Geoscientist Editor Ted Nield reviews the latest geology-related cinema release.
A divorced search and rescue helicopter pilot (Ray, played by Dwayne Johnson) goes in search of his daughter in earthquake-hit San Francisco and is reunited with her and his ex-wife in the process. Yes, the Coast is toast – yet again.
Before I begin I should warn readers that this review contains what many would regard as ‘spoilers’. However, since ‘San Andreas’ delivers precisely zero surprises, I don’t feel very apologetic about them.
Some movies based on natural disasters come with ‘credentials’ (such as ‘Dante’s Peak’ – 1997, which boasted three serious scientific advisers in its credits) and get reviews in Nature. This is not one of those. What it is, however, is a simple, classic summertime disaster movie, duly affirming the usual ‘American values’ of never-say-die resilience and family – with a little pseudoscience chucked in courtesy of the brilliant Paul Giammati as sympathetic CalTech seismologist Lawrence.
Since Chuck Heston and Ava Gardner experienced Californian active tectonics in 1974’s ‘Earthquake’ (set in LA rather than SF, but close enough), we have all seen real tsunamis, and collapsing skyscrapers, in news footage. We have also learned something about sequential earthquake triggering. And we have CGI.
The CGI means relying less on shaky camerawork to induce terror and awe, while all the rest help the screenwriter to avoid the basic problem with earthquake movies of the past, which was that once the anticipated event had happened, they were all obliged to spend far too long in anticlimactic ‘aftermath’ mode, with only the odd aftershock or precariously poised piece of fallen masonry to keep up the excitement.
Seismologist Lawrence is cast in the usual role of Cassandra – the one who Sees-It-All-Coming-But-Nobody-Listens. There needs to be one of these in a disaster movie, for without anticipation there is no tension, and everyone loves seeing a maverick proved right. Lawrence has a breakthrough in earthquake prediction, based, apparently, on (unexplained) ‘magnetic pulse precursors’ observed during the destruction of the Hoover Dam, which starts the whole chain reaction in motion that will lead eventually to the destruction of San Francisco.
These unexplained signals do not, however, appear to give very much useful warning in themselves– just enough, in fact, to say ‘OH MY GOD!’ before the Earth cracks. However, thanks to his understanding of the quakes’ connectedness he is able to get the word out about a third, even bigger quake on its way, whose epicentre will be right under the deepest car parks of California’s jewel. The earthquakes are propagating fitfully, from one locked section to another, he realises – though they do so in a time-frame far shorter than happens naturally.
Otherwise the film is hardly interrupted by such technicalities, and its cliché-ridden plot unfolds exactly as you expect it to. The evil property developer (such is that profession’s inevitable fate since ‘Towering Inferno’) gets his comeuppance, family values triumph, everyone resolves to rebuild, US Flag (Size No. 1) is unfurled on the remains of the Golden Gate Bridge, and the surviving cast, reunited by disaster, stares heroically at the distant horizon as credits (and eyes) roll upwards.
Goofs? Well, plenty. Apart from everything already mentioned, our kindly bearded & jumpered seismologist talks erroneously about ‘the Richter Scale’, and (more seriously) the strike-slip fault that is the San Andreas is not really tsunamigenic, even assuming it could ever deliver a M9.6, which it couldn’t – such faults can never store up enough stress.
But – and there is a but – everyone plays their parts well (even though you can almost see Paul Giammati thinking: ‘This junk will fund me in at least two years of independent theatre’). The story is neither original nor scientifically kosher, but the film is spectacular to watch, falls just short of embarrassing, and isn’t either too long or so boring that it seems that way.
Even ‘the English guy’ Ben (Ray’s daughter’s romantic interest, played by Hugo Johnstone-Burt) is allowed to be heroic (which I suppose in Hollywood terms counts as original). However he, too, is only allowed to do what he must, which is to play second fiddle to capable, kick-ass daughter of the movie’s central character. ‘Ray’ is played with a good deal of conviction, and no small aplomb, by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson (of whom nothing is small, at least that we can see). While nowhere near Giammati or anyone else on set when it comes to acting chops, ‘San Andreas’ once again confirms that Mr Johnson is a much better actor than any former wrestler has a right to be.
SAN ANDREAS Dir: Brad Peyton. Opened: 29 May 2015 (UK). Warner Bros., Village Roadshow Pictures, New Line Cinema, Flynn Picture Company. Written by: Carlton Cuse (screenplay) , Andre Fabrizio & Jeremy Passmore (story). Duration: 114 mins. 3D.