**/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras B
starring Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Paul Giamatti
screenplay by Carlton Cuse
directed by Brad Peyton
by Bryant Frazer Back in the 1970s, Hollywood thrillers broke a sweat trying to depict a single terrible event--just one burning building, overturned luxury liner, or airship disaster. These days, the imagery has gotten a lot more freewheeling. Armed with powerful computer algorithms that generate cartoonish eruptions of earth, fire, wind, and water, today's VFX supervisors have a mandate to make bad things happen on screen--all of the bad things, preferably at the same time. In San Andreas, the terrible, horrible, no-good very bad day includes a disintegrating Hoover Dam and a container ship that cartwheels end-over-end into the Golden Gate Bridge. Skyscrapers collapse in on themselves, generating 9/11 flashback clouds of dust and debris that blast through city streets. A tsunami and its attendant flooding sends murky water pulsing through the floors of submerged high-rises, trapping helpless victims inside like goldfish behind glass. It would all be a little hard to take if the visual effects were more convincing (they're cartoonish) or the action scenes at all naturalistic (ditto), but director Brad Peyton isn't especially ambitious. His operative aesthetic is purely Theme Park.
That's not to say San Andreas isn't entertaining. Running a sleek (by contemporary action-pic standards) 114 minutes, the film doesn't pause long enough to lose your interest--so long as you've bought into the cheeseball premise. Dwayne Johnson is protagonist Ray, a hotshot helicopter pilot with the L.A. fire department who demos his bona fides in the opening sequence, involving the rescue of a blonde in a low-cut top whose car is jammed into the rock wall on one side of a deep chasm. It turns out that rescuing busty women is Ray's specialty, as he spends much of this film making his way up the California coast by air, land, and sea to save estranged wife Emma (Carla Gugino) and daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) from post-quake chaos. That's right: the team behind San Andreas seems to have acknowledged that director Roland Emmerich's 2012 is the ne plus ultra of this sort of thing, with the picture's scribes (Carlton Cuse, one of the showrunners on "Lost", is the screenwriter of record, while Andre Fabrizio and Jeremy Passmore get story credit) swiping that film's basic natural-disaster-brings-families-back-together framework and adding a layer of dubious hero worship.
As usual, Johnson cuts a profile that looks like it was carved roughly out of a big hunk of sandstone--but it's an especially sad hunk of sandstone here, as Ray learns early in the first act that Emma has shacked up with Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd), a wealthy architect whose pièce de résistance is a massive glass-and-steel tower spoiling the San Francisco skyline. The visual joke about Daniel's gleaming phallus going flaccid under seismic stress is so obvious the film doesn't even bother to make it, although it spares the time to follow him after he abandons Blake in a parking garage and beats a solo retreat through the wreckage, establishing his credentials as a world-class dickhole at every opportunity. Another subplot involves Dr. Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti), a Cal-Tech researcher who happens to discover a way to predict seismic events about 15 seconds before the earth opens up and swallows his research assistant. Giamatti chews so much scenery so thoroughly that it's a shame he spends most of the picture holed up indoors, far from the action. Still, I had a great time imagining a version of San Andreas that was all about his character, or maybe a stage play where each act climaxes with a scene like the one where he hides under a table and cries out, "Pray for the people of San Francisco!"
That scene is risible, yes, but Giamatti is solid in it, and that's the best thing about San Andreas. Stranded inside this too-big-to-fail summer blockbuster is a cheap and cheerful B-movie waving its arms around, desperate for rescue, and that movie is performance-driven. Johnson is not a great actor, exactly, but his tenure as a WWE superstar taught him a degree of stagecraft that has survived and thrived in its transition to the big screen. He acts with his eyes and eyebrows and big, wide mouth, the whole package framed and amplified by smile lines and brow furrows that are as expressive as any kabuki makeup. Gugino has built a career at the intersection of tough and sexy, and though the film takes it as given that Emma made a poor decision by separating from Our Hero, she ably resists being pigeonholed as a damsel in distress. Even Daddario, cast in the thankless role of Ray's 18-year-old daughter (she's wearing a bikini in her first scene, because of course she is), brings it, delivering a genuinely haunting performance in an underwater scene near the end, making an image that lingers longer than any of the CG tableaux. It briefly lends San Andreas a gravitas it doesn't come close to earning. After all, Ray does exactly what you wouldn't want the world's best helicopter-rescue pilot to do under these circumstances: he goes AWOL in a disaster area, stealing a chopper and shirking his official duties to ensure the safety of his own family. For a movie that climaxes with the unfurling of an American flag over the rubble-strewn San Francisco Bay at golden hour as Johnson squints and promises, "Now we rebuild," San Andreas doesn't have much to do with actual patriotism, let alone good citizenship. Rather, it's an object lesson in looking out for number one.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Warner Home Video has given San Andreas a tack-sharp Blu-ray transfer, letterboxed to 2.40:1. (I reviewed the flat version, but a Blu-ray 3D release is also available.) The average video bitrate is just shy of 24 Mbps, and I detected no compression artifacts or other issues with the presentation. Cinematographer Steve Yedlin (Brick, Looper) shot the film on the cool side, favouring a broad range of blues and greens that are ably represented in HD. Although the picture was photographed digitally, unobtrusive grain is present throughout, suggesting it was added in post. Although this is not an especially high-contrast image, the Blu-ray still boasts ample dynamic range. Whites are occasionally blasted out, as when the camera is pointed towards car or airplane windows, in a way that's in keeping with the overall look of the film. Black levels are stable though generally elevated slightly above the bottom end when compared to other studio titles, seemingly by design. It's a pretty picture, and the aesthetic meshes surprisingly well between the live-action content and the extensive CG imagery, so kudos to the DP and VFX teams on that score.
