San Jose.
San Francisco being demolished is fairly awesome, actually, even if they show an impossible view that makes Chinatown appear to be only a few blocks from the Golden Gate Bridge. The film doesn’t do things in half measures. Racing their boat through the flooded city as if it were a Louisiana swamp, Ray and Emma never snarl their propeller on the masses of floating debris. Neither do they see a single soul, living or dead, on their entire downtown cruise. It’s not tough finding your daughter in a haystack if she’s the only one alive.
I liked the rescue action in the parking garage, when Alexandra Daddario’s Blake is pinned (but not hurt, mind you) in the back seat of a car, with its driver apparently completely crushed just a few inches in front of her. That happened on one of the Bay bridges in the 1989 ‘quake, and the pictures are scary — half a car looking normal and the other squashed to less than an inch or two. It also reminds me of the key situation in the vintage disaster epic The Last Voyage, with Dorothy Malone stuck under a broken steel wall on a sinking ocean liner. That young Blake’s new boyfriend can shift a giant concrete beam with an auto jack is an eyebrow-raiser, and one would think that the car’s tires would already be compressed to the floor. But hey, those are good ideas, at least in theory.
Less palatable is the notion that ‘An earthquake means never having to say you’re sorry.” Ray’s first dialogue line is the reassuring mantra of plumbers everywhere: Just doing my job, ma’am.” Except that Ray doesn’t do his job, quite the opposite. A thoughtful rescue professional might want to check in at headquarters when disaster strikes. With things this bad Ray may well be the ranking uninjured official still able to lead a mass rescue and recovery effort. Has he decided that the destruction is so bad that there’s no point in even trying? In any event, Ray chooses to STEAL the state’s helicopter to race North on an unauthorized personal errand. The subject of reporting for duty never even comes up. Ray and Emma just light out for San Francisco. If looters get shot at times like this, what do they do to deserters?
A really transparent subplot gives us Paul Giamatti as the JPL’s earthquake whiz, Lawrence. He has his own action scene atop Boulder Dam, which plays very much like a set piece in, of all things, Mothra. For the rest of the movie, Lawrence dispenses exposition bombs, dire warnings, and handy-dandy earthquake facts (sometimes spurious), to pace out the action. We also get a chance to check out ‘the big picture’ through the CNN screens in Lawrence’s lab. If the lab were tuned to Fox News, they’d be blaming the earthquake as revenge against Godless Left-Coasters. Lawrence’s lab assistants, with an average of one line of dialogue each, seem to be an opportunity to hire a couple of minority actors.
Hmmm. To guarantee a big Chinese release for San Andreas, why not shoot alternate takes on all these JPL scenes and make all the people Chinese, talking about earthquakes in local terms? It certainly wouldn’t hurt the movie, which consistently aims for the commercial solution to all issues.
That said, it’s fun to see the digital filmmakers attempt such ambitious images. My favorite is the giant wave sweeping into San Francisco Bay, toward the fault instead of away from it. Not a tsunami, mind you, but a Jan & Dean Ride the Wild Surf Cowabunga special, at least fifteen stories tall. I think it would have taken out the bridge entirely, but what we see is impressive — all except the tiny pixel people that stay on their feet even when the suspended span is jerked wildly to the side. Still, the set piece is entertaining for the ‘didja see that?’ mentality. I’m a confessed subscriber.
Many small details were interesting. I was impressed by the feeling that I was actually in a boat surrounded by crumbling buildings… so at the ‘immersive’ level the images worked, more or less. What can we say? When filmmakers attempt complex or intellectual sci-fi stories that use all these CGI miracles, audiences sometimes reject them outright. I felt truly pandered to when the screenwriters felt obligated to pay off Daniel Riddick’s character with an ignominious demise we can cheer. Riddick makes Richard Chamberlain’s callow character in the old The Towering Inferno seem sympathetic.
The movie inadvertently makes a statement about ‘special’ characters that are entitled to survive while others receive just enough on-screen time to be blotted out by a falling block of concrete. In such a paper-thin dramatic context, the film’s ‘serious’ river rafting flashback comes off as hilarious. “I couldn’t save her!” wails the gung-ho rescue expert, and, it’s like, you know, so ironic. It’s a deconstructive moment comparable to Gizmo’s hilarious flashback in the original Gremlins. Complacent Americans have a God-given right to risk their lives in white-water rafting, skydiving, base-jumping, hang gliding or any other semi-suicidal activity, and expect to come out in one piece. If something goes wrong, it’s like, really unjust, you know? They receive national news coverage as heroes.
San Andreas ends with 90% of Californians apparently drowned, crushed or burned, but everything’s great with us entitled survivors. The line, ‘We’ll build a New San Francisco!’ comes straight from 1936’s San Francisco.
This ‘California’ movie is largely an Australian film, with everything possible shot at Village Roadshow’s studio down under. Since so much of the movie is a digital effect, there wasn’t much reason to film here beyond a few select scenes, as when the daughter and her new friends hike across San Francisco. This also explains why so many Australian actors are in the cast, like Hugo Johnstone-Burt, and Kylie Minogue, who plays Daniel Riddick’s obnoxious sister.
There are also at least a thousand credited names (my estimate) of technical effects people doing all the CGI work, and then the extra work to create the 3-D illusions. The show is made of one superstar actor guaranteed to bring in the audiences, and an army of (decently-paid?) artisans that might as well be anonymous. If Cheops put together a credit roll for the slaves building his pyramid, it might look like this. The scroll of names goes on for so long that I was expecting a group of names with the credit, “Credits Research and Organizing Team.”
The Warner Home Video 3-D Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD of San Andreas is the expected flawless item — everything plays well. Besides the optimal image, the 3-D is quite good, besting by far the illusions in last year’s Godzilla where the 3-D often seemed inactive.
Warners puts on a selection of publicity- oriented extras. Director Peyton comes off as a nice guy in his commentary. A featurette on the real San Andreas Fault line brings a little perspective to the problems we may face when our overdue big earthquake hits. (I was in the middle of the ’71 and ’94 Los Angeles shakers, and the havoc they created is about all our fragile infrastructure can stand.) Another piece lauds hero Dwayne Johnson and a third addresses the music score. We’re also given deleted scenes, with director commentary, a gag reel and a stunt reel.
The keep case contains a 3-D Blu disc, a 2-D Blu disc and a DVD, plus the all-important security codes for the HD download, which is good for roughly three years. The Blus are stacked, so since I was likely to screen only the 3-D disc, I isolated it on its own snap-hub. The disc looks pricey at retail but the discounts are pretty steep. Owners of 3-D setups are always looking for new product, and this one makes a fun demo for a good home system.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
3-D Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD
Movie: Good –
Supplements: featurette The Real Fault Line, Dwayne Johnson to the Rescue and Scoring the Quake; commentary by director Brad Peyton; deleted scenes, gag reel, stunt reel.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: two Blu-ray discs and one DVD in keep case
Reviewed: October 7, 2015
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson