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'San Andreas': Serious Destruction Without The Adolescent Fun

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Jasin Boland
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Courtesy Warner Bros. Entertainment
Dwayne Johnson as Ray and Carla Gugine as Emma in 'San Andreas.

Longtime New York Times film critic, Vincent Canby, once wrote that as an actor Arnold Schwarzenegger was very strong, but not strong enough to lift his tongue into his cheek. You could say the same thing about San Andreas. It is dead-on serious about itself. Near the end of the movie, Carla Gugino's Emma calls their situation ironic – just before she rams her 300hp speedboat into a window to save her daughter and husband.

The immediate thought that arises? Whatever San Andreas is, there is not a speck of irony anywhere.

San Andreas is efficient. Everything that gets shown gets used. In the first San Francisco sequence, an egomaniacal architect points out his new skyscraper project, and that CGI building appears in scene after scene. The movie is like people who eat an apple down to the seeds and stem. Nothing gets wasted. Tall buildings are toppling like dominoes, but these characters gravitate to this sinking hulk like pigeons to a statue of a general. Even computer-generated buildings are expensive, so you’d better get your money’s worth.

It’s also a literal-minded screenwriter’s idea of unity – show people what’s going to happen and then make it happen. San Andreas doesn’t plant seeds; it pounds them into the ground.

The movie doesn’t waste characters either. The comely daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) waits in a lobby. Young man Ben (Hugo Jonstone-Burt) sits across from her, and only 15 minutes into the movie you’re used to how the picture telegraphs its punches. Ben will be around until the closing bell.

San Andreas is a film without surprises, which means that it’s a movie with no fun in it. At least since the ‘70s, with pictures like Earthquake, it’s obvious that audiences love seeing California laid waste. In San Andreas, a huge chunk of the state is torn asunder by the massive earthquake, but the movie doesn’t play with it. It’s an adolescent picture without the 12-year-old boy’s delight in pure wanton destruction.

The story centers on a family. Ray (Dwayne Johnson) flies a rescue helicopter in Los Angeles. He loves his daughter, but she is sad because her parents are about to divorce. The mother is moving in with that greedy architect who substitutes property for feeling.

Some may think that a nine-point-something earthquake might be a bad thing, but here it’s all to the good. You can see it coming from the moon. This earthquake will reunite the family.

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Credit Jasin Boland / Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment
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Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment
From left to right: Art Parkinson as Ollie, Alexandra Daddario as Blake, and Hugo Johnstone-Burt as Ben in 'San Andreas.'

The upside of San Andreas is Dwayne Johnson. Like a lot of action movie stars, he’s mostly presence. He’s not there because he projects complexity. But he’s a graceful guy to watch. He’s a less self-centered actor than Schwarzenegger and less pugnacious than Stallone. He radiates genuine sweetness – and his muscles are as big as anyone’s.

It’s too bad that the characters of Ray and his family are so flat and self-absorbed. Where’s Shelley Winters when we need her?

The downside of San Andreas is that it celebrates selfishness. Traditionally, disaster movies are about how human survival demands generosity. Characters have to cooperate to escape the burning building, or to find their way out of the sinking ship, or survive other California earthquakes.

San Andreas is a monument to self-interest. The big earthquake hits and the pilot of a rescue helicopter abandons his job to pluck only his wife from a rooftop, and then to fly the city’s helicopter to San Francisco to save his daughter. Aside from the silliness that Blake is so easy to find amid the rubble of an entire city, it’s demoralizing that these folks all have so little regard for any other human beings. And at the end of the picture a huge American flag unfurls. Is this who San Andreas thinks we are – or wants us to be?

But forget all that. For those 12-year-old boys, the real attraction in San Andreas is cleavage. My wife compared it to Baywatch, but with a bigger budget.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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