There’s always a certain level of glee ascribed to good disaster flicks, that dizzy rush that accompanies the collapse of giant buildings and the heroics of common men and women who rush in to save whatever can be salvaged. It’s heady stuff, the kind of material that looks best on the big screen, if only because it’s not real, total fiction put together for pure entertainment. Giddily lapping up the ruination of entire cities is easy enough when it’s for fun, but even the best disaster movies can’t escape that they’re about, well, disaster, and when reality (or, more accurately, the faux-reality of cinema) sets in, you’re going to need someone special there to soothe you.
Enter Dwayne Johnson, who should star in every single disaster movie that Hollywood puts out for the next three or so decades (also, hey Hollywood, we’d like some more disaster movies, okay? The People’s Elbow needs to make some bank).
Brad Peyton’s “San Andreas” pumps up the genre in the most obvious of ways: it takes a natural disaster and makes it bigger. Like, a lot bigger. Johnson is there to admirably fight off earthquakes (not really a thing you can do, but one he sure as shootin’ is going to attempt) in service to an action-packed narrative that takes almost unnerving glee in ruining large patches of California and Nevada. As Los Angeles and San Francisco and the Hoover Dam fall into rubble, Johnson is there for a well-timed grin or an especially bold rescue maneuver, mostly enough to detract from the fact that California is, like, totally gone now, dude.
The film opens with a legitimately heart-stopping action sequence that sees The Rock’s pilot, Ray, and company (which includes a film crew and reporter, because why not) rescuing a trapped teen from her oops-went-over-the-edge-of-this-mountain-road vehicle (one that admirably bends the boundaries of physics and the possibilities of helicopter piloting) and almost losing one of their own along the way. Although the relationship between Ray and his rescue bros is played up to the max during the film’s first minutes — these guys literally went to war together and then came home and decided to work together, obviously there’s love there — it’s all but forgotten mere moments later. Instead, that big first scene seems to exist to establish a handful of salient points: that Ray is good at his job, that helicopters are cool, and that Archie Panjabi is a journalist with a taste for danger. She’ll show up later, but elsewhere, and no, it does not matter at all that she knows Ray.
Ray may be good at his job (at this point in his career, that may well be Johnson’s calling card: playing guys who are really, really good at their job), but his personal life is in shambles. His loving daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario), is about to head off to college, his ex-wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), is fixing to move in with her vaguely douchey (and super-rich) new boyfriend, Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd), and it soon becomes clear that the family has already been through one gut-churning tragedy together. An earthquake? Eh, no sweat.
“San Andreas” is not content to simply depict an earthquake, instead opting to portray the world’s biggest, baddest, and brawniest earthquake. Paul Giamatti also stars in the film — it would be incorrect to say he stars “alongside” Johnson, as the two never share the screen, one of the film’s biggest missteps — as a genius seismologist who develops a way to predict earthquakes, an endeavor that’s clearly important, but one that does little to help anyone survive the first massive quake that shakes the Western seaboard. You can almost hear Giamatti’s Lawrence screaming, “but why won’t anyone listen to me?!” A plea that would likely only be drowned out by further shaking and someone else screaming, “get under this table!” Earthquake prediction tools: totally necessary, totally unrefined.
As Nevada and California are rocked, Ray abandons his post as a rescue pilot in order to save his own family, including Emma (who is trapped in Los Angeles) and Blake (who is trapped in San Francisco). Reunited with his lovely ex (and, man, how refreshing that these two are actually age-appropriate), Ray and Emma embark on a cross-state quest to save Blake, who is doing mostly okay in the City By The Bay, and at least has a pair of eager pals (Hugo Johnstone-Burt and Art Parkinson, who play brothers) to marvel at her survival skills. But the shaking isn’t over — cue Giamatti screaming into the void — and she’s in need of a rescue.
Ray and Emma make their way north, bouncing from vehicle to vehicle, a sort of action-y “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” that requires the use of a helicopter, and then a truck, and then a plane, and then, well, we’ll leave some surprises for the film itself (if you guessed “and then a boat,” you’re not wrong, but there’s also more beyond that, a big layer cake of vehicular mayhem). Just when you think it’s over, it’s not, and Carlton Cuse’s screenplay is so jammed that it may cause actual audience fatigue.
Although Johnson roots the film — could anyone sell this story the way he does? — he doesn’t get to exhibit the full extent of charm, only tossing off a handful of sly witticisms, which he mostly makes up for with great feats of strength. It’s obvious from the start what’s going to happen, and although “San Andreas” occasionally makes some interesting moves (the swift offing of a character who pops up simply to be annoying is one of them), it’s mostly a paint-by-numbers affair bolstered by jaw-dropping CGI and a desire to completely flatten as much cityscape as possible. The film is littered with foreshadowing, from a bit shoehorned in about a massive new building that architect Daniel is building (surely that comment about how strong it is can’t mean anything, right?) to a wistful scene that sees Ray sniffling over a stack of pictures from a San Francisco vacation, all studded with important landmarks. You already know what’s going to happen, but at least you get to watch Johnson do it. [B-]