My parents live just outside California’s Bay Area, and my mom is constantly in a state of Code Orange alert/panic when it comes to earthquakes. And I can tell you that San Andreas is pretty much a 115-minute realization of every fear my mother has ever had about the possibility of a massive earthquake causing big chunks of California to break off and sink into the ocean. But here, we get to witness all the glorious digital mayhem and destruction in terrifically encoded Dolby Atmos audio from the comforts of our theater chairs (hopefully) with our favorite drink nearby.
You can tell from the opening choir-boy chant/singing over the credits that this movie is going to take itself VERY seriously. In case you didn't realize it, lives are at stake here, people! This is not going to be a tongue-in-cheek film with Dwayne Johnson spouting one-liners like, “When the ground rocks, I roll!” or, “Is this the best you’ve got, earthquake?!? BRING IT!!!” No. This is Johnson as a serious action lead and this is a film very heavy on the action, with just a few breaks in the mayhem for some talky-bits of establishing dialog to set a bit of backstory and move the “story" forward. Or maybe to preserve the FX budget.
The “story" driving San Andreas is basically that ace helicopter rescue pilot, Ray (Dwayne Johnson), and his ex-wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), lost a daughter years ago in an accident and now the couple takes superhuman efforts to overcome multiple obstacles and catastrophes to do whatever it takes to get from southern California up to the Bay Area to rescue their remaining daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario). This is all set to the backdrop of the state being repeatedly pummeled by a seemingly never-ending series of bigger and bigger tremors, earthquakes, and aftershocks. Or, "in seismology terms...a swarm event."
In a way, this movie reminded me of when we used to play Sim City as kids. After a while you’d get bored of building city infrastructure and management and then you would just send wave after wave of disasters at it and sit back and watch all the destruction, chaos, and suffering. (Cue dramatic music.)
Opening Canyon Rescue
The film starts off with a bang. Well, more literally a crash, as a girl's SUV is struck by a falling rock, causing it to drive off road and go crashing down a hill. The beginning of the film reminded me a lot of those Final Destination movies where you know something is going to happen, but they keep toying with you as to what actually does. (Usually, it’s some penetrating object through an unsuspecting orifice.) Will the teen driver crash because she is digging in her purse? Or because she is texting? The suspense won’t kill you for long. As her truck goes over the side, rolling and spinning down the hill, the sounds of dirt, rock and debris are flung all around the room. At the three-minute mark Ray’s rescue copter comes in sending birds flying overhead and then the helicopter itself races overhead and into the back of the room. As the Ray slips the helicopter into the tight canyon, you get a really nice sense of the blade sounds echoing and bouncing back and forth off the side walls. The scene cuts around to different perspectives, with the helicopter's whirring rotors and engine noise moving and matching the on-screen action. The scene lasts about seven minutes and has all the hallmarks of a great demo—a clear beginning, a tense, action-filled middle, and a happy resolution.
Hoover Dam Quake and Shake
At 16 minutes near the end of chapter two, right after, "We're about to have a major quake..." there is a huge crump in the ceiling speakers as the destruction begins. The entire scene is filled with a ton of low-end, potentially causing a mini-quake in your theater if your sub is up to the task—or clipping and maybe blown drivers if not—with a constant two-plus minutes of walls crumbling, cement shattering, and mayhem occurring all around the room and overhead. As Tim is running with the young girl in his arms, trying to stay ahead of the shattering pavement, you get a great sense of the road breaking up all around him and passing into the back of the room. When the dam breaks, the room is flooded on all sides with rushing water.
Dolby Easter egg: At 21:45 there is a TV that says, "7.1 quake hits..." A nice (possible) homage to the Dolby TrueHD 7.1 channel soundtrack.
The next big tremor comes near the 32-minute mark in chapter four, and cuts back and forth between a restaurant, offices at Caltech, and a San Francisco office building. While in the restaurant there are the sounds of screams from all around, and glass shaking and knocking together overhead as the quake begins, and then desks and walls rattling as people scurry to safety under their desks at Caltech. At the 34-minute mark we cut to the office building in San Francisco as a limo holding Blake tries to race out of the building, while the underground garage starts collapsing. It doesn't make it. The overhead speakers do a great job conveying the chunks of the building falling down all around you, putting you in the garage. When the billionaire boyfriend, Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd), gets out of the limo you get some nice groaning of girders overhead and around the room as the building strains under the damage.
