Can you believe it’s been over ten years since The Day After Tomorrow became the 21st century’s benchmark for formulaic disaster movies? Back in the days when Jake Gyllenhaal wasn’t yet a box office headliner, Dennis Quaid was somehow still clinging on as one, and the The Rock’s transformation into a Hollywood action star had only recently begun. Whether you think those are positive changes is up to you. Fear not though, as the decade-old formula has been dusted off and beefed up for the CGI-ready days of 2015, and this time around things are getting seismic! San Andreas swaps out “scrawny Gyllenhaal crying about a touch of ropey weather” in favour of “the world’s most-muscular man fighting against the pure physical force of Mother Earth”. It’s as big and brash as they come, laden with more enough than clichés and rubble to fill up the next ten years (hopefully – nobody wants a repeat of 2012).
The plot seeks to check off all the major stereotypes in an unapologetic fashion. You’ve got LAFD Chief Ray Gaines, the dedicated rescue pilot going through a divorce as he’s unable to properly process a family tragedy (check!). There’s his estranged wife, moving into the mansion of her wealthy new partner who may not be the kind-hearted man that he seems (check!). Ray’s daughter is leaving for college, travelling via San Francisco where she meets overly-British siblings Ben and Ollie – one is handsome but “charmingly befuddled”, the other is the jokey and confident younger brother (check!). Meanwhile, Lawrence (a.k.a. Professor of Earthquakes and PhD in Poorly Written Exposition) is the seismic expert that no-one will listen to until it’s all too late (check!). San Andreas is a whopping 9.6 on the cliché scale, the strongest reading ever recorded outside of a romantic comedy.
Thankfully there’s not too much meandering around the set-up before buildings start to collapse and mass casualties ensue, San Andreas pulling no punches with the frantic action along the famous fault. The skylines of Los Angeles and San Francisco are systemically torn to shreds with striking visual effects work. Retaining a crisp sharpness even in the busiest shots of full-scale architectural destruction, the CGI imagery is actually at its weakest when rendering smaller objects (Ray’s helicopter and his other vehicles of choice occasionally looking like video game models). The sound design is equally as impressive, rumbling and crashing as high-rises spectacularly crash into each other, although the bland soundtrack matches the generic narrative.
The cast all do their best with the questionable dialogue provided but there’s no stand-out performances on offer here. Dwayne Johnson continues to prove himself as a likeable leading man alongside the always-reliable Carla Gugino, Paul Giamatti winces his way through proceedings and Alexandra Daddario is functional enough as the daughter in jeopardy.
San Andreas lacks real edge in its shamelessly over the top portrayal of a world-class catastrophe but is undeniably stunning in parts. While utterly predictable and hilariously stereotypical, there’s an element of pure carnage at its core that’s just enough to keep its head above water. It’ll certainly be better experienced on the big screen, so if you’re looking for a vacuous dose of visually awesome, skyscraper-smashing, Pepsi-sponsored disaster action then San Andreas might be worth a cinema trip.
★ ★ ½
San Andreas is on wide release in UK & US Cinemas now.