Overview: A massive earthquake hits California and The Rock saves the day… for his family and a few other kids. Warner Bros.; 2015; PG-13; 107 Minutes.
Rock Solid Heart: If nothing else (and I mean this qualifying phrase quite literally), San Andreas establishes an emotional investment. Brad Peyton’s new disaster film creates for itself an inexhaustible credit line, charging its burdens freely against Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s inherent charm and immediately likable presence. The Rock is an icon so inexplicably powerful, that when his character Ray drives dangerously close to the cavernous wound opened upon the earth by the shifting San Andreas fault line, my reaction as he stared down into an abyss: “Oh, psh, The Rock could have made that jump.” The Rock is so endearing in any context that San Andreas need only place him into scenes as an emotional compass for the rest of the characters to find their definition.
“Oh, she’s the Rock’s daughter? She’s cool. I’m rooting for her.”
“Who’s this fool that stole The Rock’s wife? Fuck him. Hope he dies.”
“What? This woman left The Rock!? I dunno. She seems like a protagonist, but I’m suspicious.”
The thing is, in speaking toward this ease of character understanding, I’m not really giving the film credit for anything other than freeloading upon the train of my established adoration. And it shows mightily in The Rock’s absence. There is a painful scene in which homewrecker Daniel (Ioan Gruffud) forces a sincere talk with Ray’s daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) on a plane. The two performers evidently have no idea what the characters in that moment feel about one another and their expressions are glaringly confused. Not even the editing can hide the awkwardness.
[Deep, Controlled Breath]: Similarly, as far as I can tell, Daddario’s pre-existing charms are the only thing that lend her character the audience’s support. Look, I’m a straight man. And this young actress, who first caught national attention on her small role on HBO’s True Detective, looks like an unreal combination of Aunt Becky from Full House and Kelly Kapowski from Saved by the Bell, so my inner 12 year old self was on fire with concern for her survival; to that subconscious element of my psyche, it was absolutely imperative that this movie kept Blake alive and walking purposefully from one scene to the next. I’ll take all the scrutiny you can offer when I admit that I still have no idea whether Daddario did a good or bad job at acting in San Andreas, but I’ll bet you two heart-shaped charm necklaces that Brad Peyton doesn’t know either.
Disaster, an Aphrodesiac: The real central plot of this movie is the reunion of a single family unit: Ray’s wife Emma (Carla Gugino) is moving in with a millionaire architect, daughter Blake is preparing to move away to college, and the family has been torn apart by the death of their youngest daughter. Then all of that is interrupted by a series of California earthquakes unprecedented in documented geological history. Now, knowing what we know about large scale disasters, one would think all of that familial drama would take a backseat, but it doesn’t. Surviving the earthquake becomes a conflict that’s only directly peripheral to this family being a family again. These two things are treated as equal. As onscreen deaths pile up, in the forefront and the background, the film focuses more and more on the inner turmoil of these three characters. A thousand crushed, inflamed, drowning bodies used as set dressing for a drama as substantial as a single episode of a soap opera.
For me, the biggest takeaway is this: San Andreas‘ failure as a film confirms the genius of last year’s masterpiece disaster film Godzilla, which has caught an unfair amount of criticism for its one note performances and unmapped character development. In film, semi-realist disasters of a global or apocalyptic magnitude can not gracefully host isolated character dramas. Attempting to provide character’s substance through typical narrative, every day drama will inevitably fail in one of two ways: 1.) The smaller conflict will feel empty in the shadow of the calamity or 2.) the focused character attention will feel uncomfortable, the filmmaker’s version of a young sadist giving names to insects before tearing away their legs.
Overall: In the end, Ray’s family climbs up Daniel’s crumbling phallic architectural legacy and finds safety and togetherness. And even as the debris of a ruined city floats around them, insinuating the presence of a million submerged corpses, this is meant to feel like a triumph. When his recuperated wife stands with him on a hillside overlooking the flood and damage, she asks Ray what they should do next. Ray stares at an American flag (I’m dead serious) and offers: “We rebuild.” The same Ray who stared sorrowful at divorce papers for ten seconds in the opening act now hasn’t a moment to spare for mourning.