As appealing as the prospect of seeing California swallowed by its own incompetence seemed, I did not want to see San Andreas (SA). To be entirely honest, disaster movies are more boring than entertaining. Maybe when I was younger I enjoyed watching a volcano suddenly appear in the middle of LA, but now that I am older, I find more satisfaction in personal disaster in the same vein as Jackass and action movies that feature a lot of violence and gore. However, I will admit I ironically enjoyed the large-scale destruction of Man of Steel, whereas others took it too seriously being a Superman movie. The only aspect of SA that made the inevitability of seeing it bearable was the addition of The Rock, an actor so charismatic and full of enthusiasm, he made Pain & Gain good. Does he save San Andreas from being CG drenched slog or can the film stand on its own?
Beyond the cast I knew nothing about SA going in. 30 minutes later, I thought I was watching one of Roland Emmerich’s annual popcorn schlock features. Even the font of the title cards matched his style. It was not until the end I discovered it was the work of Sam Peyton, a relatively unknown director. And therein lies the singular issue that brings the movie down. No matter how you look at it, no matter the excuses you could make, San Andreas is an unremarkable disaster movie, if not a copy of similar titles.
The Scorpion King plays Ray, a rescue-helicopter pilot in Los Angeles. When his estranged wife and daughter are caught in a cataclysmic earthquake along the San Andreas Fault, Ray uses his honed survival skills to save his family from an ever-worsening crisis across the state of California.
Roland Emmerich is a formulaic director. His adherence to the method of which he structures character and story makes Blake Snyder, author of Save the Cat, look like a good writer.
His characters are the most blatant thread throughout his filmography: male protagonist with relationship issues, estranged wife/girlfriend of protagonist, smart/eccentric daughter/son, rich minor character that dies or becomes humbled, scientist that nobody listens to, and miscellaneous supporting characters that are in some way related to the main cast.
The disaster or event involving the characters happens in an obvious sequence: family estrangement made clear, disaster start, destruction, characters caught in destruction, escape, save, escape, save, harrowing failure, feigned death, resurrection, and happy ending where the estrangement is resolved.
That is the Emmerich Formula and the foundation for which other disaster movies are built. Take every disaster movie you can imagine, line them up side-by-side, and they will match each other beat for beat. Sure, all movies are the same, but it is different when an entire sub-genre adheres to the same structure as if it were afraid to try something new. That is the problem with San Andreas and the only reason it fails.
To my surprise, Mathayus (you are cool if you get that reference) was not the focus of the film, a minor flaw that would have helped the movie. The real protagonist is Ray’s daughter Blake, played by Alexandra Daddario, an actress with eyes so blue I am convinced she is a Fremen from Dune. Blake endures the most, isolated in San Francisco where the brunt of the earthquake is being felt. She uses her wit and will to get to safety and wait for help in a very physical and emotional performance. I like Sarge, but Daddario made the character her own in an emerging line of new strong female characters.
Like The Age of Adaline, San Andreas is painfully average without the pain. It is not good and it is not bad. Those who have not seen a disaster movie will certainly enjoy it. But for everyone else, it is nothing special and will leave no lasting impression beyond Daddario’s performance. I recommend Tomorrowland or Mad Max: Fury Road if you must see something this weekend.