Despite appearances to the contrary, there is a certain amount of artistry that goes into making a natural catastrophe film. It isn’t all about special effects and watching destruction happen en masse, though that is a major component of it. In addition, though, there needs to be a human element that relates the disaster to the struggles and tribulations of a cast of characters that, while not necessarily deep, need to be relatable so that the audience can feel their fear and tension through the characters. This is what San Andreas is so desperately trying to do, but lacks the technical skill to pull off gracefully.
The catastrophe in question is a massive fissure that is working its way along the San Andreas Fault, causing the largest earthquakes in recorded history. Our audience surrogates for this film are Ray (Dwayne Johnson, as generically likeable as ever), his estranged wife Emma, his daughter Blake, and Ben and Ollie, a couple of British boys who get trapped with Blake when the quakes start happening.
The family has personal drama stemming from the death of their eldest daughter in a time before the film’s events, and it uses the family’s internal turmoil to act as a mirror to the external turmoil of the catastrophic events around them. This normally would be a perfectly fine bit of theming and motif work, but the film couches itself into a most tired cliché of the tortured patriarch needing to prove himself to an inept female family. There is an argument to be made that Blake is a strong female presence in the film, acting as a de facto leader when her father is not around, but her entire survival strategy revolves around her father eventually coming to save her. And Ray is such a superman of a father figure that he never has any visible trouble overcoming the obstacles the continuing natural disaster throws his way, any potential for self-doubt overcome by singular determinism. Factor in that Emma’s only emotional responses seem to be worry for her daughter’s safety and swooning over Ray, and you have a cast of archetypes so broad as to be entirely unrelatable, and all tension fizzles out of the film.
It also doesn’t help that the visual effects of this film never quite sell the destruction they purport to represent. The scale of the CGI modeling is impressive, but the way the buildings are rendered feels too clean and polished, creating a layer of surreality that acts as a constant reminder that what you are watching is a computer simulation. The film also doesn’t do a great job of relating the catastrophic landscape shots to the close-ups of the characters’ turmoil. A near-complete absence of wide shots separates the film into two realities wherein a chaos rages outside and a more personal dilemma follows the characters; a cause and effect relationship is there, but it is minimal, as the destruction of notable California architecture doesn’t carry the same weight as the millions of lives theoretically lost that the film neglects to show or allude to.
San Andreas clearly isn’t an ambitious film, seeking only to fill the catastrophe movie niche in a year that appears to be otherwise lacking in a film. It has a likeable star, a barebones plot, and enough special effects to ensure a large enough audience to make its money back. It was an early summer theatrical diversion that will soon be forgotten in the annals of history, so it’s not really that big of a deal that it’s not a very good film. But a good film it still certainly is not, so if you find yourself tempted to give this one a look, I advise against it. There are better ways to spend your time and money.