Disaster films have always been something of a cinematic tradition dating back several decades to films like “The Towering Inferno” and “Earthquake” to more modern entries like “The Day After Tomorrow” and “2012.” Back in the day, they were films that were quite revered, evident by the fact that “The Towering Inferno” garnered eight Oscar nominations, including a nod for Best Picture, while “Earthquake” nabbed four nominations of its own (it also received a special award for its visual effects).
Nowadays, they are seen simply as spectacles, where filmmakers use them as excuses to go as wild with special effects as possible, which basically comes down to putting as much destruction on the screen as they can. This doesn’t mean that they can’t be fun to watch, but it does mean that the superficial elements can’t be the only thing that gets any attention, which brings us to the latest attempt to continue the long-standing tradition, “San Andreas,” a film that once again takes us back to the earthquake-prone city of Los Angeles.
As the film opens, we meet Ray (Dwayne Johnson), a rescue pilot for the city of Los Angeles. His life is a bit hectic at the moment with his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) going off to college and his wife Emma (Carla Gugino) wanting to finalize their divorce, and that’s not to mention the bombshell of learning that both of them are moving in with Emma’s new boyfriend Daniel (Ioan Gruffud), but he tries to take the situation as best he can. Meanwhile, an expert on earthquakes, Lawrence (Paul Giamatti), and his assistant believe that they have come up with a way to predict them, which leads them to test their hypothesis at the Hoover Dam.
However, they get more than they bargained for when a massive earthquake rocks the area, destroying the dam and proving that they were right. As if this disaster weren’t bad enough, the same indicator signs that helped them predict that quake are now showing all along the San Andreas Fault, which spells disaster for the entire area. When the big one does eventually hit, Ray and his family are thrown into a deadly situation that will have them doing whatever it takes to get back to each other.
Like with any disaster film, the special effects are the real star of the show, though back in the 70s, there would be rather impressive casts right beside them that included big names like Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and William Holden. In the last decade or so, we’ve had to settle for names like Dennis Quaid, John Cusack, and, in this most recent disaster flick, Dwayne Johnson. That’s not to say that they’re bad actors, but they’re a far cry from what we used to get with such films. All this is to say that the visual effects have taken over top billing and have pretty much eclipsed the casts when it comes to the disaster genre nowadays.
As for the effects of “San Andreas,” there’s no doubting that they are rather impressive. Everything shakes and breaks apart real good, and the damage and flooding puts you right in the middle of this almost-constant series of disasters. That being said, it does indeed seem like it is happening almost constantly throughout the film, and after a while, it becomes quite tedious sitting through scene after scene of things breaking apart, people running around in a panic, and random people getting killed by falling debris. The film runs for nearly two hours, so you can easily imagine how tiresome and repetitive it gets, which leads right into the film’s main problem.
To offset the scenes of disaster, normally what the filmmakers would do is insert a strong human element into the film so that the audience has something to cling onto throughout whatever terrible ordeal the characters are being forced to deal with. Think back to those people trapped in the burning high-rise in “The Towering Inferno” or the people trapped in the upturned ship in “The Poseidon Adventure” (another star-studded, multi-Oscar nominated film). We cared about the story because the characters are nicely developed and become more than one-dimensional stand-ins trying to survive the worst experience of their lives.
When it comes to “San Andreas,” what we get are flat characters that are given the most basic of set-ups (Ray’s family problems, Blake randomly finding a love interest right before the quake), which the filmmakers mistakenly thought would be enough to make the audience care. However, since they’re given the most basic of outlines, it merely leads to some awkwardly placed and maudlin scenes in which they do their best to play up the deep emotions of the characters. To put it simply, we get those one-dimensional stand-ins that the older movies would usually do their best to avoid, which only goes to assert the dominating force of the special effects.
Indeed those special effects are done well, but unfortunately “San Andreas” is missing its human element and its emotional core, major ingredients that would make this entire destructive endeavor worthwhile. This continues to be a problem with disaster films of recent years, and it once again looks like it’s not going to be remedied anytime soon, so in the meantime, it looks like all we can do is revisit those classics that made this genre such a huge success in the first place, all the while holding out hope that it will be so again somewhere down the line.
“San Andreas” comes to Blu-ray in a 2.4:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of outstanding quality, presenting a sharp picture that does a great job of showing off the almost-constant action of this special effects extravaganza. The 5.1 Dolby Atmos audio is equally impressive, giving you all of the dialogue and numerous sound effects in excellent quality. Overall, the film has been given exceptional treatment, which is all one could ask for when it comes to a massive disaster flick such as this.
Commentary with Director Brad Peyton: Peyton’s commentary is unfortunately rather superficial, offering up little tidbits here and there, but nothing all that informative, so it’s not really worth sitting through.
San Andreas: The Real Fault Line (6 Minutes): An interesting look behind the scenes at some of the big action sequences, including the quake during the restaurant scene and the flooded building near the end of the film.
Dwayne Johnson to the Rescue (9 Minutes): A sort-of continuation of the previous featurette that takes a look at the opening and closing rescue sequences. It too is worth taking a look at.
Scoring the Quake (6 Minutes): A featurette focusing on the music. If this is an area that interests you, then you may find it worthwhile.
Deleted Scenes (5 Minutes): Bits and pieces that were easily cut from the final film.
Gag Reel (1 Minute): A very brief collection of outtakes that aren’t particularly funny.
Stunt Reel (3 Minutes): A collection of behind the scenes material focusing on the stunt crew. Unfortunately it doesn’t show you very much, so it’s not really worth watching.
“San Andreas” may have impressive special effects, but without a well-developed human element or an emotional core, it becomes a rather empty experience that fails to pull the audience into its tale of epic destruction. If the filmmakers had taken the time to develop fully-realized characters instead of disposable stand-ins, then the film might have had some success, but as it is, it’s merely a tedious mishmash of action without a heart.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.
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