The disc features Dolby Atmos sound, but I'm only equipped to evaluate the 7.1-channel Dolby TrueHD mix. It's an oft-repeated truism that sound is 50 percent (or more) of the moviegoing experience (the sentiment is typically credited to George Lucas, but it's been cosigned by others including David Lynch), and while I find the claim tendentious most of the time, I admit that something like San Andreas really makes the case. The sound editors have done their jobs exceptionally well (I was fond of the chilling howl of the tsunami sirens), and the sound mixers have made good use of those efforts to create a massive soundscape--the effects are so precisely oriented that you feel you can perceive their distance as well as their vector as they emanate from deeper in the city. The bass channel is well-populated with thud and rumble, but the low end comes and goes with the rhythms of the story, helping to prevent listener fatigue. Andrew Lockington's score is woven into the mix with the same care as any of the other audio elements so that it's nestled in there to good effect without overpowering the whole. It's an exceptional mix. If all Dolby Atmos tracks sound this good played through "just" eight speakers, I'm not sure I'll feel the need to install extra channels in my ceiling in this lifetime. Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are also on board in French, Spanish, Portuguese, and English descriptive audio.
Director Peyton toplines the supplementary material, pontificating about his achievements in a feature-length audio commentary. He congratulates himself on the film's "emotional resonance" and "rich family story," which is to be expected, and has kind words for all of his actors' performances, which is de rigueur. A recurring theme, perhaps surprisingly, is the lack of money--Peyton repeatedly describes the balancing act that was required to integrate the phony elements with practical photography. He remembers production designer Barry Chusid's 25-foot rule: anything outside that radius has to be VFX, but anything the actors come into contact with has to be real. (Chusid is a veteran of The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, so he knows as well as anyone how to do this stuff.) "The scale looks massive," Peyton says at one point, "but the budget doesn't actually meet the scale. We had to be crafty."
The longest featurette, "Dwayne Johnson to the Rescue" (9 mins., HD), centres on the stunts and FX work in scenes featuring the star--mainly the inaugural helicopter rescue, his rooftop retrieval of Carla Gugino's character, and the big waterlogged finale with Daddario. Focused only slightly differently is "San Andreas: The Real Fault Line" (6 mins., HD), which spends its opening moments very superficially discussing the real threat of earthquakes in California before delving into the production tricks behind the film's earth-shaking scenes, like a restaurant set designed so that everything visible in the frame is shaking except the floor itself, since it was being prowled by a Steadicam operator. If you care about how the movie's fakery was achieved, you'll be watching both of these shorts. Another, "Scoring the Quake" (6 mins., HD), looks at the scoring--and unconventional instrumentation--of composer Lockington's music for the picture, recorded at Abbey Road Studios. This is fairly standard-issue behind-the-scenes material, but of a higher calibre than most.
More baffling is "Cunning Stunts" (HD), a three-minute stunt reel that appears to have been edited by a hyperactive 15-year-old with a 12-pack of Red Bull and the complete works of Skrillex queued up in Spotify. It's either the best thing on this disc or the worst; if any of the shots were held for more than four seconds it would be easier to say. The gag reel (1 min., HD) is almost as herky-jerky, but less of that stuff is almost always more so that may be a good call. The package is filled out with just over four minutes of (smartly) deleted scenes--snippets, really, such as a couple more exciting moments with Team Giamatti and the Quake Busters. And that's all she wrote, unless you count two brief startup promos (one pushing Warner's "digital conversion" service for existing Blu-ray Discs, the other urging you to purchase digital copies of movies in the first place) that seem designed to make you feel like a chump for buying physical media at all. The BD is bundled with DVD and Ultraviolet copies of the film.