It’s not a matter of if; it’s when…In reality, seismologists have expressed that in reference to the San Andreas fault and a big earthquake in California for some time now, and San Andreas the movie brings home this point most chillingly. Actually, I came out of the film with teeth sore from clenching my jaw for pretty much the whole two hours.
It’s not all about special effects. The film does a good job in weaving back and forth between the small dramas of normal everyday life and disaster scenes. It gives us enough information about the main characters to make us care about them. Right from the start is a hair-raising scene in which Ray (Johnson) of the LA Fire Department’s search and rescue squad is in a helicopter being challenged to rescue a driver whose car went off the road over a steep cliff and lodged in a vertical position between boulders. Then we learn a bit about Ray’s personal life; he’s looking forward to spending the weekend with his daughter Blake (Daddario) before she goes back to school. However, those plans are interrupted by an earthquake in Nevada, where he is called to for rescue work, and at the same time, receives disappointing news from his estranged wife Emma (Gugino).
Ray, Emma, and Blake are all going their separate ways, and how they get back together when disaster hits is some fine story telling. Along her way, Blake picks up two brothers from London who add interest and acts of bravery, which is then contrasted with the wimping out of someone else.
Another story line related to the earthquakes involves Cal Tech seismologists who are excited to learn that their research is heightening their ability to predict earthquakes in advance. Lawrence (Giamatti) and his team are just on the verge of warning the citizens of Nevada about an impending quake, when it actually starts occurring. When he narrowly escapes, makes it back to his lab, and begins looking at the data, Lawrence begins to figure out that the Nevada quake is related to the San Andreas fault, and will be spreading to California; and this time he has a chance to warn everyone.
Special effects in San Andreas seem to me to be exceptionally good—spectacular and authentic-looking at the same time (although I hear we can't always trust the science it imparts). Traumatic crises are practically non-stop, but they don’t seem gratuitous, as is often characteristic of special effects films. Director Brad Peyton, Cinematographer Steve Yedlin, the actors, and the other filmmakers should be very proud of how well crafted and emotionally satisfying their work is here.
In some ways, it feels good to be given a preview of an event that could very well occur. You’ll feel almost as if you’ve actually been through an earthquake after leaving the theater. The characters bring home how important practical knowledge (CPR, wound care), problem-solving (innovation and ingenuity in adapting materials at hand), and reasoning through stumbling blocks while remaining calm could very well mean the difference between life and death.
Dwayne Johnson is a perfect star for a film like this; you just look at him and feel confidence. (And he likewise performs just as well in emotional-laden conversations.) Yes, the movie is a little heavy in depicting his superman qualities. It was very clever to show how much his character had taught his daughter (i.e., not a son) in responding to emergencies. When Blake is with her two new companions, each has the opportunity to be smart and helpful in getting through tough situations. Likewise, Emma (wife and mother) is given the opportunity to be smart and heroic. Giamatti is always a wondrous actor, and here he restores our faith in scientists to care as well as be smart.
The bottom line of all this is that disasters pull for collaboration and trust among those involved, although not everyone responds optimally. For those who do, it is truly a rewarding human experience.
A must for everyone up to the tension.