Winner by de-fault: San Francisco
San Andreas is directed by Brad Peyton and stars Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Ioan Gruffudd, Kylie Monogue, and Paul Giamatti.
San Andreas is one of the few disaster movies in recent memory where you can watch it and think to yourself, "That...might actually happen one day." The San Andreas fault could give out on us at any moment and annihilate almost the entire state of California, so there is an element of realistic fear in play. It's a bit of a shame though; Brad Peyton does not fully capitalize on this beautiful nugget of potential that is laid out right there for him, because Dwayne Johnson is his main star, and God help us if anything bad were to happen to this hulking giant of a man that is seemingly invincible to every movie villain known to man. At least Brad Peyton has the smarts to understand that Dwayne Johnson is not physically capable of squaring off against an earthquake. Unfortunately, that's not going to stop Peyton from flipping over to the other side of the movie invincibility coin: have your main star easily dodge every single obstacle thrown in their direction. Earthquakes? Tidal waves? Dwayne Johnson eats that stuff for breakfast. Now, I do not mean to knock Dwayne and his movie role choices. The guy has infectious charisma that makes him one of the most likable and marketable actors working today. It's just that, in a movie centered on a massive earthquake caused by one of the most geographically discernible areas on the West Coast, you'd like to see a vulnerable man fighting to stay alive during a perilous situation and not see.....well, Dwayne.
In San Andreas, Dwayne Johnson plays Ray Gaines, a Los Angeles Fire Department helicopter-rescue pilot who is putting the finishing touches on his divorce from his wife Emma (Gugino). Emma has gotten together with the slimy, civil engineering business magnate Daniel Riddick (Gruffudd), and he's agreed to take Ray and Emma's daughter Blake (Daddario) back to school following a meeting in San Francisco. Meanwhile, Caltech seismologist Dr. Lawrence Hayes (Giamatti) has been doing work on a new earthquake-predicting model, and, following an earthquake at the Hoover Dam, uses the model to deduce that the entire San Andreas fault is shifting and will cause a series of earthquakes powerful enough to destroy entire cities that lie along the fault line. A massive earthquake soon strikes Los Angeles, where Ray rescues Emma. The earthquakes eventually reaches San Francisco, where Daniel leaves Blake behind. Luckily for Blake, she is rescued by English siblings Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and Ollie (Art Parkinson) Taylor, whom she just happened to strike up a conversation with right before the earthquake struck. Blake is able to communicate with her parents and let them know that she's still alive, and so Ray and Emma head out to San Fran. to rescue Blake and her two new friends.
Again, I am not going to even think about commenting on any and all scientific inaccuracies in a disaster movie. I've stated before that I think there is little to no critical value in calling out a disaster movie for warping the truth a little bit in order to explain how it's large-scale disasters are able to come into existence. It's just one of those gaping holes in the movie that you simply have to accept is there and isn't worth trying to fill up. So while I'm positive that there are scientific inaccuracies aplenty throughout San Andreas, the point being is that, for this movie and any other scientifically inaccurate disaster movie, it's necessary to cast aside trying to become Albert Einstein and instead focus on what other parts of the movie work and don't work.
- What does work in San Andreas is, first and foremost, its earthquake sequences: easily some of the more impressive disaster-based action scenes put on display in recent years. The CGI looks quite good, and shots of buildings splitting in two and falling over are done with the right mixture of wide shots and zoom ins, as if we are going on an aerial tour of this earthquake disaster unfolding before us. This viewpoint is especially effective during the scene when the earthquake strikes Los Angeles, as Dwayne observes the destruction in the air from his helicopter, therefore letting us see the chaos through his own eyes. As an added bonus, Brad Peyton does not let destruction scenes linger for extended amounts of time, so every time an earthquake (or later on, a tidal wave) starts up, the action and mayhem feels fresh.
- San Andreas also benefits from some commendable pacing. In addition to destruction-heavy action scenes not overstaying their welcome, character conversations and other dramatic moments don't ever dilly-dally. The movie is always on-point with what it wants to get out of in each and every scene, not doing too much or too little, helping the plot function properly and stay in a rhythmic motion. No long monologues from Paul Giamatti about protecting the environment, and no saccharine conversations between Ray and Emma about how important it is for them to be there for one another. The movie says what it needs to say, does what it needs to do, and nothing more. The beneficiary for all this is the pacing.
- The main place where San Andreas is at fault (I'm sorry. I couldn't resist.), is in its rather shallow characters, several of which are incredibly one-dimensional. Ray is an invincible superhero, because he's played by Dwayne Johnson. Emma is....the wife, the wife who just follows Ray everywhere and only actually does anything when Ray isn't able to do so himself. Blake is completely stuck being a damsel in distress who needs rescuing over and over again. Seriously, the majority of the film is Blake going to the right location with Ben and Ollie so that they can be rescued. You might as well just pretend that San Francisco is a giant castle being guarded by dragon, a dragon coming in the form of an earthquake, tidal wave combo. Ray and Emma are the parent knights coming to rescue their daughter in distress, while Ben and Ollie are....damn it, they just broke down that entire analogy. They are....village peasants? Yes? No? Maybe?
Then of course there is Daniel: the human villain of this disaster movie that you come to know secretly only cares about himself. I guess being selfish in order to survive is a little different than him trying to walk away with tens of millions of dollars during this natural crisis because he is greedy, but it shouldn't take longer than five seconds the moment Daniel first walks on screen for you to realize that he is bad news and that yeah, he is going to do something pretty dastardly. Sure enough he does: he leaves Blake behind while she's trapped inside a car buried in rubble. I do believe it is entirely possible to make a three-dimensional villain in these kind of movies. Too bad that no screenwriter wants to give the time and effort towards doing so.
In conclusion, San Andreas is pretty shaky with its characters and how one-note may of them are, but on the entertainment Richter scale, it scores in the eight, nine, ten range. The CGI disaster effects are pretty impressive, and the film moves along at a steady pace that is neither too sluggish nor too rushed. Even in the face of an earthquake though, Dwayne Johnson is going to continue to be Dwayne Johnson, which is good or bad depending on your personal opinion towards the guy. I do hope one of these days that someone will find Dwayne Johnson the role: the role that's going to truly put him over the top and have people look back on it and say, "That was Dwayne's best role." Whatever that role is, it's likely to come from a top-notch director: a James Cameron for Arnold Schwarzenegger or a John McTiernan for Bruce Willis. Try as he might, Brad Peyton is just not that director guy for Dwayne. For San Andreas, it's not anything that should be considered all-time great, but from what we do see in the final product, there was potential for San Andreas to at least be something pretty darn great.
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