“I want to move to Ohio!”

Visually, at least, San Andreas beats all earthquake movies. As often as San Francisco has been torn apart on screen, it’s never been reduced to a pile of rubble and a few burning hulks, and then swept over by mammoth tidal waves, like this. And for local residents, it’s all pretty scary. This is a somewhat pessimistic vision, but it is not by any means fantasy. The major tectonic boundary between the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate called the San Andreas Fault runs down the length of the state, and another “big one” is long overdue. Director Brad Peyton and his crew of CGI specialists show us what could happen. For a Bay Area resident, San Andreas is very disturbing stuff. “I want to move to Ohio!” a young man said on his way out of the East Bay theater. But that is not happening, and one feels helpless.

San Andreas has the power to scare, but that doesn’t make it a good movie. No matter how impressive the visuals are, the writing matters. San Andreas’ human plot-line may be satisfying on a simple, classic level — Ray (Dwayne Johnson), its macho L.A. rescue fireman hero, does himself proud, saving his feisty daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) and reuniting with his ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino), while the daughter charms and saves a nice young Englishman, Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his adorable little brother, Ollie (Art Parkinson). But after a movie likeTitanic, with all its drama, story, and romance, along with its richly detailed and and historically specific disaster, we crave something more than this silent film stuff. Even Roland Emmerich’s in many ways pretty silly global climate change disaster blockbuster Day After Tomorrow, though its plot wasn’t profound or complex, keeps more ideas and stories in play than the crude schematics of Dwayne Johnson’s helicopter he-man rescuing his family and Paul Giamatti’s seismologist sounding the public alarm.

The trouble with earthquakes, for a blockbuster disaster movie, is that they last such a short time. Five minutes is a long one. A good solution would have been to focus on the aftermath. What happens to all the people who are trapped fleeing on the street — or the thousands in the suburbs cut off from services and supplies? We don’t get into that. In San Andreas the solution is that the earthquakes go on and on. First there’s one in Nevada, which brings down the Hoover Dam, while Caltech seismologist Lawrence Hayes (Giamatti) and his colleague Dr. Kim Park (Will Yun Lee) are there. The crumbling dam kills Lawrence’s beloved colleague. This is an invention: suddenly they discover a fault line they didn’t know existed.

Later Lawrence discovers the whole tectonic plate is shifting, causing wave on wave of earthquakes rated at 9.6 on the Richter scale, the worst in recorded history. Lawrence is able to do something. Working with a newswoman (Archie Punjabi of CBS TV’s “The Good Wife”) and a young Caltech hacker, he warns the public on all the local news outlets, so he’s a hero, saving thousands. Though Paul Giamatti’s seismologist says the shock will be felt as far away as the east coast of the US, and Dwayne Johnson’s rescue helicopter operator sees the “HOLLYWOOD” sign letters fall over, all the appalling action centers upon San Francisco, and nowhere further away than the Golden Gate Bridge. The lack of wider context and richer plot detail is woeful.

Ultimately the Caltech seismologist seems a bit perfunctory, Paul Giamatti merely the good journeyman actor doing the routine job. The people who matter amid all this destruction and death — but where is the death? we don’t see it — come down to Ray, Blake, Ben, Ollie, — and Emma’s new man Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffudd). Riddick is the bad guy. It seems when disaster strikes, there are simple folks, there are heros, and there are villains, cowards. (Just for social balance we see some pour souls stealing big flat screen TV’s.) A subtext of the movie is that real estate developers are bad guys. That’s what Riddick is, a very wealthy one, who has just built the tallest building in San Francisco. (In the city views of the movie, we can still see the charming old city of Russian Hill and Nob Hill and Telegraph Hill, surrounded by the Yuppie fortresses.) Riddick has worked so hard making money that he has lost his feelings and his moral sense. So when his underground garage starts to crumble and Blake is stuck in his car, he bolts, saying he’s going for help but simply running away. In San Francisco, it may seem, skyscrapers have been built only to be destroyed in mega-earthquakes. And with them, it seems, those who profited from their construction. I am not sure the movie means to say this, but the implication hovers. So does the hint that we need a major disaster to show us who the good guys are.


Film Rating: ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆

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