5 Times ‘San Andreas’ Made California’s Chief Earthquake Scientist Laugh Out Loud

Dr. Thomas Jordan, seismologist from Southern California Earthquake Center, dissects urban myths and action gags in Dwayne Johnson’s disaster movie

san andreas
Warner Bros

While the majority of moviegoeers will be rooting for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as he goes head-to-head with an earthquake in this Friday’s “San Andreas,” there’s a small community whose disbelief will be hard to suspend: scientists.

TheWrap spoke with Dr. Thomas Jordan, director of the Southern California Earthquake Center headquartered at USC, for his opinion on the big-screen effort from New Line and Warner Bros. — which invited several leading seismologists to see the film this week.

In director Brad Peyton‘s destruction marathon, Johnson stars as a Los Angeles Fire and Rescue captain who sets out to save his daughter from a nearly leveled San Francisco after the dreaded San Andreas fault activates along the California coast. Buildings topple and break, the ground buckles and moans, fire breathes from the occasional skyscraper, a resulting tsunami drowns the metropolis and a rooftop hotel pool becomes simply uninhabitable. But is any of it possible?

“It’s a high-action flick with great special effects, but the scenario for this movie is a bit over the top,” Jordan told TheWrap, calling his red flags a sort of  “grumpy scientist review.”

Game on, Dr. Jordan.

Here, the earthquake expert shares five moments that defied the laws of science, or simply made him laugh out loud:

San Andreas 1

1. “It’s an urban myth popularized by movies that an earthquake causes the ground to open into a big chasm,” Jordan said. “In ‘San Andreas,’ a deep canyon forms and the hero and his wife can’t get across to their daughter. That’s not realistic in the sense that these faults, the pressure of a quake keeps rock forms together.”

Tsunami San Andreas

2. The tsunami resulting from the massive tectonic plate-shift, which hits San Francisco with a crushing blow, has a water level approaching the top of the film’s tallest skyscraper. Possible? Not so much. “The wave in the film is about five times the size of the biggest wave that could come from an earthquake,” said Jordan, noting that the San Andreas fault extends mostly sideways up the coast. It does not reach far into the ocean to trigger a tsunami as big as the one that threatens the Rock’s beloved daughter.

3. The film’s earthquakes register 9.1 and 9.6 on the Richter scale, but the faults themselves have never generated that kind of power. “The fault has two major points, the northern San Andreas fault and the southern. The biggest event on the northern fault was in 1906 and 7.9 [on the Richter scale], the southern in 1892 around 7.8,” Jordan said.

san andreas apartment

4. Modern buildings, even skyscrapers, have impressive earthquake sustainability despite what the film depicts. Jordan has tremendous faith in what they can withstand when up to code. “In terms of these big buildings in the movie, some just fall over and others kind of crumble, but that’s not realistic based on what I know about how buildings collapse. The film shows glass popping out everywhere — that’s realistic. But tall, modern buildings would do really well in terms of structure,” he said.

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5. Jordan was most incredulous at a force of nature bigger than earthquakes — Johnson himself. “I thought he was awesome. He kept his cool, for the most part he did the right thing. There are issues of him stealing a helicopter from Fire and Rescue to save his family, but I guess The Rock does what The Rock wants to do,” he said.

The film isn’t all heightened Hollywood catastrophe. Jordan praised the film’s underlying safety message for people experiencing earthquakes, which is largely delivered by Paul Giamatti‘s Cal Tech scientist character: “Drop, cover and hold on in the event of an earthquake.”

“San Andreas” opens nationwide on Friday.