If I said “they don’t make ‘em like this anymore” about San Andreas I’d forgive you for thinking I’d gone mad but only if you hadn’t seen the film. Make no mistake, San Andreas offers nothing new to the disaster movie genre, but what it does it does as well as can be expected, and its flaws come with the package. These movies, the like of which I hadn’t seen since Roland Emmerich’s 2012, are simply created to be the cinematic equivalent of a hypodermic needle to inject pure spectacle into our eyeballs. The special effects are special indeed, creating a vision of destruction and mayhem which Hollywood has been perfecting ever since the golden age of the genre back in the 1970s. And each scene is realized as well as could be hoped for, especially from a director (Brad Peyton) who hasn’t been involved in a production anywhere near this size before.
Peyton’s direction is crucial to the film’s success. He keeps the action clear and crisp where so many film makers today go out of their way to show similar scenes of mayhem as obnoxiously as possible (think Bay, Synder, Liebesman), with edits every two seconds and a camera which never stays still. I’ll go further and point out one fantastic scene which plays out like one single take (although I have to assume there were hidden cuts), starting with a wide shot of Los Angeles crumbling and pushing in through a window of a skyscraper showing us the survival of a key character whilst panic ensues all around. Moments like this, where a film maker decides how to show us spectacle in such a carefully orchestrated way, may sadly go unnoticed on audiences assuming the movie offers only the same old, standard frenzy.
Nothing is more boring than action caused by convoluted plots and storylines, and it was a pleasure seeing a city destroyed by a natural disaster, not by some dumb villain who fires a blue light from the heavens. Disaster movies are so straight forward that they set up just two things; a disaster which impacts many, and the survival story of a select few. San Andreas doesn't complicate this tried and true combination of cause and effect.
Paul Giamatti and Carla Gugino leading by example. But the casting of Dwayne Johnson put doubts in my mind, for he had yet to win me over in any film I’d seen him in before. After San Andreas I know why this was. Unlike most I don’t buy Johnson as the muscle-bound indestructible hero to fill the void left by Schwarzenegger and Stallone, but here his role isn’t defined by his size and strength and the film never once puts his character into a position where he needs to have arms like tree trunks. It could have been played by any of the aforementioned leading men and the film would not necessarily have broken through the ceiling of its limitations – and that is to Johnson’s credit.
Unlike the best of the post 70s disaster movies (Twister, 2012, and Alex Proyas’ sadly overlooked Knowing) San Andreas does feel the need to add some unnecessary back story and to make one character wholly unlikable solely to create pathos for our hero, and it stretches the levels as to how much we actually care about the characters towards the end (we know they aren’t going to die, why pretend otherwise?), but these are minor issues and barely detract from the fun. The end message is far too heavy handed too, as if the screenplay was a first draft written on September 12 2001 when the poignancy of ‘rebuilding’ was rightfully heavy in every American’s hearts. In 2015 the very end of San Andreas feels like it’s from another time, and is perhaps the film’s worst offense.
Minor niggles aside, however, the only reason you'd walk out of the cinema disappointed is if you don’t know or like the genre. Of course it’s ridiculous and preposterous and of course all logic goes out of the window, but do we expect anything else from a disaster picture? I’d even go further and ask if this is what we secretly want.