Saturday, June 06, 2015

San Andreas / *** (PG-13)

Ray: Dwayne Johnson
Emma: Carla Gugino
Blake: Alexandra Daddario
Lawrence: Paul Giamatti
Ben: Hugo Johnstone-Burt
Serena: Archie Panjabi
Ollie: Art Parkinson
Daniel: Ioan Gruffud

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Brad Peyton. Written by Carlton Cuse and Andre Fabrizio & Jeremy Passmore. Running time: 114 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense disaster action and mayhem throughout, and brief strong language).

The disaster flick is a cinematic summer pastime that goes back even further than Spielberg’s supposed creation of the summer blockbuster with his movie “Jaws”. In fact, the 70s were known for a large number of Hollywood disaster pictures. We love disaster flicks. They’re usually bloated, overblown excuses for ridiculous action sequences populated by too many stars—including the ones that have been nominated for Best Picture Oscars—but we can’t stay away from them.

It’s been a few years since the last big budget disaster flick. No, “Sharknado” doesn’t count. I’m talking about theatrical releases and big budgets here. Roland Emmerich ruled the modern disaster flick with movies like “Independence Day” and “The Day After Tomorrow”, but he left a hole when he submitted his sworn last disaster flick “2012”, depicting the supposed end of the world predicted by the end of the Mayan calendar.  Director Brad Peyton (“Journey 2: Mysterious Island”) has filled that hole by placing a big giant hole in the middle of California in the new film “San Andreas”.

“San Andreas” is kind of a slimmed down version of the disaster flick, with a smaller cast of characters and only a couple of big name stars to hold up the foundations crumbling around them. It works pretty well for what it is because of this. Yes, it begins with a ridiculous event related to the plot that introduces the audience to its hero, but that’s to be expected. Peyton seems to be suffering from a 3D directing binge during this opening sequence as well, as he shows us the most 3D car crash and rescue operation anyone has ever seen. None of it looks real, but that’s to be expected.

We meet Ray—played by Dwayne Johnson (“Fast & Furious” films)—a California rescue helicopter pilot who heads a crew that has been together since Afghanistan. Considering their history, screenwriter Carlton Cuse (a veteran television developer and writer behind such shows as “Lost”, “The Returned” and “Bates Motel”) is awfully willing to drop them like a bad habit once the world starts falling apart. This is because he has to show the audience that Johnson is a family man above all else, despite being served divorce papers by his wife, Emma (Carla Gugino, “Spy Kids”). But they’re cool with it; they just couldn’t hold it together after the death of one of their two daughters. Ray can hold it together for his ex to move in with her new boyfriend, millionaire architect Daniel (Ioan Gruffud, “Fantastic Four”). And he can hold it together for Daniel to fly his surviving daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario of the Percy Jackson films) back to Stanford. But, as will happen in a disaster flick, Blake becomes trapped in San Francisco when the big one hits, and Ray and Emma must travel from L.A. together to save her.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. As with every disaster flick there must be one expert on the phenomenon at hand. Paul Giamatti (“Sideways”) plays a seismologist working for CalTech. His team has developed a program that predicts earthquakes. When he loses one of his assistants while testing the program at the Hoover Dam, I have to question just how effective it is. If it really worked, shouldn’t they have known the dam was about to experience a major quake? Ah well, I suppose it worked well enough for the film’s purposes. They were able to tell everyone in San Francisco they were all going to die in time for the world to watch it all happen, and that’s enough to please the news media at large.

I make fun, but “San Andreas” is exactly what it needs to be. It has preposterous action sequences involving helicopters flying through falling skyscrapers, a boat race against a tidal wave and people dying horrifically while the heroes narrowly miss death by just about every means of very heavy things falling on them. The right people die and the right ones survive. You have to be willing to forgive that Ray abandons his job as a rescue pilot at the very moment he’s needed most while taking the valuable resource of an rescue chopper with him. He’s saving his daughter, so it’s OK. I’m sure they’ll forgo the investigation to figure out how an L.A. rescue chopper ended up in Bakersfield during what would’ve been one of the biggest rescue efforts in L.A. history.

So as you can see, it’s difficult not to tear into the plot points of a film like this, but part of the reason for that is because of the fun nature of the venture. It all adds to the enjoyment of what is strictly a summer blockbuster spectacular. There is no depth necessary here. It’s about watching beautiful people placed in monumentally impossible situations in which they either remarkably survive or perish horribly. I guess when I put it that way, it makes one wonder just why we enjoy these types of movie, but enjoy them we do, and this one is utterly enjoyable.

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