Hollywood may have reached peak disaster movie.

The classics of this genre featured danger and destruction on a scale a guy could wrap his head around; a hijacked airplane, a skyscraper on fire, a capsized ocean liner filling with water. But when you live by spectacle, you die by it too. And so the disasters got bigger and bigger, one movie trying to top the next, until it became an arms race of planetary devastation. One movie blows up the White House, the next one washes it away in a tidal wave. Where do you go from there? An exploding tidal wave? At this point, if your disaster movie isn’t eradicating a large portion of the globe, don’t even waste your time.

San Andreas certainly adheres to the “go big or go home” model of modern disasterism. It starts with a couple of men in a helicopter rescuing a single woman, and then expands exponentially, as a record-breaking earthquake rocks California from Los Angeles all the way to San Francisco. When the ground finally stops shaking, the movie throws a tsunami of iconic-bridge-destroying proportions on top of it (and then a dumps a giant tanker full of toppling shipping crates on top of that). Remember that Saturday Night Live parody ad for Taco Town, the restaurant that keeps adding things to your order until the entire meal is so large it comes with its own gigantic tote bag? (“It gets bigger! Because we bake it in a corn husk filled with pico de gallo, then wrap that in an authentic Parisian crepe filled with egg, Gruyere, Merguez sausage, and portobello mushrooms!”) San Andreas is the film version of that. It’s Pizza Crepe Taco Pancake Chili Bag: The Movie.

The crunchy all-beef taco at its center is Dwayne Johnson. Scary times like these call for America’s sturdiest action hero; as every building west of the Colorado River falls, The Rock stands tall as Los Angeles Fire Department pilot Ray Gains, the leader of an elite helicopter rescue squad. In the opening scene, Ray and his team of military vets operate with extreme precision, saving a woman whose car has fallen into a massive crack in the earth. One of Ray’s colleagues explains that after their tour of duty in Afghanistan, they decided to keep working together for the LAFD. And what did Ray think of his time overseas? “Just doing my job,” he tells a reporter on a ride along. “I go where they tell me to go.” The movie goes to a lot of trouble to establish this band of brotherhood; these selfless men who will risk everything to protect the country they love.

Ten minutes later, all of those characters except Ray vanish, never to be seen or heard from again.

Meanwhile, Mr. Just-Doing-My-Job-And-Going-Where-They-Tell-Me abandons his job and goes where he wants — to rescue his estranged wife Emma (Carla Gugino) and then his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario), who made the unfortunate decision to travel up to San Francisco with Emma’s new boyfriend (Ioan Gruffudd) hours before an earthquake rips the West Coast a new one.

All of San Andreas is like this. The disaster sequences are competent; the writing, not so much. The script, credited to Lost executive producer Carlton Cuse, is one inconsistency (if not downright stupidity) after another. No one expects Shakespeare from a movie about The Rock fighting an earthquake, but a little basic coherence would be nice. Gruffudd is introduced as an exceedingly decent guy who goes out of his way to reassure Blake he’s not trying to replace her father, and then literally four seconds after the first tremor he turns into the douchebag of the century. The nice guy in the story, Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt), is a foppish British tourist who takes time out from his family vacation to look for work at Gruffudd’s company. Inexplicably, he brought his loudmouth little brother Ollie (Art Parkinson) along for the job interview. There’s also a scientist character (Paul Giamatti) who invents a machine that can predict earthquakes; a CNN reporter makes a big stink about how “no one listened to his warnings before.” This is the first the movie mentions it, and it never mentions it again. And anyway his machine can only predict earthquakes about a half a minute in advance. Nostradamus, he is not.

None of these people or their stories make any sense, and there’s no connective tissue bridging the big effects sequences. Running a brisk 114 minutes, it’s as if director Brad Peyton cut out almost everything that wasn’t directly related to the buildings toppling or Ray’s rescue efforts. The movie might satisfy viewers who only care about basking in society’s collapse, but the scope of these events is too big and absurd to ever take seriously. The best scenes are smaller ones, like the opening rescue or the one where Blake gets pinned inside a car that’s slowly being crushed by debris and Ben uses his wits to engineer a fast escape. The great disaster movies are about the people fighting to survive amidst overwhelming chaos. When Peyton pulls back to watch whole cities fall to the ground, San Andreas becomes just another empty CGI spectacle.

When Earthquake came out in 1974, part of its spectacle involved “Sensurround” a new audio system installed in select theaters that replicated the sensation of being in an actual earthquake. Without any marketing gimmick or fanfare, San Andreas’ impressive sound mix creates a similarly convincing simulation of seismic activity. As California is shaken by the biggest quake in recorded history, the theater seats rattle and your chest throbs. It’s a pretty intense experience. But vibrations are the only thing you’ll feel during this movie; apparently, it’s easier to replicate the authentic sensation of an earthquake than the authentic sensation of human speech. Why can’t the man-made noises in blockbusters be half as realistic as the bangs and rumbles? How does Hollywood screw this up over and over?

Forget it, reader. It’s Taco Town.

Additional Thoughts:

  • I still say Dwayne Johnson’s character should have been named Sam Andreas. Huge missed opportunity.
  • Dwayne Johnson is 43. Alexandra Daddario, who plays his surprisingly Caucasian daughter, is 29. So The Rock was cooking up his first kid when he was 14? (In fairness, Daddario plays a college student in the film. In unfairness, she doesn’t look like a college student; she looks like a 29-year-old.)
  • San Andreas, written by Lost executive producer Carlton Cuse, comes out one week after Tomorrowland, written by Lost co-creator, Damon Lindelof. The former is a nightmarish movie about an apocalyptic earthquake; the other a sci-fi film that argues dark apocalyptic movies are literally poisoning the world. So those guys should have plenty to talk about over coffee tomorrow.
  • By the time Ray makes it to San Francisco, he’s exchanged his LAFD uniform for a pair of jeans and a sweaty gray T-shirt — the exact same costume Dwayne Johnson wore in Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, the last film he made with Brad Peyton. I’m already counting the hours until some dope conjures up a theory to explain how he’s actually playing the same guy in both movies.
San Andreas review rating

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