RECAP: San Andreas

San Andreas (2015): Brad Peyton

When caught between a Rock and a hard place, the Rock might hug you. So I gathered as I watched San Andreas, the first Hollywood movie to set fire to San Francisco in years, as in 1.04 years, since Godzilla and Mothra gave it a shot in 2014. Brad Peyton reunites with his Grace Kelly–Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. (Aside: How can you be named The Rock and decide to go by Dwayne Johnson?)

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: The San Andreas fault pops The Big One, wrecking much of Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Hero (7/10)

Dwayne Johnson returns as Enormous Strong Man for this EARTH SHAKING ROLE!!!!! This time in the guise of Ray, an employee of the Los Angeles Fire Department. He’s excels at flying helicopters. Presumably he learned this in Afghanistan. Ray also drives about anything with a combustible engine.

During this movie, Ray will drive/pilot a helicopter, airplane, truck, and boat. He will not hesitate to leap from the plane and parachute into the Park That Hosts the San Francisco Giants (which he callously refers to as AT&T Park) when he sees that SFO is unusable as a landing field, allowing the plane to glide into the Pacific when it runs out of fuel.

Ray is a man of large skill sets. But under that big chest beats a big heart. He’s not happy about his ex-wife’s moving in with her new boyfriend, starchitect Daniel Riddick, designer of the soon-to-be sturdiest building in San Fran.

Ray and his ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino) split because Ray couldn’t handle the drowning of their daughter on a rafting trip. The Rock delivers a solid monologue in the middle act about how hard it was to move on. He spends the movie hunting for his other daughter, who is stuck in San Fran with two English brothers after Riddick leaves her to die in a car.

Ray does very strong things, but he really lacks in the humor department. This was my primary gripe with the film: it takes itself far too seriously. They don’t even have opening credits.

Villain (7/10)

Disaster movies are interesting because the main villain is always Mother Nature. But that’s not enough to create a relatable story. Viewers need something more substantial to hold on to. Daniel Riddick is a good example. He gets scared and flees the initial quake. We see him a couple more times, each time more of an asshole than before, until he dies, crushed by a container on the Golden Gate Bridge.

He’s the bad human, but this movie is called San Andreas for a reason: she’s about to blow. Enter Paul Giamatti, a seismologist from Cal Tech who has created a way to predict earthquakes. It starts when the Hoover Dam collapses, killing his colleague and co-inventor of the quake-predicting scheme. There aren’t any faults in Nevada, so we know it’s going to get worse in California.

Los Angeles gets hit first. We get some terrific shots of downtown LA’s ground literally waving. The skyscrapers sway, gas lines blow, and many things combust. Emma, dining in a nice restaurant, tries to get people to the roof, but everyone else is headed downstairs. Some of them literally fall off the side of the collapsing building. Emma gets to the roof just in time for her ex, Ray, to rescue her in the helicopter. More on this scene later.

San Francisco gets hit second, and with a bigger quake, as Giamatti warned. The quake is bad, with similar scenes of destruction and its wake as from LA. But then the tsunami hits.

The wave rolls toward the Golden Gate Bridge, and all the boats in the harbor, including Ray’s. I loved this scene. boats are desperate to reach the wave top before it crests, and juuuuust as Ray and Emma are getting there, they are nearly decapitated by the dying spins of dual propellers on an enormous ocean liner. Containers are falling off the side, and a whole ship careens into the GGB.

Action/Effects (9/10)

Great, great, great effects. San Andreas employed earth-shaking effects, literally, and the bird’s-eye-view shots of L.A. and S.F. were extended and devastating. Equally effective were the long takes. When the quake jolts LA, Emma starts running from door to door, desperate to reach the roof. The ceiling is collapsing, people are falling off the edge, and dozens of extras are screaming and running around as if they were about to die. I believe this was one take.

When Emma reaches the roof it collapses, and when she awakens she must endure another long take running across broken concrete. Tough work for Gugino and crew, but it paid off. These were the most dramatic scenes of the movie. I had to deduct one point for the few times where I noticed the cuts from CGI characters to actors’ characters.

Sidekicks (7/8)

Enter Blake, the tenacious daughter of Ray and Emma. She qualifies as a sidekick only because she is the daughter of The Rock, but she’s practically co-Hero. The English guy she helps says as much post-climax, telling Ray that “She saved us.”

Blake is the relatable character of San Andreas. She’s scared, but not damsel-in-distress scared. Ben, the English guy and his kid brother Ollie do help a sister out when she’s trapped in a car, but she returns the favor by extracting glass from Ben’s leg, finding a radio in a fire truck, and getting some comms devices from a Radio Shack-type place.

Come to think of it, this family does a lot of “borrowing” and not feeling bad about it. Blake follows Ray’s plan, but makes course corrections, and all without dropping a plane in the ocean. She nearly dies, and requires saving by Ray, who is not…gonna…lose another daughter to drowning.

Henchmen (1/8)

We’re splitting hairs here. If San Andreas is the villain, then I guess the tsunami is the henchman? If Mother Nature is the villain, then there’s no henchman. Maybe you can count the guys looting the TVs, who subsequently have their looted truck looted by Ray. OK, maybe Riddick is the henchman? No, he’s as much a victim of the quakes as the thousands of others who die. One point for confusing me enough.

Stunts (1/6)

The best stunt work comes inside the collapsing Riddick Tower, where Blake is trapped underwater and Ray is desperate to save her. I am always amazed by the breath-holding capabilities of cinema’s great heroes.

In San Andreas such characters do not disappoint. In the movie’s first scene Ray and his team dangle from a hilo when saving the woman trapped in her cliff-dangling car. Unfortunately, I think most of the dangerous-looking stuff came to us through courtesy of the computers.

Climax (4/6)

I mentioned it before. Blake nearly drowns in the tower in front of her dad. She was nearly daughter #2 to go down that way. Ray just won’t give up, dammit, and he pumps her chest again and again to bring her back. Twice I actually thought she would die. No really, I did! The filmmakers greatly upped the tension and made the movie about the people and not the destruction.

Jokes (0/4)

None. No, wait, I remember one. The girl from the opening scene, she keeps looking away from the road, and you think she’ll smash into oncoming traffic, but she falls off the cliff when the first quake hits. That was unexpected, and funny. No jokes after that. Oh wait, there was another one, when Emma calls Daniel to use the one f-bomb allowed in PG-13 movies. That was pretty good. And the second base joke made me chuckle. Its predictability nearly ruined it though.

Setting (4/4)

When a movie gets titled San Andreas, it’s gonna be in California. That state is home to two world-class, world-famous cities with iconic skylines, so it is ripe for destruction. This movie would not work as well if the fault ran near Houston or Denver. On a macro scale the movie gets high marks. I liked the climax taking place inside the building designed by the cowardly Daniel Riddick. It could have been any building. I also enjoyed the Ray and Emma parachute landing in AT&T Park. The setting neither made nor broke the movie.

Commentary (0/2)

Little overt statements here. Rich people are jerks. Firemen are helpful. Stores will be looted by gun-wielding assholes during a crisis. This last qualifies as the most provocative aspect. Ray states that they will rebuild after the quake. His statement is something we need to say to ourselves now, before our infrastructure crumbles from another actual disaster.

Offensiveness (-1/-2)

Aside from the standard California-is-mostly-populated-by-white-people crap, San Andreas avoids offending. But that first thing is so endemic to Hollywood that it’s hard sometimes to remember that it exists. The movie uses more English characters than non-white characters, in California, a state without racial majority. I mean, come on.


  • San Andreas deserves (1) bonus point for its excellent use of big sets and solid cinematography. They did not resort to cheap editing for thrills.
  • Minus (-1) for being so woefully unfunny. Paul Giamatti was funnier by accident that the intentional jokes, mostly because he’s Paul Giamatti, but, as they say in sports, a win is a win. A joke is a joke.
  • Minus (-1) for Ray so casually pilfering motor vehicles. He’s not that kind of guy, but showed no remorse for it.

Summary (38/68): 56%

The good news: San Andreas ranks very highly on the best earthquake movies. The bad news: There’s maybe eight of those. It’s effects are interesting enough to warrant a big-screen viewing, but I don’t think it will hold well on your TV.