Friday, September 16, 2016

Whose Fault?

On a night when I was especially tired and in no mood for mentally taxing entertainment, I decided to watch last year's disaster film, San Andreas. Starring Dwayne Johnson (and, incongruously, Paul Giamatti -- though the two are never on screen together), this is straightforward destruct-otainment.

I'd like to think my expectations were pretty well calibrated going in. I knew the narrative was going to be implausible and threadbare. (It was.) I knew the dialogue would be hokey and terrible. (It was.) I knew they'd fall out of the figurative tree, hitting every cliche branch on the way down. (They did.) So I don't think I'm going to spend time detailing the ways in which the movie disappointed on all those counts.

Where I do think the movie deserves criticism is in failing to do the things it should have done well. The visual effects, by and large, are surprisingly terrible. Buildings don't fall convincingly, floods don't rage believably, and actors don't look like they're actually in the space of their surroundings. This is the meat-and-potatoes of this kind of film, and it all looks much cheaper than it surely cost to produce. It's also cut in a confusing manner, often making it hard to follow what's going on and who it's happening to.

It didn't have to be this way, as evidenced by the handful of moments in this very film that were filmed practically. Vehicles shake on gimbals, tossing their occupants about in harrowing ways. An extended underwater sequence in the climax is legitimately impressive. And of course, there's the biggest practical effect of all: actors who are really going for it. It's not Shakespeare, but there is a skill to selling this stuff. Dwayne Johnson, Paul Giamatti, Carlo Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, and Art Parkinson ply it well enough.

Still, the movie ultimate falls in a valley somewhere between "actually good" and "so bad it's good." There's little inspiration behind the wanton destruction here; it's exactly what you'd expect, and maybe even a bit less. With better options even in the "mindless disaster" subgenre, I can only give San Andreas a D.

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