The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


San Andreas

The problem with modern day disaster movies is that CGI makes them want to be grand and visually spectacular, when story-wise they need to be small and intimate. It's impossible to focus on the millions of people affected by some sort of natural disaster, so movies weave sequences of mass destruction with simplistic plots about guys (and it's always men) stumbling through a series of catastrophes Forrest Gump-style in an effort to save their families. Most recently, the turgid 2012 took this course. Now San Andreas does the same thing – in 3D.

Paul Giamatti plays a Cal Tech professor who specializes in studying earthquakes. Mere moments after discovering that the computer program he designed can predict them, a massive one hits, ripping the Hoover Dam to shreds. Further analysis of the data suggests that there will be an even bigger one, right along the San Andreas Fault. When it does, in fact, arrive, buildings crumble, cracks in the earth emerge, and a tsunami is created. But our hero isn't the professor, it's Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson), a rescue helicopter pilot whose estranged wife Emma (Carla Gugino) is about to move in with her rich new boyfriend, Daniel (Ioan Gruffud). Naturally, Daniel is an ass, because of course he is. Ray's daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario), meanwhile, gets trapped in San Francisco during the quake, so he vows to find and rescue her.

Hmmm...guy whose ex-wife is dating a jerk navigates through a natural disaster to save his child. Where have we seen this before? Oh yeah, 2012.

There's not a shred of originality anywhere in San Andreas. We've seen buildings crumble and fall in other movies. We've seen massive tidal waves pick up cruise ships and slam them around like toy boats in a bathtub. We've seen cars being flopped around as the ground rises up beneath them. And how many times can movies show us the Golden Gate Bridge shaking and collapsing? San Andreas isn't just repetitive because its images of destruction repeat themselves, it's repetitive because it relies on things that other films have already done.

The paint-by-numbers screenplay (by Lost scribe Carlton Cuse) doesn't help. It telegraphs every single plot twist well in advance. You can map out the entire story within the first ten minutes. For example, when architect Daniel says he's building the largest and sturdiest skyscraper in San Francisco, you just know Blake will end up there seeking safety. The way the script layers one over-the-top moment upon another is a bit hokey, as well. Ray and Emma can't simply try to navigate a motor boat up a tidal wave, they also have to dodge shipping containers being hurled over the side of a cargo ship. Severe danger is never enough in a picture like this; everyone has to be facing super-severe danger at every second.

Having said all that, San Andreas is a disaster movie, and does anyone really expect anything different from the genre? All these things are, for better or worse, part and parcel of disaster movies. You're just supposed to sit back and partake of the horrific sights unfolding before you. On this count, the movie is a little more successful. There's no doubt that sequences in San Andreas are thrilling, especially when seen in eye-popping 3D. Holy cow, the 3D here! Many moments are designed to emphasize height or scope, so the impact of the format is substantial, giving the catastrophe scenes an extra sense of oomph. Purely from a visceral level, the film delivers a handful of solidly exciting set pieces best experienced on a large screen.

The actors don't have a lot to do, but they do very little incredibly well. (None of the characters have personalities, just situations that dictate their emotions from scene to scene.) Dwayne Johnson is Dwayne Johnson – dependable, heroic, badass but with a tender side. Carla Gugino gives it her all, daring to do the “ugly cry” in one scene and, in another, delivering the best line of the whole film. Alexandra Daddario (True Detective) manages to avoid being just another “pretty girl in a disaster movie” by emphasizing Blake's sense of preparedness in a crisis. And Paul Giamatti? When is the man ever not good? Never.

San Andreas admittedly doesn't aim very high. It's nothing more than a popcorn movie, designed to offer two hours of mindless thrills. On that level, it's quite passable. Then again, there have got to be some new ideas that disaster movies can be infused with. Given how much attention went into creating realistic visuals here, it's a shame some wasn't given to creating a story that's worthy of them.

( 1/2 out of four)

San Andreas is rated PG-13 for intense disaster action and mayhem throughout, and brief strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 54 minutes.

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