Sometimes as critics, we boil a movie down into too few elements. Is San Andreas stupid? Absolutely. Is it cliché? Oh yeah. Is it still pretty fun? Mm-hmm.
A stupid movie can still be fun. A cheesy movie can still be touching at points. A cliché movie can even rely on those cliches to make you smile when it gets clever. San Andreas does all these things. It’s a 90s-style disaster film featuring somewhat modern special effects and centered around a thankfully limited number of central characters.
Ray (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) is the helicopter pilot for an emergency response team. His soon to be ex-wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), has just moved in with a millionaire architect. Their daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario), just wants her family to get back together. California wants to help this happen, so it has three giant earthquakes to help them grow closer. Well, OK, the earthquakes are just forces of nature, but they sure seem built to help Ray and Emma fall for each other all over again.
Wait, three? Don’t worry, a CalTech professor will explain whatever science or lack thereof is behind this. As the audience, we don’t exactly care, but it’s a good chance to see Paul Giamatti do his best Richard Dreyfuss impression.
Ray has to save Emma as Los Angeles falls apart, and then head up to San Francisco to save Blake. The movie switches back and forth very episodically between Ray and Emma’s adventurous road trip, Blake protecting two British tourists, and the Professor looking very sternly into the camera and telling us how seriously we need to take his Richard Dreyfuss impersonation skills- er, sorry, this earthquake.
Disaster movies build tension by following multiple groups of survivors, and the movie gives us three action heroes. Obviously, Johnson is one – the guy playing him is known as The Rock, so that’s a given.
Gugino is thankfully the second action hero. You may recognize her from Watchmen or the currently airing Wayward Pines. Too often, she’s been relegated to supporting roles in films like these and I’m glad she doesn’t play Johnson’s helpless wife. While she follows Ray’s lead, she has both the film’s best line (and terrific use of a PG-13 film’s one swear) as well as the film’s most badass moment.
The third hero is unexpected. Daddario sells us on being Johnson’s daughter by rigging impromptu phones together, scavenging supplies, and pulling debris out of other people’s legs. She is unquestionably the leader of her group.
This is incredibly smart not just for reasons of equal representation, but also because San Andreas is pretty inexpensive for this kind of movie at $110 million (for instance, Avengers: Age of Ultron cost at least $250 million). You get your money’s worth in terms of action. Buildings fall onto helicopters. Bridges fall onto people. Boats fall onto more boats that fall onto bridges that fall onto people that fall onto boats. It’s like an M.C. Escher drawing of endless gravity, but Johnson is winning enough to keep us anchored throughout.
However, the technical elements are limited and when the visual effects budget starts to run out, Daddario’s a better actor than Johnson and Gugino leaves them both in the dust. The two women are the actors the film leans on. Let me just stress this: Carla Gugino absolutely obliterates this movie. There’s a moment later in the film that comes out of nowhere and develops emotion that San Andreas hasn’t earned. That doesn’t matter: Gugino earns it for the film at the drop of a hat in a heartbreakingly human moment. Few actors are powerful enough to chuck an entire cheesy film to the side for a minute and lift all of the movie’s emotional stakes on their shoulders. The film may sell itself on Johnson’s charm and you do get exactly what you expect out of him – he’s nothing if not reliable. Yet this is equally Gugino’s film by the time it’s done. Johnson doesn’t get the “just watch me” moments as an actor that she does.
San Andreas isn’t good, but we shouldn’t judge it as if it wants to be. It’s a movie where Dwayne Johnson talks about finding something sturdy during an earthquake, Carla Gugino looks up at him, and the film hangs there for a second just in case we didn’t get the metaphor that – hey, The Rock’s pretty sturdy, right? It’s not interested in being good. It’s interested in being fun. Luckily, it is.
Mad Max: Fury Road is better. Avengers: Age of Ultron is worse. Tomorrowland is better and worse in equal measure. Going to the theater right now is like going out for ice cream – you really can’t go wrong no matter what you choose. It just depends on your taste.
This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.
1. Does San Andreas have more than one woman in it?
Yes. Carla Gugino plays Emma, Alexandra Daddario plays Blake, and Archie Panjabi plays reporter Serena. There are a variety of other speaking roles that feature women. All in all, I’d say representation is about equal throughout.
2. Do they talk to each other?
Yes. The bulk of the dialogue is between men and women. However, Gugino spends most of her time with Johnson, Daddario spends most of her time leading two men around San Francisco, and Panjabi is paired with Giamatti for most of the film.
3. About something other than a man?
Yes. There is some dialogue about Blake’s two father figures, but for the most part the conversations are disaster-related.
San Andreas passes the Bechdel Test with ease, but it’s interesting in how it pairs off leading women with leading men. I don’t see anything immediately wrong with that – just as the women aren’t speaking to each other for most of the film, save for the two brothers under Blake’s protection, the men aren’t speaking to each other either.
San Andreas treats gender with equality. Every main character who needs to get rescued also gets a chance to rescue someone else, and vice versa.
I’ve mentioned that Gugino has the film’s most badass moment and most badass line. Johnson does a little more than her in terms of action hero territory, but Gugino is the film’s dramatic focus. This keeps the film from becoming strictly about Johnson getting rewarded with his wife. In many ways, San Andreas is about Gugino getting rewarded with her husband. This could be a conscious choice to invert an old trope, or just the byproduct of leaning on the better actor. Either way, it changes the context of what the film’s about. It doesn’t change the fact that Johnson’s the leader when it comes to the two of them.
That’s why I love the treatment of Daddario’s Blake. She gets the most leadership responsibility of anyone in the film. She shields men from falling buildings and oncoming tsunamis instead of the other way around, does emergency first aid, and supports a man over her shoulder so he can keep walking instead of becoming stranded. When Hugo Johnstone-Burt’s Ben is complimented for protecting Daddario’s Blake, he turns right around and corrects the perception: Blake has protected him. San Andreas is not a movie for subtlety and it all but hangs bright, flashing lights around this moment.
A film like this could’ve limited heroic agency to Dwayne Johnson and no one would’ve batted an eyelash. Instead, Gugino and Daddario boast just as much heroic agency and leadership as he does.
It isn’t directly taking down the patriarchy a la Mad Max: Fury Road, but San Andreas is much better representation than I expected to see. It continues an unexpected run of summer movies that don’t see a difference between women and men in leading action roles.
Are you planning to see San Andreas, or are you sick of disaster movies?