At 36 minutes, there is a mass exodus of people leaving the building's lobby with screaming and moaning all around. The scene cuts back to the restaurant, as Emma tries to make it up to the ceiling while the room literally collapses and falls apart all around you. There's a constant cacophony of screams, falling bodies, groaning concrete, raining debris, and a steady bass rumble that will flutter your pants. After the big shaking is over at the 40-minute mark, you get some really nice subtle atmospherics of things falling and settling back into place before Ray comes roaring up in his helicopter to save the day. Of course, things are never that easy, and fireballs start erupting, the flames billowing up into the ceiling and combining with the steady whirr of the helicopter. The entire scene runs about 12 minutes with almost no slow bits, and ends in classic, "Only happens in Hollywood!" style at 44 minutes with a chunk of falling building whacking the helicopter, causing it to spin out of control, moving violently around the room.
We're Gonna Crash
At the 55-minute mark in chapter six, a building collapses in downtown San Fran and the resulting shockwave produces a massive gust of wind and debris that shreds through the room, probably sounding like what it would inside a tornado, you know, right before you died. It then cuts to Ray and Emma in the helicopter over Bakersfield where at almost 57 minutes, their helicopter has a catastrophic gearbox failure. (No joke, I lived in Bakersfield for a couple of years. The day we moved there it was 118 degrees. Nice place.) Ray has to cut the motors and you get some great swirling audio as the helicopter spins all around the room, with warning sirens going off overhead. Then the scene ends with a massive crash at 58 minutes with the sounds of tinkling glass and dripping fuel.
Pray for the people of San Francisco!
The start of the Big One comes at 1:15 in chapter eight and starts in the Caltech offices with lots of building rattling and things falling off shelves all around you. We cut to SF and get a nice bit of history on the word "Nob" before the quake hits. It begins with a huge bass rumble and a rip in the ground that travels right up the middle of the room, and then electrical wires break and fall down all around, windows shatter, and glass sprays everywhere. The ground basically liquefies under the huge rolling wave, and the entire downtown area essentially crumbles to the ground. It cuts to Ray at the Giants’ downtown baseball stadium as he tries to usher people to safety. There's lots of screaming and the groan as buildings are breaking apart, metal is crunching, and concrete is shattering. A huge lighting rig falls into the listening space at 1:18, sending a dust and debris cloud through the room.
Wall of Water
As if getting pummeled by the largest earthquakes in recorded history wasn't enough, at 1:23 in chapter nine, the Bay is hit by a massive tsunami. And by massive, I mean MASSIVE. The wave builds and crests up the side of the room as Ray and Emma race towards it in a speedboat, trying to get over it. Of course, at the very top of the wave a massive container ship crests right in front of them, coming right over your head with spinning screws and huge container boxes falling off into the water. The boat and wave rips through the Golden Gate Bridge, with cables snapping all around and water crashing along the sides of the room. The wall of water floods through downtown destroying and burying everything in its path as it rushes toward Blake and company, who are climbing to the top of one of Daniel's buildings.
At 1:27, we see the huge, inevitable wall of water coming and it crashes through the office, causing buildings to fall like dominoes. The water gurgles up around and over the listening position as the characters struggle to keep from drowning. At 1:32, the building shifts and starts falling, causing a new wave of water to race into the room. The water floods in all around, providing a great sense of the sinking building filling with water. At 1:35 (and again at 1:38), we see Blake trapped in a space that is filling with water—imagine the scene from basically every submarine movie ever. Except with Atmos you get the water gurgling and bubbling all around, delivering a much better sense of the audio claustrophobia.
Now We Rebuild!
The film concludes with a big sweeping musical score as you see the various states of the destruction of the city and volunteers start arriving to help. At 1:46, we get one of those scenes that only the ceiling speakers can deliver, a huge helicopter flyover from the back of the room, overhead to the front as the Rock looks into the camera and assures us that everything is gonna be OK.