While watching San Andreas, I was reminded of Stanley Kubrick’s pithy take on Schindler’s List. "The Holocaust is about six million people who got killed," he told screenwriter Frederic Raphael. "Schindler’s List is about 600 who didn’t."
The line sprang to mind during a supposedly humorous moment in San Andreas’s carnival of carnage. A character who we have seen behaving loutishly—he abandoned his girlfriend’s daughter in a collapsing basement and tossed a man from his hiding space into the path of oncoming debris—as California is ripped apart by the eponymous fault line is crushed by a container ship swept into the Golden Gate Bridge.
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The shot is played for laughs and cheers; we’re supposed to be happy that this man has died. But the scene continues: we see hundreds, thousands more washed away. An elderly couple gripping each other in one last loving embrace. Panicked people purposelessly fleeing. So many deaths—but hey, that one guy got his comeuppance and the family we’ve followed for the rest of the film survives. So who cares?
San Andreas turns horror on an unimaginable scale into light entertainment. Pass the popcorn!
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson stars as Ray, a helicopter rescue pilot whose soon-to-be-ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino) is planning on moving in with Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gufford), a prominent real estate mogul building the biggest, strongest high rise in San Francisco. It is to that high rise that Ray and Emma’s daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario) will flee as the city crumbles around her.
Meanwhile, in the B-plot, the head of seismic sciences (or whatever) at CalTech (Lawrence, played by Paul Giamatti) cracks the earthquake code: He can predict when and where they’re going to happen via magnets (or whatever). Before he can send out the warning, however, a massive quake kills his assistant at the Hoover Dam. This gives Lawrence a personal stake in The Global War on Tremors.
This is all kind of beside the point, of course. The real story in San Andreas is not about love lost and regained, or scientific advances that will help humanity. It’s about stuff falling down real good. And my does stuff fall down! Skyscrapers crumble. Helicopters plummet to the ground. A car careens off a cliff. People stumble and fall and get crushed by chunks of concrete.
It pains me to pan this film, because, generally speaking, I greatly enjoy Johnson’s work. He’s better suited for something like The Rundown or GI Joe: Retaliation, a movie in which his one-liners and manly feats play off a human opponent. Clichés and coolheaded calm in the face of a million dead come off as callous here, however. It just didn’t work for me.
One bright spot is Alexandra Daddario, a fine young talent who burst onto the scene last year during HBO’s True Detective. She puts a human face on the horror emanating from the big screen, and her buoyant personality brightens up an otherwise drab bit of filmmaking. If there’s any justice, she’ll be a big name for years to come.