I have an affinity for “the world is ending” movies. None of them are very good and they follow the same model, be it Earthquake, The Day After Tomorrow, Independence Day, Armageddon, 2012, Godzilla and now, San Andreas. Disaster strikes, the warnings of smart, nebbishes notwithstanding. Heroes arise, but family comes first, so Charlton Heston, Dennis Quaid, Randy Quaid, Bruce Willis, John Cusack, Aaron Taylor, and The Rock brave the catastrophe to find and/or save their loved ones. It is in these ordeals that frayed relationships are cemented, so much so that often, new and old spouses have to be dispatched. The children are always saved and mankind perseveres. But their surroundings are ravaged. And as they witness the destruction, they say “oh my God” (twice in San Andreas). Just like Leslie Neilsen in The Poseidon Adventure. Well, not exactly. No one says “oh my God” like Neilsen playing it straight.
It’s the ravaging I love most. The cyclones of The Day After Tomorrow thrillingly rip Los Angeles apart, the same city where those moony hippies with their “we love you, aliens” signs get satisfyingly incinerated and Genevieve Bujold’s house on stilts slides into the canyon below. Godzilla quickly stomped Honolulu and Vegas and nearly took down the Golden Gate Bridge, which – in one of the few cool moments – does not survive San Andreas. Armageddon disappoints for any number of reasons, but foremost is the fact that Willis, Affleck and company save the day. That’s no fun and its best moment is when the pre-meteors obliterate Paris.
Same story, same devastation here, but somehow, San Andreas is worse than the others. It’s as if The Rock decided to use this film as his first true test playing sorrow, and boy is that uncomfortable. So uncomfortable that Carla Gugino, playing his wife, appears to be averting her eyes. While The Rock, recalling the pain of losing their daughter white water rafting, tries to squirt a few out, Gugino plays it rather lightly, as if to say, “hey, The Rock, this is just filler until the next shot of a building collapsing. Don’t be so glum.”
And here we are in San Francisco, but for the most part, the stuff we know is left alone. Instead, most of what gets shredded are office buildings, one of which is not even a real building. Give me Coit Tower! Give me some careening cable cars! Give me Alcatraz or at least the Transamerica Pyramid! Nope. Just nondescript skyscrapers falling listlessly into each other.
Finally, the movie has no sense of humor. None. Not an aside, or an inside joke, or even the thrill of watching something cool, like Paris obliterated. It’s dead straight, serious as a heart attack, except when The Rock and Gugino sky dive into second base at AT&T Field and he says, “it’s been a long time since I got to second base with you.” And then you appreciate the film’s dull seriousness.
A final note. The daughter who The Rock and Gugino cover hill and dale to save (Alexandra Daddario, who played Woody Harrelson’s impossibly beautiful mistress in the first season of True Detective) is so buxom and model-like that it feels exploitative. Yes, parents have daughters that grow up to be busty bombshells, but the first time we meet her, she’s splayed out on a chaisse lounge by the pool, Kardashian-like, and you kind of want her to die. Of course, she doesn’t.