Some links before we get ourselves started. Norma reviewed this same film at her blog today. Parsnip had a Square Dog Friday.Eve wrote about cool versus hot. Lorelei had a medium encounter. Lynne featured ducks. And Ivy had a true or false question.
Today I have a movie review.
Let it not be said that the Hollywood sign doesn’t meet bad ends in disaster flicks. San Andreas roared into theatres this weekend, unleashing an epic sized earthquake in California (the sort of quake that’s going to happen sooner or later, of course, and you might want to stay away from there when it does). It’s a big disaster spectacle, with lots of destruction, special effects that work quite well, and actors turning up in the required stock roles that disaster films insist on having. There’ll always be a dirtbag who deserves what he’s going to get, a wise scientist trying to reason with belligerent people, and a hero with family issues. And while it takes liberties with science and has a few plotholes you could toss a collapsing freeway through, it’s a big bang of a summer film.
The hero of the tale is Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson), an L.A. fire department helicopter pilot; a much more useful skill set than being an accountant in a disaster film. An early scene establishes him as a capable and calm under pressure pilot during a rescue. His family dynamics give the film its human touch- his marriage to Emma (Carla Gugino) is over, and she’s involved with a developer, Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd). His daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) is up in San Francisco and not on the best of terms with him.
Of course, it doesn’t take long before the state is hammered by that long overdue quake. The fault line gets cranky along the length of the state, putting millions into jeopardy, causing massive destruction, and making life difficult for pampered celebrities in Beverly Hills (no big loss). Ray’s called into action (sometimes seeming to be the only emergency responder in sight) and is determined to find his daughter and bring her to safety. What turns the genre around is unexpected- his ex-wife chooses to join in his efforts. From there, the film unfolds on a large stage of destruction, peril, and people caught between living and dying.
The film comes from director Brad Peyton, whose work started with film shorts, and who had worked with Johnson before on the film Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. The story both deals with the larger scope of a massive quake and the personal story of people, as you might expect in disaster films, concentrating on the ordeals of this one family and generating empathy for them. Shot on location in Australia and California, the film brings in special effects in a big way, and yet centers itself in the humanity of that family.
And the special effects are well rendered indeed. Hollywood has seemed to have a thing for destroying itself in movies going back all the way to the Thirties, but the technology has caught up in a way that a magnitude quake of this size looks like it's being carried out on screen. Buildings are destroyed. Cities are leveled. One of the more spectacular sequences involves the Hoover Dam. The decimation of streetscapes appears quite real, more so then when you see the disaster films of the Seventies that dealt with quakes and other disasters. And yet at the same time, the film downplays the destruction- to fully convey the death toll of such a quake would end up in a film that wouldn't be a popcorn summer film, but would result in the audience throwing up and feeling nauseous. The effects do come across used right- it feels and sounds like the characters are in a massive quake (albeit with some scientific inaccuracies) and the dangers that presents both during and after are well rendered, if exaggerated.
The casting is nicely chosen. Ioan Gruffudd has played better men in films like Amazing Grace, King Arthur, and the Fantastic Four films, but here he's playing something else entirely. Daniel might seem superficially charming, successful as a developer, but there's a sleazeball and weasel under the surface, and that shows in the choices he makes and the actions he commits himself to. He's inherently selfish and underhanded, and that comes through Gruffudd's performance.
This is the first time I've seen Alexandra Daddario in anything, but I liked her as Blake. There's tension between the character and her father- given the family dynamics, that's to be expected. And yet when trouble strikes, she's not quite the sort who waits to be rescued. She shows herself to be entirely capable in and of herself. Her take on the character worked for me.
Paul Giamatti gets to be the Smartest Man In The Movie (a role often played these days by Michael Caine). He's the seismologist Lawrence Hayes, who has been part of a team working to understand and perhaps predict the behaviour of quakes. He's something of a narrative voice for the film, the wise sage who knows the sky's falling (unlike Chicken Little, who merely says the sky's falling) and only too late is his word heeded. Giamatti's one of those great character actors who elevates a movie just by being in it. Tied into his part of the story is a sympathetic and helpful journalist, Serena (Archie Panjabi, who's spent a lot of time on a show I've never seen, The Good Wife). This is the first I've seen of her in anything too, but she plays the character as calm under pressure.
Carla Gugino has been in a great variety of film and television roles down through the years, and what I've seen her in, I've liked her work. During interviews for this film, she noted that she learned the hard way not to sleep naked in earthquake country. Her character Emma starts out in one place when we meet her in terms of relationship dynamics, and she plays to that, particularly in early interaction with her ex, Ray. And yet when the worst happens, she comes into her own and takes initiative, which I liked- another director would have been content to sideline the character and have her simply wish the hero good luck from some safe spot after being rescued. Instead Emma faces the danger, driven by a mother's instincts, and that shifts the dynamics and the way she and Ray relate to each other. They become partners in a shared cause, and in doing so mend the differences between them, and Gugino takes all of these elements into account in how she plays the character.
Dwayne Johnson is well cast as Ray. He's already got the tough guy aspect tied down in his work as an actor, but what I like here is that he conveys the professionalism, efficiency, and calm under pressure mentality you would expect out of a fire fighter and rescue pilot. The character is steadfast in the face of cataclysm, but also quite human too, both trying to do his job and also driven by family issues. I haven't seen everything he's done on film, though I did like him in last year's Hercules (which worked despite having one of the worst directors in the industry at the helm). He's likable on the big screen, and has the right kind of presence that we can relate to him.
San Andreas is not the kind of movie that wins Oscars (though it deserves it for the special effects work), but it's not the sort of movie that pretends to be. It's a thoroughly entertaining popcorn summer film, and while it might take liberties with seismology, it's a good reminder that one day a monster quake will hit the region. And perhaps do us all a favour and take Entertainment Tonight permanently off the air.