I spent off and on the greater part of a year working in the San Fernando Valley in California, and I apparently missed the interesting part. This movie opens with Natalie (Morgan Griffin) driving treacherously along a treacherous canyon road in San Fernando Valley. She is driving around some mean stretches facing oncoming traffic and definitely not paying attention. She’s driving with one hand while fishing in her hand bag (on the floor) for a water bottle. Next we see her looking at pictures on her cell phone and ignoring the approaching vehicle. This is not going to end well.
It doesn’t, but for reasons unexpected. It’s a nice way to start an adventure movie. Rocks come crashing down onto the road from the cliff above, and Natalie’s car crashes through the barricade and tumbles end over end into the canyon, finally snagging precariously, by possibly the rear axle, on a rock cropping. A bottomless drop awaits Natalie and what’s left of her car. She’s gone for sure.
Not so fast. It’s Chief Raymond “Ray” Gaines (Dwayne Johnson), Los Angeles Fire Department helicopter rescue pilot and his fearless crew to the rescue. Ray pilots the helicopter into an impossible location while two others rappel down and rescue Natalie, an instant before her car plunges to its doom. And that’s the start of the movie San Andreas. And it’s got nothing to do with the plot except to introduce the extraordinary qualities of rescue pilot Ray.
With a title like San Andreas, you know this is going to be about earthquakes. And knowing anything about the San Andreas Fault, you know this is going to be the mother of all earthquakes. And it is. Images are from my DVD, and details are from Wikipedia. This came out in 2015, distributed by Warner Brothers, which, by the way, is headquartered in the San Fernando Valley.
I am not going to recap the plot. I will just give the flavor and some images. It’s this: Ray’s wife, Emma (Carla Gugino) is leaving him for rich architect Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffudd). She has moved in with her new love. That leaves Ray all alone, as his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) flies off to San Francisco in Daniel’s corporate jet.
Meanwhile the Big One is about to break. Caltech seismologist Dr. Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) and his associate, Dr. Kim Park (Will Yun Lee), have developed a way to detect incipient earthquakes by measuring magnetic anomalies. They succeed beyond their wildest expectations. While at the Hoover Dam to take measurements, it happens. There goes the dam plus the newly-constructed bridge across the canyon. Dr. Park’s last act is to save a young girl trapped on the dam.
The whole of SoCal begins to unzip, starting with Los Angeles. Emma is having lunch in a high rise when it starts to shake apart. A quick phone call to Ray gets him coming in a commandeered helicopter to rescue her from the top of the collapsing building.
They are not out of the woods yet. Daughter Blake is at the building housing Daniel’s company in San Francisco when the shit hits the fan. She becomes trapped in the company limousine when the building starts to come down. Daniel exits the car, leaving Blake to fend for herself. Two brothers, Ben Taylor (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and Ollie Taylor (Art Parkinson), whom Blake met just minutes before, come to the rescue, and they begin an adventure of survival together. A phone conversation with her father convinces the trio to seek high ground while all others in the city are heading for the supposed safety of the docks. Bad news. A large ocean wave swallows San Francisco, leaving Blake and Emma to rescue the daughter and her new boyfriend plus his brother from a half-submerged high rise.
The movie ends with Ray and his new extended family taking in the devastation from the north peninsula. They will begin to rebuild.
What’s wrong with this movie is the ceaseless string of miraculous survivals. To wit:
- Ray rescues Emma as she survives near miss after near miss atop the collapsing building.
- Ben is able to obtain the tire jack from the trunk of the limo and pry up the beam pinning the car, just in time to get them out of the collapsing building.
- Ray’s purloined helicopter experiences engine trouble, and he crashes it on a parking lot, smashing through a store window. Nobody is injured.
- Looting is going on, and Ray steals a looter’s truck and scoots along the highway to San Francisco, almost driving into the gaping void of the San Andreas Fault. The couple who warned him of the danger point to a place where Ray can steal an airplane.
- Ray and Emma have to bail out of the airplane, coming to ground inside AT&T ballpark, since there is no place to land the plane.
- They steal a rescue boat and evade the incoming ocean wave just in time by motoring out to sea, beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, about to become history.
- A cargo ship is flipped by the wave, almost crashing onto the boat and dumping cargo containers all around them.
- Arriving back in the flooded city, they locate the trapped daughter and friends inside a building that’s filling up with water. Blake is drowning.
- As Ray rescues Blake from a flooded room, Emma crashes the boat through a glass window, just in time for everybody to scramble aboard and exit as the building collapses.
Also, the business about the ocean wave is all wrong. Ray notices the water leaving the harbor, the sign of the approaching wave. Then the wave comes and floods the city. But it does not subside. All that water that was flooding Nob Hill hangs around throughout most of the remainder of the movie when by all rights it should have subsided back into the ocean just a few feet away. Some serious principles of physics have been ignored.
This is special effects and high adventure coupled with human drama, with the emphasis on special effects. And the special effects are definitely special. Civilization is realistically destroyed right before your eyes, and it’s all believable.