San Andreas isn't just a movie. It's a dare — an open challenge to the disaster flicks that came before it and a seething taunt to ones that haven't yet been thought of. The film gurgles with testosterone, so much so that I wonder if there was a specific intern assigned to make sure the celluloid didn't stretch and melt from the raw machismo shoved into every crag.
Disaster movies are often stuffed with CGI and peppered with the sonic booms of explosions. They are the empty-calorie fare of cinema. But San Andreas isn't satisfied with being just another treat on the menu.
This beast wants to give you diabetes and strangle your arteries. It wants to have Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson scaling the face of a tsunami in a tiny boat and shove that image into your eyeballs. It sees your weakness — what normal people might call "logic" — and belches out rescue helicopters getting whacked by crumbling Los Angeles skyscrapers.
San Andreas is nowhere near the best movie made this year. Indeed, it might be one of the worst. But it is, without a doubt, one of the most unapologetic, self-aware, and entertaining romps of 2015. And that counts for something.
San Andreas is in on its own joke
The premise of San Andreas is simple: there's a fault known as San Andreas, and California, through which it runs, is overdue for a gigantic earthquake. Dr. Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) explains this in even simpler terms to his class of students at Caltech.
Hayes is San Andreas's sturdy, geeky narrator (though he's not geeky enough to use any confusing or technical language), and at certain points throughout the film, he literally tells you what is about to happen. Sometimes, he even laces in a couple of dramatic pauses that threaten to break the fourth wall so you know he's serious.
Hayes, like much of this movie, is a farce. He's just a less obvious farce than, say, climbing up the watery face of a tsunami in a tiny boat, only to meet a toppling cargo ship at the top. Same goes for the random people on fire, and all the people who aren't the main characters who are killed, impaled, set on fire, drowned, or thrown out of buildings.
This silliness is baked into tradition of disaster movies like 1970s sensations Earthquake and Airport and more recent movies like (the underloved) Volcano and 2012. But the stakes are bigger in San Andreas, where the earth opens up its jaws to devour someone, but only after that person has thrown a child to safety and found himself impaled on the Hoover Dam.
San Andreas is at its most enjoyable when it's fully leaning into this foolishness and impossibility. In a sense, San Andreas is taking a page out of cheesier TV disaster films, like Sharknado, to bluntly spoof the customs of the films it owes its creation to.
Fuck Captain America. The Rock is America's superhero.
Thanks in large part to the mythos and impossible feats he pulls off in the Fast and Furious franchise, Dwayne Johnson has become the closest thing to a superhero America has. In those films, he plays Luke Hobbs, an unkillable and seemingly invulnerable DSS agent who can break himself out of casts just by flexing his muscles.
And that character has become synonymous with The Rock.
In fact, he plays variations on this character much of the time. In San Andreas, he's Chief Ray Gaines — a one-man rescue team working for the LA Fire Department. Physically, the Rock is once again sporting biceps that have biceps and legs that are columns of steel encased in skin. The implication is clear: failure isn't an option for this guy.
You know The Rock isn't going to let anyone die. He's The Rock. He eats bullets for breakfast. Will this massive mountain of a man save the day using a helicopter or a speedboat? Pure strength or smarts? How many obstacles will he have to defeat on the way there?
The Rock saving his family is an inevitability — the fun is watching The Rock defeat this damn earthquake.
San Andreas pushes up against 9/11 more than many disaster films
One of the strangest things about San Andreas is how it flirts with the idea of telling a 9/11 story. Granted, in almost any disaster movie you expect high-rises to fall. But there's more than just that visual similarity in San Andreas.
The movie never explicitly references that day, but it does include additional echoes of its tragedy, small reminders of what happened, like cellphone service being rendered useless in the wake of disaster (something you don't see enough of in movies). There are also nods to very recent history, like talk about the war in Afghanistan and the bravery of first responders — which all resonates with that painful day.
There's also a strange scene of a CGI'd American flag slowly unfurling to be hit by rays of golden sunshine in the aftermath of the quake-tsunami, right before The Rock talks earnestly of rebuilding. The only thing missing is the skies parting and a bald eagle with fireworks in its talons descending from the heavens.
This is the lasting image of the film. A sense of resilience becomes the most indisputable American trait in the movie, which makes The Rock, who will stand firm against all horrors, our ideal American mascot.
It's a swerve from superhero films where 9/11 is constantly rewritten as a day when no one had to die. In San Andreas, we ostensibly know when disaster is going to strike and exactly what form it will take, but we are powerless in the face of it. Rebuilding is our only option.
But this idea is never fully fleshed out, and that ultimately hurts the film.
By sneaking these scenes in at the end, writers Carlton Cuse, Andre Fabrizio, and Jeremy Passmore hesitate to commit to this idea. It turns something potentially powerful into something half-baked and half-written. It's one of the few points where the film abandons its swagger and struggles.
Arguably, the film didn't need to reach for anything higher. But it did. That it fumbled the attempt makes it that much more disappointing.
The promise of San Andreas is 114 minutes of senseless, ground-splitting action and the odd comfort you get knowing this none of this is really happening. And it's at its best when it isn't trying to do much more than that.
San Andreas is playing in theaters everywhere.