‘San Andreas’ Review: Shaky on the Fun Scale

29 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘San Andreas’ caught between the Rock and a shaky place.

In most respects “San Andreas” is a textbook case of a smart/dumb disaster flick. Disaster movies, which predate the zeitgeist’s fascination with a world falling apart around us, are always great measures of the state of the Hollywood art of special effects.A movie review of “San Andreas”: This disaster movie, starring Dwayne Johnson, is no masterpiece, but it nicely delivers the computer-generated goods.Johnson (a.k.a. the Rock), the brawny 43-year-old cinematic charmer and smack-down king who stars in the blockbuster disaster film San Andreas, appeared recently on The Tonight Show, where a high school graduation skit he performed with host Jimmy Fallon took its cues from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

The smart stuff is the quaking of the earth along California’s San Andreas fault—whole swarms of colossal shakers summoned up by digital wizardry. In “San Andreas,” you will believe the ground is rippling under Los Angeles, the cracking collapse of the Hoover Dam and a tidal wave that submerges San Francisco.

San Andreas, which casts him as a Los Angeles Fire Department rescue pilot, explodes in theaters even as his megahit Furious 7 continues to roll at the box office. It was 1989 and Johnson, playing a wide-eyed jock and self-confident idiot, told his classmates to “focus on the future,” and that he was going to be “this generation’s O.J. Johnson says the already-hot Furious franchise was propelled to another level with the farewell to standout star Paul Walker, who died in a car crash on Nov. 30, 2013. “It was a lot of different elements coming together at the same time, and the lead element being Paul, seeing him for the very last time,” Johnson told theater owners last month at the CinemaCon convention.

Simpson.” Remember, this was 1989 – pre-white-Bronco Simpson, when the sublimely talented NFL running back hurdled through airports for Hertz and then landed movie roles both dramatic and comic. The sequence of huge earthquakes that will reduce California’s two greatest cities to rubble and slurry hasn’t even started, and we’ve pretty much seen the movie. Paul Giamatti, as a Cal Tech seismologist who has just this minute uncovered a way to predict earthquakes, wears the horror of what he sees and what he knows is to come, in his eyes, wide with terror.

As rescue pilot Ray, the actor now known as Dwayne Johnson employs not just his massive forearms but an impressive array of purloined transportation encompassing planes, cars, boats and parachutes, all in the service of saving his teenage daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) from a devastating earthquake. Still, Johnson added his own star power as Luke Hobbs, with Rentrak analyst Paul Dergarabedian calling him “the ultimate box-office supercharger when added to the mix of existing franchises.” In March, Johnson hosted Saturday Night Live, opening with a skit about being “franchise Viagra.” His films — including the G.I.

Danger and disaster are still a test of masculinity, but the model of masculinity has shifted a little: A new kind of manhood is in vogue, or maybe it’s the old kind with a few moral and epistemological nips and tucks. And the actor nicknamed for a geological feature earns that nickname all over again by being that sturdy force of nature the whole movie is anchored on. Along the way, he reunites with his ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino), saves a random girl from a car dangling vertically from the side of a cliff, and constantly announces, soothingly and against all available evidence, “It’s gonna be OK.” And you believe him, because somewhere along the way over a decade or so of moviemaking, this former wrestler became not quite a nuanced actor, but a relaxed and appealing good-guy screen presence. His character, Ray Gaines, may sound like an expensive pair of photochromic sunglasses, but he’s got the right stuff, working as a helicopter rescue pilot who could probably rescue an actual helicopter if it got into trouble. So as you can already see, “San Andreas” isn’t just pure spectacle, even if it contains some of the best scenes of CGI destruction in the recent Hollywood tradition, delivered with much more weight and realism than in Michael Bay’s mind-numbing “Transformers” movies, for example.

He’s just the right hero to anchor Brad Peyton’s disaster-to-end-all-disasters movie, in which pretty much all of San Francisco and much of California is destroyed in a massive series of earthquakes described as, I think, “seismic swarm activity” by the movie’s resident scientist, Lawrence (Paul Giamatti, collecting what I hope was a very nice paycheck). Next month, he steps into the coveted HBO arena with new series Ballers (premiering June 21), which stars Johnson as a superstar athlete trying to reinvent himself as a financial manager. In the opening scene, he pilots his craft into a gorge to help a motorist who’s been caught in a rockslide. “Just doin’ my job,” he tells the astonished reporter who tagged along.

