Thursday, 9 July 2015

No Ground Broken

"San Andreas"

A minor consequence of the shift along the eponymous fault line in "San Andreas"

In “San Andreas,” we are introduced to a Caltech seismologist named Lawrence Hayes (played by Paul Giamatti), who informs a documentary director (Archie Panjabi) – for the audience’s benefit – of a new method he and a colleague have developed, which predicts earthquakes along known fault lines. And, he grimly pronounces into her camera, a cataclysm is on its way to California that will crack the earth open, and be felt thousands of miles away. But, for all his gloomy portent and geological savvy, Professor Hayes failed to foresee the coming of The Big One, the earth-shatterer that will irreversibly alter whatever landscape it happens upon.

Its name is Dwayne Johnson (“The Rock”) – the only actor who looks bigger than whatever car or aircraft he’s just stepped out of. He plays Ray, an Air Rescue pilot, whom we meet at the opening, in a thrilling sequence where he tips his helicopter side to side, to fly into a crevasse where he must save the distressing damsel whose car has tumbled down. It’s a manoeuvre of great daring and jaw-dropping skill, as well as a stratospheric decibel-count, which nicely sets the tone and volume level for the next 100 minutes. Who would think, after witnessing Ray’s heroic deeds, that he is the one in need of rescue? In the wake of the loss of their one daughter, he and his wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), have become estranged, and he rarely sees the surviving daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario). Divorce papers are delivered to him, and he discovers that Emma is moving in with an architect, Daniel (Ioan Gruffud).

Director Brad Peyton’s film is set where this rift in Ray’s marriage converges with the slightly less noticeable rift in the Californian topography. When disaster strikes, Emma is in Los Angeles, and Blake is with Daniel in San Francisco. Ray flies out to rescue both of them amid the pandemonium. Among the visual treats offered to you here is the destruction of the Hoover dam and the resulting deluge, collapsing skyscrapers, fiery explosions, cracking tar roads, and shattering glass – not the kind of circumstances in which you’d like to be picking up your soon-to-be-ex-wife and daughter. The real gripping moment, however, is when the earthquake triggers a tsunami, and a near-apocalyptic wall of water speeds through the bay and then the city centre of San Francisco. Along with cars, roofs, trams, street fixtures and stray dogs, it sweeps away all hope and all prospects for those left in the city, and what’s left over is eerily quiet, and a real disaster spectacle to behold.

Here, too, is where the director loosens his reign on Johnson, and we witness the fierce expression of true emotion. The man is an engaging screen presence with an easy-going sense of humour, and he and Gugino both have the marvellous movie star effect of conveying very much while doing very little, but he’s given little opportunity to give life to Ray. His best acting here is done underwater, and when it happens we don’t care at all about what happens to his daughter, or to the two annoying British boys she’s picked up (Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson), only about the vision of a man nobly and futilely raging against vast ruin.

The reason to go see an utterly predictable, emotionally stinted, lumbering behemoth of a film like “San Andreas” is obvious and simple: blockbusters are cultural currency, and joining with a crowd of strangers in the dark to be taken on a joy ride, happily forgotten as soon as you’re home, is one of the most satisfying secular sacraments that remains. The ideas espoused are trite and obvious, the dialogue is mostly monosyllabic – “My God!,” “Oh, shit!,” “Blake! Blake!” – but the visceral thrill derived from watching pandemonium unfold is undeniable, and irreplaceable.

Title: Dale Smith

San Andreas is available.

San Andreas is directed by Brad Peyton; written by Carlton Cuse; music by Andrew Lockington; director of photography, Steve Yedlin; edited by Bob Ducsay. Running time: 100 minutes. 2015.

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