The Rock beats down an earthquake in the ridiculously irresponsible San Andreas

The cynicism that overwhelms San Andreas is so maddening that its Americana puff-piece bullshit appears laughable, until three-quarters through the film when its disrespect for its audience takes a darker twist into obvious disdain, and we are expected to swallow the worst sort of fact-free propaganda without question.

Everything about San Andreas – from the gym-twisted, face-lifted, breast-augmented beauty of the American nuclear family, to death and destruction as a societal cleanse – is inhuman in a disturbing way that positions America as it should be over the America that is. We’ve always loved seeing the bad guy judged by nature, but this takes on a new twist in San Andreas where humanity is wiped out as a precursor to building something bigger and better. Ironically, Paul Giamatti’s scientist finds a way to predict the oncoming fault line activity, so we’re saved from the horrible probability that scientists predicting natural disasters today might be right. But he can exact reckoning on “nature” which, coupled with the deaths of the bad guys (particularly the interloper in the American nuclear family), gives the earthquake the feel of catharsis rather than tragedy, and an opportunity to enlist all that volcanic adaptability that lies underneath our dependence on iPhones. Sure, millions and millions and millions of people are dead, but Ray and Emma are back together and ready to rebuild. Cue fist bump.

Brad Peyton (Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) doesn’t have a great directorial history, exemplified in the marked-down San Andreas being his most critically successful film to date. With this film anti-contribution, divorce negotiations become the primary storyline against the biggest natural disaster in the history of the world, which serves as a vehicle for renewal and preserving American values. The opening scenes – in which a blonde, blossoming woman texts as she drives her car around cliff hugging roads – find her rocked off the road by nature (read “God”) where she teeters dangerously in a fissure waiting for her rescue. This opener serves to plunge us into the ensuing human story of young, beautiful lives lost in the forthcoming earthquake, but more importantly to posit said danger against the abilities of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to punch the fault line into submission.

Ray (Johnson) is a humble flight rescuer whose outstanding wisdom is exceeded by the vein count in his limbs and his ability to fly a helicopter into canyons a metre wide. As he rescues the blonde, we’re plunged into a hodge-podge of a side story starring Paul (why on earth did I say yes to this?) Giamatti as Lawrence the scientist and Archie (I can’t believe I left The Good Wife) Punjabi as Serena the journalist, and the poorly presented science behind fault line analysis and quake prediction.

It’s an odd line to take, having a bunch of scientists and captivated journalists interested in predicting quakes while the buildings are falling down around them, but it serves in absence of a (no doubt preferred) blame narrative. This story runs alongside the absurd family therapy one about the Gaines’ family reconciliation. If it takes an earthquake this size to get these folks talking, let’s hope they don’t find life too overwhelming ever again.

But it’s all sleazy, campy fun until the film abandons the quake narrative and indulges in a “one sibling drowned, now another might” therapy session that insists on ignoring the human tragedy around them. Blake Gaines (Alexandra Daddario) is still out there, and her suffering eclipses all others. The film can’t ignore that Ray is a professional rescuer who abandons his post to save his family and then chat on a distant hillside, ignoring all the people in the crumbling city still close to death, yet it tries. As the now reunited Ray and Emma scour the city for their daughter (and her new hot lover, Hugo Johnstone-Burt and his precocious sibling, Art Parkinson) gone is the human suffering, only to be replaced by the worst, most cynical CGI that almost rescues the pair from appearing to be a cartoon in a boat floating around San Fran, but not quite. The only necessary theme in a disaster movie is the disaster itself, and yet Peyton abandons the popcorn movie ethic to indulge in the worst white family values story line, as if the disaster no longer affects them. If the CGI wasn’t cynical enough, it is usurped by a script by Carlton Cuse (Lost), who one supposes added his name for a fee given the lack of interest in character and plot. The amount of times Paul Giamatti stares at the camera and says “this isn’t good” forces one to question the nature of his point.

But perhaps most offensive of all, is the timing of San Andreas. Americans know to delay the release of certain films in the wake of cinema shootings, or terrible tragedies such as Hurricane Katrina or 9/11, but no such respect is afforded the sufferers of the Nepal earthquakes. San Andreas was released less than a month after over 8,800 deaths occurred in that country, plunging their devastating figures into nothingness. Bigger, better, more is the mantra of the popcorn movie, and in the case of San Andreas, that is its greatest tragedy.

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