Hollywood disaster movies of recent years seem to be increasingly formulaic, and San Andreas is no exception, ticking all of the usual boxes:
- Some disaster or other occurs, allowing the special effects people to try and outdo previous films in the scale and realism of the spectacle they create.
- A classic "competent hero" is caught up in the disaster, and battles through it to achieve his goals.
- The hero has marital problems which are worked out as part of the plot.
- The hero's child is also caught up in the disaster, with her rescue being the main plot driver.
- The hero succeeds in his endeavours after many set-backs, and all the important good guys survive (although one in a minor role is allowed to suffer a heroic, self-sacrificing death).
- There's a bad guy (played by a British actor, as usual) who turns out to be a coward, and dies a satisfyingly nasty death.
Sorry if the last two points are plot spoilers, but such films really only vary in their excuse for the spectacle. The excuse for this one is at least relatively credible in that it concerns the "Big One"; the long-predicted major earthquake along the – you guessed it – San Andreas Fault (SAF) in California, an earlier version of which flattened San Fancisco in 1906. One of equivalent power today would still have a devastating impact despite all of the work done on earthquake-proofing major buildings. While (contrary to the movie) such a massive quake is not yet expected by seismologists, I can't help thinking that the millions of people who live along the SAF must to some degree be in denial, rather like those who live on the flanks of active volcanoes. That could provide an interesting psychological element to a drama, but don't look for it in San Andreas – this is all about the action.
And the action scarcely lets up from start to finish. The CGI really has become very realistic, and if the repeated spectacle of modern skyscrapers collapsing becomes rather repetitive, these are book-ended by a huge dam burst and an impressive tsunami (although I am sceptical that movement along the SAF would result in such a massive tsunami – those happen when an earthquake involving lots of vertical displacement takes place under the ocean floor). While the whole film is about as predictable as tomorrow's sunrise, there's the odd bright spot: the daughter in distress turns out to be a capable young woman who plays a major role in her own survival, and other British actors play minor heroes (I was amused to note that the young man had the kind of perfect English diction that you never hear today). Furthermore, the acting was up to the admittedly limited demands of the plot even by the awesomely muscled Dwayne Johnson as the hero, not much emotional subtlety being required.
Is it worth watching? Sure, the visual spectacle makes it passable popcorn fare (unless you live along the SAF and are of a nervous disposition). A final spoiler: the last exchange in the film is: "What do we do now?" "We rebuild". Yep, I thought, just to see it all levelled again in another century or two….