As a lifelong fan of disaster movies whose obsession with the genre began when, aged ten, I was taken to see The Poseidon Adventure and had what I retrospectively think of as my first existential realisation that we are all going to die, probably in a capsized luxury liner, I no longer trust my own critical judgement when it comes to this durable cinematic genre. As such, I think I may enjoy San Andreas more than most critics. But what do critics know anyway? These special-effects spectaculars were always aimed squarely at popcorn-spilling audiences and though they topped the box office during that first boom in the 1970s, they rarely scared up awards, unless they had a particularly good theme song.
My appreciation for the mechanics of this most heavily formatted genre was founded during those first wave of 70s disaster movies, a time when the big studios competed to outdo each other in terms of high-end catastrophe and star-name gravitas. (Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Charlton Heston, Jack Lemmon, Ava Gardner, Shelley Winters, William Holden, all got sweaty and dishevelled in disaster movies.) After The Poseidon Adventure came The Towering Inferno, and, in the same year, Earthquake and Airport ’75. What you might call Peak Disaster.
Earthquake, which depicted Los Angeles on the receiving end of a 9.9 tremor on the Richter scale, was exhibited in Sensurround, a gimmick involving low bass-frequency speakers installed in some theatres to simulate seismic rumble – it famously caused bits of one LA cinema’s ceiling to come down. The second wave of disaster flicks erupted in the 90s when technology allowed more realistic catastrophes. However, the wattage of star name dimmed a little, because who could really compete with the kind of industrial light and magic found in Twister or The Day after Tomorrow, or even Titanic, which made stars of its young leads?
In comparison, San Andreas is a steroid-assisted refit that employs state-of-the-art digital artistry and 3D to plunge us into the midst of collapsing skyscrapers, caused by what Paul Giamatti’s ignored boffin notes is “the largest magnitude quake in recorded history.”
With the geological stakes higher than ever before, an implicit death toll in the hundreds of thousands and a pulverised Hoover Dam just the appetiser, this vast thrill ride’s emotional focus is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as a search-and-rescue helicopter pilot whose first call to action is to save a young woman when her car falls into a crack after a pre-quake warning. The meat of the film is Johnson’s personal mission to save his estranged wife (Carla Gugino) and their daughter (Alexandra Daddario, whom you may know from the Percy Jackson films), who, in tune with more enlightened times, is anything but a damsel in distress.
Yes, the committee-written script treads an indistinct line between sincere and ironic, but the relatively inexperienced Brad Peyton (who made Journey 2 the Mysterious Island, also starring Johnson) directs with a creditable sense of visual crescendo. Nothing is subtle, and boxes are ticked – but refunds would be demanded by the “catastrophile” if not. I’m not sure what Kylie Minogue did to deserve the brevity of her cameo, but at least Ioan Gruffudd gets more to do as a cowardly architect who’s basically a carbon copy of Richard Chamberlain’s dodgy engineer from The Towering Inferno, whose selfishness seals his fiery fate. It’s been decades since disaster movies attracted the biggest stars in the world, but there are some interesting casting choices here, with Archie Panjabi (The Good Wife) as a journalist and Art Parkinson (Game of Thrones) as the movie’s statutory gutsy young boy.
But it’s Johnson, a human edifice, who holds up the film. He’s equal to the preposterous destruction all around him, whether in the air, or on sea (did I forget to mention that two massive quakes, not one, inevitably lead to a tsunami?), or delivering sledgehammer lines as if he really believed them (“I’m gonna get you out … We gotta get over it before it crests … ”). It surely helps, as landmarks from the Hollywood sign to the Golden Gate Bridge are rendered into matchwood by digital wizardry that needs a new sliding scale to be measured by.
I loved it. But you simply cannot trust me. I loved Airport ’79: the Concorde and When Time Ran Out, too.