PG The science may be dodgy in this blockbuster multiplex shaker, in which a series of massive earthquakes hit California, reducing Los Angeles and San Francisco to heaps of teetering skyscrapers and collapsing bridges. Like nearly all Hollywood movies, it carries an ideological message – and like all Hollywood movies in an age where most of Hollywood’s money is made overseas, that message is bafflingly vague. Fire Department’s air rescue unit, a man uniquely set up to save his soon-to-be-ex-wife (Gugino) and college-student daughter (Daddario, of TV’s “True Detective”). There’s a bit of flag-waving towards the end of “San Andreas,” and a passing reference to the idea that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might not have been entirely pointless – because crucible of manhood, something something – but mostly the message is that dad-type guys are still cool in this era of modified gender relations, and the nuclear family can still be redeemed. Johnson believes what he’s seeing — buildings tumbling like dominoes, fires erupting, his chopper crashing, the sea fleeing San Francisco Bay — and we do, too.

It features such clichés as the Heroine Pausing Mid-Disaster to Change Outfits (Ray and Emma make an emergency landing, conveniently, at a gutted-out clothing store), and the Implausible Last-Minute Revival of a Supposedly Dead Person. In addition to playing a heroic helicopter pilot in San Andreas, the still active WWE wrestler stars in a stylish Entourage-like ensemble comedy series set in the world of professional football.

The script and director Brad Peyton (“Journey 2: The Mysterious Island”) never escape the time-honored formula for disaster movies — the warnings, unheeded; the shortsighted builder (Ioan Gruffudd); the disaster-imposed love interest (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) thrown together with the hot coed. Cut from the same cloth, they’re scrappy survivors who pull more than their own weight when things get rough, though they do need Ray to help them make it the last few metres to safety. In between a heavy worldwide promotional schedule for San Andreas (current stop: China), Johnson already has started filming the comedy Central Intelligence with Kevin Hart, in which he plays a lethal but dorky hitman. “Things are great right now, but you’ve got to hustle,” he says. “You have to create opportunities for yourself. This includes the subplot about divorce tearing the family asunder and a smarmy new guy (Ioan Gruffudd) supplanting the stubborn old one in the marital bed.

He was in a relatively minor 4.7 magnitude quake in 2009. “I was right under my chandelier in this large foyer, and all of a sudden it started to shake. There’s the titular geological feature, a strike-slip fault that hasn’t really stretched its legs since 1906 and decides it’s been well behaved for far too long.

Hollywood has long had an almost perverse desire to make films about California catastrophes, at least as far back as San Francisco in 1936, a musical-drama starring Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald that was based on the 1906 earthquake in the Golden Gate City. Previously a hero in Afghanistan and no less heroic in civilian life—“It’s still my job, ma’am,” he says in a cliffhanger of a preface, “I go where they tell me to go”—Ray is a very busy bee once the earthquakes hit. San Andreas employs seamless CGI and 3D effects for an alarmingly convincing depiction of the all-too-plausible scenario of seismic disaster in California, caused by shifting tectonic plates of the San Andreas Fault that crosses the state.

A month ago, Johnson, his longtime girlfriend Lauren Hashian and his 13-year-old daughter Simone (with ex-wife Dany Garcia) practiced quake drills and stocked disaster kits (quirky item: his beloved Pop-Tarts). The real death toll caused by earthquakes of this magnitude — exceeding 9 on the Richter scale — would result in a body count many times higher than could be shown in a movie intended for popcorn audiences.

And that Hollywood’s best craftsfolk at Digital Domain, House of Moves and other effects houses are getting even better at re-creating those worst-case scenarios we love so much — in our movies, at least. Peyton was speaking a couple of years ago about Johnson’s self-assured authority on and off the screen. “You meet Dwayne and you realize right away that he’s Superman.” Or Hercules, as in last year’s loin-clothed epic, in which his acting earned praise, even if Brett Ratner’s direction did not. “Johnson may have been born with screen presence wired into his DNA,” wrote Variety’s Scott Foundas, “but he’s gradually cultivated the skills of a canny actor who knows just how to play to the camera and whose brute physical prowess is cut with a sly self-awareness. He knows how to skydive, how to outwit an incoming tsunami and where to stay safe in a collapsing stadium. (The San Francisco Giants’ overly precious waterfront baseball park is only one of the city’s numerous landmarks to be shredded, squished, blended, sliced and diced.) But everybody else in California can go jump in the state’s suddenly exposed central butt crack, basically, because Ray’s comin’ for his daughter.

