The disaster movie is perhaps the guiltiest of guilty pleasures in cinema. There is something truly spectacular about the scale of destruction and creativity on display; in the 1970s heyday of this genre, films like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure managed to combine the sheer outlandishness of the concept with questions of morality and progress in the face of adversity. In the Emmerich led disaster revivals through the 1990s and 2000s, this delicate balance remained, while injecting an almost overwhelmingly ubiquitous amount of Americana (in case the sight of America being laid to waste troubled anyone too much), managing to, even in the most ludicrous of these spectacles, create something almost cathartic in its representation of destruction and renewal. Now rumbles a new disaster juggernaut onto DVD in the form of San Andreas, a film that imagines what would happen if the infamous San Andreas fault line was compromised and unleashed the biggest Earthquake in recorded history, devastating California. Unfortunately for San Andreas, the only thing that is truly compromised and devastating is the film itself. The resulting experience is more than just bland and crushingly formulaic; at its worst, it is morally compromised, offensive in its lack of intelligence and hilarious for all the wrong reasons.

As you’d expect, the film’s strongest point comes in its visuals, but even then there is a caveat to their effectiveness. In the film’s initial sequences, particularly the devastation of an LA skyscraper Emma is trapped in, the overwhelming scale of the disaster manages to pull you into the world, most aptly illustrated in the film’s only shot of any note, a speeding tracking shot that glides through the air before cutting a path through the room Emma is trapped within, capturing the mania and fear of the people, moving from the large scale of the horror to the human element (something that is sorely lacking for the rest of the film). However, while this one moment deserves mentioning, the problem with the film as a whole is the spectacle is so artificial and computer generated, it becomes completely detached from anything remotely physical or logical. I have never seen a film with such wanton disregard for gravity; for a film about the power of nature, the devastation at no single point feels grounded or believable, leaving no peril and no attachment to the world.

Like other disaster pictures, the minds behind San Andreas decided to create an emotional attachment for the audience in the middle of this large scale tragedy, by focusing events around a Los Angeles Fire Department rescue helicopter pilot, Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson) and his estranged wife Emma (Carla Gugino) as they attempt to rescue their daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario). Now, there is nothing wrong with this approach per se (nor is there anything really original either), using the tale of a splintered family reunited and becoming stronger in the face of adversity. However, in San Andreas, the interpretation and depiction of this triumph of the American family is fundamentally flawed, and almost dangerous in its sense of making light of tragedy. Ray Gaines might be a family man, but his job is to save lives…something that he puts completely on hold while he takes on a personal crusade to save two people, while millions suffer. Even then this isn’t the true problem with the morality of the film; the biggest issue is the sheer disregard of focus on the sheer scale of the horror. Director Brad Payton has token images of people fleeing and the occasional citizen crushed by larger objects like some sort of cartoon mouse, but at no point are we as an audience shown the devastation of the earthquakes as anything other than as a ‘wow’ moment or a gag. Ultimately, when the dust settles, the images the film lingers on are of the family reconstituted as a unit and the draping of a giant American flag from the Golden Gate Bridge. It can be strongly argued that, rather than being the villain of the piece, the Earthquake (that, let’s not forget, kills MILLIONS of innocent people and destroys California) is a restoring force, bringing America back to its purest values, reinforced by those final images. Disaster films should be about renewal…but not without any consideration of what has been lost and doing the right thing as a collective, and such a misstep is almost unforgivable.

In terms of narrative, the film is so heavy handed in its exposition, it genuinely hurts. The irony is that all this cumulative information and repetitive destruction is so bland and uninteresting that it would be better if the film just replayed the ‘A quake, a quake’ song from Animaniacs, as that proves to be a more concise and entertaining depiction of an Earthquake tearing through California than anything the screenwriters attempt to force feed the audience. Paul Giamatti exists purely as an exposition spewing void where a character should be. It’s not his fault, that’s just the nature of his part. Indeed, the same could be said for every character in the film, as they play a cut and paste clichés filling a space around the destruction porn around them. The nadir of this comes in the form of an English love interest, who appears to be playing a parody of Hugh Grant, circa Four Weddings and a Funeral, and his younger brother who plays the role of ‘the kid you really want to be crushed under something.’ The ultimate metaphor for the film itself comes in an early moment as the first quake hits Los Angeles. Kylie Minogue’s (yes, that Kylie Minogue) brief performance in the film thankfully comes to an end as she leaves the stricken restaurant her and Emma have frequented through a door that Emma quickly discovers leads to nowhere but a plunge from the top of the skyline to the street below. San Andreas is a door to nowhere, and the paying customers all fill Kylie’s unfortunate shoes.

I am in no doubt that San Andreas was intended to make money and sell popcorn. However…that is not enough, especially when the message on display is so trite and the spectacle devoid of any true meaning. Audiences deserve more than this insulting mess. In truth, a hiccup has more power than San Andreas ever could ever muster; a film that fails to even raise a tremor of excitement. The earth will not move beneath your feet, and the only shaking will be that of your head as you consider the abhorrent spectacle and the assault on logic you have just endured.

DVD Review: San Andreas
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About The Author

Matthew Hammond is a full time cinephile, specializing in cult, art house and 1980’s cinema. While film is his overwhelming passion, Matthew has been known to enjoy comic books, Sherlock Holmes stories and a good film related T-shirt. Feel free to email me with any questions or comments: mattpaul61@o2.co.uk