The human race can still survive whatever is thrown our way
There is a scene in San Andreas, as there is in every other disaster movie of the last decade or so, in which the hero (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) running on foot, just manages to avoid getting squished by a collapsing skyscraper while hundreds of others don’t quite manage to avoid the tons of falling debris.
There is also a scene in San Andreas, as there is in every other disaster movie of the last decade or so, in which the hero’s daughter (Alexandra Daddario), running on foot, just manages to outpace a skyscraper sized tidal wave while hundreds of others are washed away in the torrent.
And there is yet another scene in San Andreas, as there is in every other disaster movie of the last decade or so, in which the hero’s wife (Carla Gugino), running on foot, just manages to traverse the rooftop of a crumbling skyscraper and leap to the safety of a helicopter lifeline while hundreds of others plummet to their doom in the shattered streets below.
You get the point. There is absolutely nothing new in San Andreas, the latest and certainly largest movie from director Brad Peyton. This is a motion picture which shamelessly cuts and pastes from every single disaster film preceding it, from Volcano to Titanic to The Day After Tomorrow. I thought about suggesting we make a drinking game out of spotting all the references to previous films, but then realized that everybody would be absolutely blitzed by the second act, so best not to go there.
The funny thing is, as overly-familiar as the threadbare plot of San Andreas is (anybody who doesn’t figure out who will live and who will die after the first ten minutes should have their movie-going privileges revoked), there’s still something goofily entertaining about it. Part of the credit for that goes to the presence of Dwayne Johnson. With minimal (but slowly getting better) acting skills, he’s successfully managed to craft a persona over the years that appeals to just about everybody. So sure, the movie rehashes a lot of old tropes, but what the heck, The Rock is in it, so that automatically makes it more fun.
But credit also has to go to Peyton and his writers. They had to know they weren’t breaking any new ground with their CGI-filled apocalyptic scenario or the cardboard characters who inhabit it, but they still managed to tweak it here and there just enough to keep it interesting. Take, for instance, a pretty great scene in which the hero and his wife (names aren’t really important in these kinds of movies) are fleeing a tsunami, only to find their escape blocked at the last minute by a second obstacle that catches them, and the audience, completely off guard. It’s a cheap trick, but it works.
Even with its handful of surprises, though, if you’ve seen any disaster flick over the last ten years, you’ve already seen most of San Andreas. You would think with such a well-worn premise, both filmmakers and audiences would have grown tired of these kinds of movies by now, but apparently we haven’t reached that tipping point yet. By all accounts, San Andreas is projected to come in number one at the box office this weekend, ironically knocking Tomorrowland—a film which explicitly criticizes the apocalyptic mindset of movies such as this—out of first place.
Disaster movies have pretty much been around since the beginning of cinema, really coming into their own in the years following World War II. Back then, of course, it was aliens, atom bombs, and other cold war terrors that were going to do us in. As we moved into the economically challenged 1970s, failing airplanes and skyscrapers became the main culprits. By the turn of the century, it was climate change catastrophes spawned by the environmental movement which were haunting our movie screens. These days, it’s often out-of-control technology like ticked off Ultrons which are the source of all our end-time fantasies. Whatever the current societal concern, it seems we have a disaster movie tailor made to go along with it.