Among this movie’s casting oddities we have the fact that Johnson and Gugino are both 43 years old in real life, making them an unusually age-appropriate couple for the movies – while Daddario, who plays their daughter, is 29. Filmmaking technology has clearly come a long way since the extravagant goofiness of the 1974 action thriller “Earthquake,” and plausibility, as “San Andreas” demonstrates, has come a short way. His former wrestling nickname “The Rock” barely describes what a mountain of beefcake this guy is, and Johnson agreeably flexes his muscles on cue.

While I don’t want to go deep on this question, I will also mention the delicate topic that Blake is, um, pretty much white, and does not look not as if she has a father who is part African-American and part Pacific Islander. He’s a great improviser, hot-wiring cars, “borrowing” aircraft and breaking all the rules as he first races to Emma’s aid in L.A. and then to Blake’s in San Francisco. He succeeds in something like the fluffy 2010 comedy-fantasy Tooth Fairy and out-shines one-trick tough guy Vin Diesel in The Fast and The Furious franchise. Not since Arnold Schwarzenegger – who literally tipped his hat to Johnson in 2003’s The Rundown – has an athlete shown such shelf life and versatility.

Blake demonstrates resourcefulness of her own, as she meets-cute and then teams with British engineer Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his precocious kid brother Ollie (Art Parkinson) in a bid to reach higher ground. Last week in London, at the world premiere of San Andreas, Johnson set a Guinness World Record for taking the most selfies – 105 – in under three minutes. Lawrence speaks to the threatened masses through the ready camera of TV journalist (Archie Panjabi as Serena), warning them about the danger of underestimating the wrath of Mother Nature, but it’s always with fatherly concern and a divine blessing. From his early days on Vince McMahon’s wrestling circuit as the Rock, Johnson always appeared to be in on the joke, and to possess a strange combination of mockery and niceness that made him stand out. “Finally – finally! – the Rock has returned to Oshkosh!” he would announce with a beatific glow, affecting not to notice the lusty boos raining down from the citizens of Oshkosh. All by himself, Johnson almost rescued the incomprehensible mess of Richard Kelly’s unfinished magnum opus “Southland Tales” with pure good cheer, playing the dim but endlessly supportive boyfriend to porn star and sports-drink entrepreneur Sarah Michelle Gellar.

During quiet moments between aftershocks, Ray and Emma talk about their relationship and whose fault it was that it fell apart — but not for too long, as they both have much bigger faults to contend with. Trying to reach Blake, they steal almost every type of vehicle known to man, then head for Daniel’s half-finished San Francisco skyscraper, on the assumption that their daughter will make for the tallest, strongest, most ironic place to be rescued. Peyton — who hails from Newfoundland; man from The Rock directs The Rock vs. rocks! — makes good use of 3D in the earthquake and rescue scenes (i.e., all of them). We’re not even quite to June – and this is the next-to-last of the really big summer flicks, with only “Jurassic World” left to go! (What’s that you say? “Ant-Man”?

What it’s really about, if I may borrow a phrase from talk radio, is focus on the family—a focus on Ray’s family that trivializes everything else and turns it into tumbling backdrop. Did you really just admit that you’re gonna be scrunching up the beach towel with your toes, and wishing it wasn’t so long until “Ant-Man”?) There’s a lot more to say about the way that Hollywood is pushing forward into new technical terrain – the effects here are awe-inspiring at times – while sliding backwards in narrative terms and at best sideways when it comes to depicting social reality. I don’t begrudge anyone their desire to melt their brain with this bullshit extravaganza, and don’t begrudge Dwayne Johnson his exorbitant salary.

Meanwhile, a trio of scriptwriters, one of whom produced a TV show called I Shouldn’t Be Alive, manage the most difficult of disaster-movie feats: they make us feel mildly bad about the deaths of thousands of innocents (plus that cad Richard), while keeping us focused and invested in the lives of just five. And in any event no one is dying—you can see that from the conspicuous absence of corpses—because the predictive power of Professor Hayes’s new system has given people ample warning to go somewhere or other, but not to their graves.

Johnson, formerly a superstar of professional wrestling, has the good grace to take himself unseriously. (His first word, as he bursts in on an initial melee, is “Boo!”) “The Scorpion King” was predictably dumber than its predecessors, though that didn’t get in the way of its profitability.

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