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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Movie Review: 'San Andreas'

San Andreas is big, loud, summer disaster fun, but is that enough to see it?

Review by Matt Cummings

Disaster films are always best viewed with the most minimum of expectations: make it big, make it loud, and hope all of the tearful goodbyes aren't too wincing. And although the human drama and the science behind Director Brad Peyton's San Andreas isn't great, the action is superb and performances good enough to warrant you take a chance.

The LA Fire and Rescue helicopter pilot Ray (Dwayne Johnson) is a hulking figure whose professional accomplishments in Afghanistan and LA are overshadowed by the constant reminder of loss. One of his daughters perished in a rafting accident, which led to a painful divorce that his soon-to-be ex-wife (Carla Gugino) was forced to accept. Since then, Emma has moved in with a well-to-do architect (Ian Gufford), while Ray saves a young woman after an avalanche near LA. This seemingly small event peaks the interest of a Cal Tech seismologist (Paul Giamatti), who's been working on a program to predict earthquakes. He soon realizes that the avalanche is a prelude to a much larger event along the entire San Andreas fault line; when The Big One arrives, the effects from LA to San Francisco are devastating. As Ray and Emma fly, drive, and boat to SF to save their surviving daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario), they must survive against incredible devastation and overwhelming odds before SF disappears under a massive tsunami.

San Andreas makes no qualms about what it is: an action-packed thrillride with good performances, duct-taped together with too little science to legitimize it or enough character growth to move us. But much like Johnson's 2014 thoroughly enjoyable Hercules, there's enough here that I do love to outweigh its many, many faults. The thing's a textbook summer flick, filled with ridiculous action sequences that do their best to level LA and SF with Hand of God swiftness. Buildings fall, pools crash violently, street lights explode, and tons of people are launched into the air, crushed, and blown away by the series of megaquakes. It proves that great CGI isn't an accident but a commitment each studio either makes or ignores at their own peril.

Andreas also manages to entertain with a team of likeable characters and actors, even if some it is heavy-handed. Daddario is frankly great as the smart pretty girl who ends up doing a lot of the saving. That says a lot for a genre that's always been about strong, smart men rescuing seemingly powerless women, making both Daddario and Gugino functional assets for Peyton to use on his chessboard. Johnson plays stoic hero to a tee, and even stretches his character by getting emotional when Emma drills him about the rafting accident. Even Blake's love interest (Hugo Johnson-Burt) and his younger brother (Art Parkinson) play the comedy strings as well as can be expected.

Giamatti, who does his best serious scientist routine, quietly overwhelms everyone in his scenes, while adding a sort of legitimacy to the story. Put almost anyone else in that role, and the film sinks into the ocean. Peyton's efforts here represent his best mainstream work, demonstrating that he can imagine realistic action and blend it with good (if not great) character development. Blame most of that on Writer Carlton Cuse's rather cliched script. With most of his resume including television - from Lost to Bates Motel - San Andreas does feel like a long television movie. But Cuse and Peyton fashion together a cohesive story with several interesting plot twists and big action set pieces. Once the silly beginning is bypassed for the real action, you'll think it's one long sequence of falling buildings, giant tsunamis, and general death and mayhem.

There's some suggestion that a good 15-20 minutes might have been trimmed in the editing trailer, a common criticism perhaps deserving of several 2015 films. I don't think that a longer cut would have necessarily better, but it's clear that some character development was axed to keep things moving. That's ok when the end result is as fun as this. San Andreas knows it isn't winning awards for cinematic mastery, its massive green-screen experience eating up screen time that pushed the epic 2012 or The Day After Tomorrow well above 2 hours each. San Andreas is here to entertain, not taunt us with "It's your fault, humanity!" soapbox tripe; this is about forces we can't control and the best one can do is strap in for a ride while Johnson's biceps and Daddario's glands entertain.

San Andreas doesn't do anything new, but it does that stuff quite well. Critics will have a field day with its big dummy plot, overly serious science-speak, and general mayhem but that doesn't mean you shouldn't see it. On occasion, films demand your attention (and sometimes criticism) with a brilliant script or incredible performances (hopefully both). San Andreas is neither of those, and it's ok with that. If you can get over the suggestions that our lives in California are going to end soon, it's pure escapist fun.

San Andreas is Rated PG-13 for intense disaster action and mayhem throughout, and brief strong language and has a runtime of 114 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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