Fourteen years. That’s the amount of time it takes the American metabolism to process national tragedy into pure corn. “San Andreas” is hardly the first Hollywood action movie to draw upon the images seared into our collective consciousness on September 11, 2001, but it may be the most glib and cynical yet.
Echoes of 9/11 are everywhere, beginning with the fact that Dwayne Johnson’s protagonist is a disaster-rescue specialist, a kind of super-first responder, who learned his trade in Afghanistan. His marriage to Carla Gugino was fractured by the drowning death of their daughter — in one of the tender moments Carlton Cuse’s script roughly crams between action setpieces, he recalls “the look on her face when she knew I couldn’t save her” — but the peril in which the movie’s massive earthquake places their surviving daughter (“True Detective’s” Alexandra Daddario) gives him a chance to relive the past and get it right this time, much as “San Andreas” allows us to relive primal trauma as weightless spectacle. It’s a movie where the question “What now?” uttered as smoke is still rising from the rubble of San Francisco, actually has an answer.
The trouble with evoking 9/11 in the context of “San Andreas” is that the movie plainly doesn’t care about anyone except its small handful of protagonist — and neither, for most of the film, does Johnson’s character. There’s an opening scene in which he rescues one woman whose car is thrown off a mountainside road by an early tremor, and one where he coaxes a group of strangers to take shelter against the walls of a baseball stadium, mainly so he can advise them that the best way to weather a disaster is to “Get up against something sturdy.” (In case the metaphor wasn’t clear enough, the line is followed by Gugino glancing moistly at Johnson’s brick-like torso.) But for the rest of the movie, Johnson only has eyes for his estranged wife and daughter, speeding past fleeing civilians without a backwards glance as he rushes to save his own. There may be another metaphor here about the U.S. protecting its own interests while glibly ignoring the rest of the world, but if so, it’s an inadvertent one. Frightening as it is to use a Michael Bay movie as a positive counterpart, “San Andreas” actually falls short of Bay’s “Pearl Harbor,” which at least made an effort to show the impact of widespread destruction on ordinary lives. That’s not, to be clear, to say that “San Andreas” is never enjoyable: It does have The Rock, after all. But it is never not dumb as dirt.
“San Andreas” confines its recognition of the toll its literally world-shaking events take on non-movie stars to a single montage, so fleeting in its brief sincerity that it might better have been excluded. Apart from that, it’s a movie where buildings crumble and the earth opens but the only blood comes from flesh wounds, mostly superficial scratches strategically placed so as not to mar its stars’ faces. It’s a 9/11 movie where the cameras never get closer than those first shots of the Twin Towers falling, where (presumably) millions die but thank God it’s no one we know. If this is what mining our great collective horror has come to, it’s time to dig somewhere else.
Reviews of “San Andreas”
A.O. Scott, New York TImes
The most disturbing thing about this may be how dull and routine it seems. Computer-generated imagery can produce remarkably detailed vistas of disaster — bridges and buildings collapsing; giant ships flung onto urban streets; beloved landmarks pulverized — but the technology also has a way of stripping such spectacles of impact and interest. And we have seen so many of them recently that it’s hard not to shrug, stifle a yawn and reach for the popcorn when the Golden Gate Bridge once again buckles and sways and drops vehicles into the bay.
Ed Gonzales, Slant
Where Godzilla’s recent dance with MUTO on the streets of San Francisco was staged as a lament, San Andreas‘s soullessly thrilling orgy of devastation merely suggests the fulfillment of a contract obligation. As Ray hopscotches between copter, plane, and boat on his way to his daughter, the world completely falling apart around them, the film passes by as an impressively mounted series of CGI curlicues. The screenplay abounds in howlers, none more instructive than Ioan Gruffudd, as Emma’s rich beau, proclaiming that he never had kids because he was “raising” tall buildings. The film, then, uses mass destruction as a backdrop to the reintegration of the nuclear family; the interloper, naturally, gets his just deserts. But it becomes risible as another kind of allegory, ludicrously conflating the realization of the filmmakers’ gleeful thirst for carnage with our country’s own skill at rebuilding its defenses. In the end, San Andreas‘s greatest fault is its cynical and arrogant correlation of Hollywood and American values.
Matt Singer, ScreenCrush
The great disaster movies are about the people fighting to survive amidst overwhelming chaos. When Peyton pulls back to watch whole cities fall to the ground, San Andreas becomes just another empty CGI spectacle.
Matt Prigge, Metro
It’s all sanitized cataclysms, of course, because watching thousands, perhaps millions, perishing amidst unimaginable destruction would be profoundly unpleasant. But movies about mass genocide like this — or “2012,” or any movie that levels cities but does so without bloodshed — are a surreal kind of questionable. We don’t see bodies being destroyed; we just see buildings. Even the one character the movie wants you to want to see is taken out modestly, blink-and-you-miss-it. No other character is in any real danger, so there’s no need to get too worried when you see entire buildings torn apart like movie tickets then tumbling upon running pedestrians below.