San Andreas Review
A few eyebrows were raised when Canadian director Brad Peyton - helmer of such classics as Journey 2 and Cats & Dogs: The Revenge Of Kitty Galore - was selected to oversee Warners' $110M earthquake epic San Andreas, starring Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson, but fast forward to late 2015 and the film's impressive global gross of $470M seems to have fully vindicated that decision. On paper the movie seems like regulation fayre, with various disaster movie tropes present and correct: estranged husband and wife, wife has new boyfriend, their kid is stuck in the middle, scientist who develops new warning system for [insert disaster here] is ignored by the authorities etc - yet it's more than the sum of its parts.
The first tick in the plus column is Johnson himself as LA Fire Department helicopter pilot Raymond Gaines. He's exactly the sort of larger-than-life physical presence that the story needs to anchor it, as even the finest thesps can end up being overshadowed by the action but he's always there, towering over everyone else in the frame and you really believe that he's capable of handling himself. That's not to say he can't act either, as he does a manful job of conveying the loss that the character has suffered. The remainder of the supporting cast do their bit too, with Carla Gugino in feisty form as Gaines' soon-to-be-ex-wife Emma and Alexandra Daddario as Blake, their more than capable daughter.
A couple of toothy, bumbling Brits show up played by Hugo Johnstone-Burt and Art Parkinson (who are Australian and Irish respectively, full marks for the accents fellas) but they're not as incredibly annoying as one might think, and in a small twist they end up relying more on Daddario's character than she does on them. Paul Giamatti gets the thankless task as The Exasperated Scientist Who Saw It Coming and he brings a nice amount of earnestness without overplaying his hand. Ioan Gruffudd is Daniel, Emma's wealthy new boyfriend, and for just a few minutes at least we're led to believe that he won't be the typical rich selfish douchebag. Kylie Minogue (yes, that Kylie Minogue, the movie was actually shot in Australia) gets a very small but effective cameo as Daniel's bitchy sister.
As to the story itself, I found myself quoting dialogue at the screen before the characters even said it because it's that predictable, yet the performances still make it a thrilling ride because they raise the characters (well, most of them) above being mere cardboard cutout archetypes. And when the action comes, it's suitably spectacular. Admittedly the movie gets off to a rocky start with some terrible CG of a car flipping over and over (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation also had a similar CG misstep) but from there on out it gets so much better, and there's some primo A-Grade disaster porn on display as skyscrapers are torn in two, giant rifts are ploughed through the earth and a tsunami surprise devastates San Francisco. There's the usual amount of questionable physics and dramatic licence as California virtually breaks off from the mainland (Lex Luthor would've been proud) but when you're invested in the characters it makes the ridiculous last-gasp escapes all the more nail-biting.
Something which I found refreshing was the lack of overt environmental or socio-political messages which tend to make such movies a slog to get through. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that cinema shouldn't make you think but disaster movies are what they are - an exciting rollercoaster ride - and the last thing they need is to be burdened by an underlying 'message' that makes them oh-so-worthy but oh-so-boring. With several recent disaster flicks I've found myself wanting to fast forward the talky bits to get to the action, not just because of the po-faced storytelling but also the bloated running times. Thankfully San Andreas is a trim 114 minutes and there's no room for the plucky family pets or a ridiculously cute 7-year-old child to take centre stage. That's not to say the film doesn't have its share of ripe disaster-movie cheese but it stops short of outright schmaltz and it doesn't hammer us with exposition out of the gate either, the script is happy to let the story unfold and for us to learn about the characters as we go.
In all good conscience I should really award San Andreas a 6 because it tells an extremely hackneyed story, yet it does it in the right way. The charisma of the cast combined with the spectacular effects and the efficiency of Brad Peyton's direction has resulted in one of the most enjoyable disaster movies I've seen in years. I'm feeling generous so I'll add another mark on top. That's right Carla, a whole 7 out of 10. Don't look so puzzled.
Warner Bros bring San Andreas to 2D Blu-ray with their customary region-free platter, which starts with a skippable trailer for their upcoming Pan. The movie was shot digitally on the ARRI Alexa and given the usual 2K digital finish, with a post-conversion for the 3D version, and the 2.40 aspect perfectly preserves the anamorphic widescreen photography. That same anamorphic glass means there's a handful of shots where the sharpness drops off at the periphery of the frame but that's to be expected and there's still plenty of crisp texture to be found on skin and clothing throughout, as well as a fine dusting of surprisingly filmic grain. The vast amount of computer-generated VFX both helps and hinders; the myriad scenes of destruction are rendered with an insanely intricate amount of detail but when people are digitally inserted into the chaos their faces and other details can be a bit soft around the edges, though that's par for the course for VFX.
The colour of the film is unremarkable, looking quite dour and sterile, but then the theatrical showing did too and the glass and steel of the average cityscape (be it LA, San Fran, wherever) doesn't permit a range of dayglow hues, though skin tones have a pleasantly neutral cast to them. While the daylight scenes don't want for contrast some of the darker scenes stop short of the obsidian depths I've seen elsewhere. The AVC encode is extremely competent as the movie has some tricky low-light gradations that are handled brilliantly with no sign of any banding, and even the busiest moments of mayhem are reproduced with no obvious blocking or artefacting amidst the swirls of dust and rubble.
Audio-wise we're given a lossless Dolby Atmos track, played back in 'mere' 7.1 TrueHD for the purposes of this review. Surround information is plentiful as concrete cracks and clatters around you, broken pipes drip drip drip and glass is sent tinkling in every direction, with bass being ladled on in copious amounts. And it's not just the big set-pieces that impress as there are subtler effects too, like being in the basement of a building in its death throes as it groans and creaks in some far-off corner. Dialogue reproduction is clean and sharp, and is intelligible across the width of the sound stage during even the most hectic scenes. The music occupies the speakers front and back, and although it takes a back seat to the biggest bouts of sonic carnage it comes through well enough during the most emotional beats.
The extras might look like they amount to a lot but it's mostly standard promo fluff. Scoring the Quake (amusingly labelled as 'Quak' on the cover) is a short 6 minute piece about the composition of the music score. Dwayne Johnson to the Rescue spends 9 minutes looking at some of the physical challenges involved with the making of the film, not just for Johnson but the other cast members too. San Andreas: The Real Fault Line is much the same, running for 6 minutes. The Gag Reel is 82 seconds of flubs with the Stunt Reel being a headache-inducing 3-minute edit of the stunt crew's rehearsals. Then there's just under 5 minutes of Deleted Scenes with optional commentary from Peyton where he basically says the same thing over and over again: nice scene, wasn't essential, had to cut it for pace, and that sums up the forgettable deleted scenes in general. Peyton's commentary for the main movie is excellent however, as he keeps up a constant pace and reels off plenty of interesting insights. (Peyton also looks a lot like a young Jeff Combs. Just thought I'd throw that out there.)
San Andreas will not win many awards for its clichéd story but it still delivers a wonderfully entertaining slice of disaster movie hokum, brought to 2D Blu-ray with excellent picture & sound quality plus a handful of perfunctory extras.
7 out of 10
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