' ' Cinema Romantico: San Andreas

Monday, June 01, 2015

San Andreas

When the first earthquake of the so-called swarm triggering “San Andreas” hits, Ray (Dwayne Johnson), a helicopter rescue pilot, swoops into crumbling downtown L.A. to save his about-to-be ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino). The sequence, paced and crafted by director Brad Peyton with a welcome professionalism, epitomizes the entire film. You’re not thrilled so much as satisfyingly entertained. And rather than your senses being numbed by a pummeling of special effects, you smile at the fun-filled ridiculousness of the tension escalating in expert increments. Even more, though, than the delightful derring-do, the sequence is notable for whom else is around – namely, no one.

Like any summer blockbuster worth its elephantine budget, “San Andreas” takes a catastrophic event and ups the catastrophe to “11”. It’s not enough to just have an earthquake; no, the whole damn San Andreas fault has to go off, and so it does. “It’s not a question of if,” says Lawerence (Paul Giamatti) a CalTech professor whose earthquake prediction models predicting the unthinkable have come true. “It’s a question of when.” And when is, like, five minutes after the movie starts. The earth vibrates, and then vibrates again, buildings crumble, bridges topple, and a tsunami threatens San Francisco, which is where Ray and Emma’s daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario), is stranded with her potential stepfather (Ioan Gruffurd, like a cardboard cutout of evil). So, Ray and Emma make haste by helicopter, plane, boat and gas-guzzling SUV to both reconcile their union and rescue Blake and the new friends, British brothers Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and Ollie (Art Parkinson), she’s obligatorily made.

Though the scale of destruction is expansive, the film’s focus remains deliberately intimate, as if the only world the film builds is the one concerning Ray and his family. The series of warnings issued by Lawrence might as well be just for them. In another film this brush off of innumerable extras, real and computerized, affected by the incessant tragedies might elicit legitimate accusations of empty morals, but in one proudly wearing implausibility as a badge of honor, it hardly matters. San Andreas subscribes whole-heartedly to the Roger Ebert Law of the Summer Movie stipulating that on a warm summer night a movie's dumbness correlates directly to its enjoyment level. And by maintaining such hyper-specific focus, the film remains refreshingly light on its feet, moving briskly, all action-adventure ascent, which makes it feel fun rather than another CGI slog.

No one seems to be having more fun than Giamatti. He transforms Giving Exposition into an art form. He stammers and stumbles, not from confusion but from awe-inspired disbelief. Watching him trace the outline of what’s about to happen on a map, talking out loud to himself as he does it, is comical and comically riveting. Any time we don’t know what’s going on the film cuts to Giamatti and he tells us. Maybe what he’s telling us is bogus to deGrasse Tyson and his legion of nit-pickers but Giamatti makes every word true. “God be with you,” Giamatti says and you can practically see him post-cut pumping his fist and hollering “Nailed it!!!”

“San Andreas’s” bread isn’t buttered, however, on seismology specifics but on the bulging biceps of Dwayne Johnson. The establishing sequence in which he saves a teenage girl from certain cliffside doom introduces us to him with a shot in which he turns to a reporter in the back of his chopper, grinning as the sunshine appealingly glints off his “Top Gun” sunglasses. It’s the grin of a movie star who knows he’s got top billing. Johnson never really comes across vulnerable, not even in reciting monologues about his other daughter who drowned in a rafting accident whom he couldn’t save. It's like even he knows she was pulled under not by his failings but by narrative undertow to provide him some motivation.

No, Ray is at his best simply facing each new obstacle with taciturn cheer. It’s the sort of film that works precisely because it’s unsurprising. It’s The Rock solving action movie equations. If you can't land, you parachute. If you can't drive a car through, you steer a boat around. Each problem solved is the delightful reward. He's a professor, really, as much as an EMT, one with a doctorate in Renny Harlin, and all of California is his blackboard. Granted, it might be nice to see Emma pitch in with a bit more now and then. At the end she gets to ram a motor boat through glass, which is nice, and her kiss-off line to her not-gonna-be-my-husband is hella good, but more often than not she’s a sidekick rather than a co-conspirator. Still, as a couple Johnson and Gugino, who un-par for the Hollywood course are the same age (43), completely convince. She’s not built like him – who is? – but Gugino has an inherent tough streak that matches up.

Daddario matches up to Johnson too, if not in build or complexion in spirit and attitude. You can see where her character’s morphed into her father’s daughter, and, more often than not, she’s carrying these two brothers who seem to be waiting for Fawlty Towers to collapse in her wake. And that’s what ultimately marks “San Andreas” not even so much as a husband & wife reconciling in the midst of tragedy as a paternal love story. Blake might just grow up to star in a sequel where she has to save her own kids from a tropical cyclone.


Candice Frederick said...

what a great, honest review. thanks for sharing.

Nick Prigge said...

Thanks for that incredibly kind comment! Appreciate it.