The San Andreas fault stretches 810 miles up the Pacific coast, roughly the length of a dozen Dwayne “The Rock” Johnsons lying end to end. When it rumbles, we’ll need all twelve of him to spring into action — although, as Brad Peyton’s San Andreas warns, that still won’t be enough to save the day.
Disaster films offer the thrill of an impossible enemy. There’s no hope of a hero who can stop the shaking, soothe the tsunamis, and snuff the fires, not even the 260-pound Johnson, who here rips off a car door with his bare hands. No, these events could happen, and these flicks let us grapple with chaos for 90 minutes and emerged unscathed, like submissives gleefully cowering under a black leather boot.
Johnson plays a first responder named Ray, a divorcing father of two who lost one of his daughters to a rafting accident, and his wife Emma (Carla Gugino) to his inability to open up about that pain. His surviving child, Blake (Alexandra Daddario), is leaving Los Angeles for college, and Ray is unmanned to hand her over to British architect Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd), Blake’s stepdad-to-be, whose private plane will fly her to her school in Seattle, with just a brief stop to visit Blake’s new skyscraper in San Francisco. What could go wrong?
Everything, of course. You would know even if you ignored the title and trailer, as the film is thick with doom. In the opening shot, Peyton pans over Los Angeles like he can’t wait for the apocalypse — even the font identifying it as the San Fernando Valley is a war-blasted, gun-metal gray. Minutes later, a Caltech geology teacher (Paul Giamatti) assures himself a failing score on RateMyProfessor when he scares his classroom that the likelihood of a 9.4+ earthquake hitting the city isn’t “a matter of if, but when.” For a kicker, he adds that it’s a century overdue.
San Andreas can’t wait for the carnage. The problem is, it’s too chicken to ask us to comprehend it. It’s all big, distant, unfathomable wreckage — all shattering skyscrapers and rippling cityscapes — with no sense of the human cost. Even Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla knew to zoom in on a desperate dog once in a while. And Roland Emmerich’s unfairly maligned 2012 understood that its story was a tragedy. Emmerich gave us truly awesome images — a battleship smashing into the White House — and added gravitas and grief. He was willing to let characters die, so that we knew that all his staggering visuals came at a price. But San Andreas wants the applause without the tears, offering no emotional impact, just cool shots of streets splintering apart.
Our CG blockbusters have sanitized death as something sad and vague that happens to people without faces. In San Andreas, victims don’t die, they simply trudge by like doomed zombies and disappear into the margins as the camera charges after Johnson and Gugino, racing toward San Francisco to save their daughter. The film never doubts that Ray and Emma (or, really, just Ray) can find Blake in a city without cell service and swoop her up out of the flood. But Johnson is the wrong type of hero for a film like this. In the face of consuming disaster, we don’t need a superhuman jock. We need an average man or woman, someone who looks like us, just doing what he or she can.
Peyton keeps the film so focused on Ray’s family that San Andreas begins to feel callous. Unlike Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, a movie with the courage to ask if selfishness in a disaster could ever be morally excused, Peyton’s film isn’t trying to make us think. Instead, it takes for granted that Ray’s concerns are our concerns. But when 8 million people could be dead, who cares about this guy’s divorce? Though he’s a rescue expert, Ray rarely bothers to help strangers. In one scene, he deliberately ignores two stranded grandparents on the side of a freeway until he realizes that the road ahead is blocked. Forced to turn around, he apologizes. In return, they offer him a plane. In another, Ray and Emma blast through the streets of San Francisco on a speedboat screaming out for Blake, past another boat whose passengers are trying to pull people aboard. We’re meant to cheer, but what about the civilians chopped up underneath them? Who are the real heroes?