If you saw the trailers and TV spots of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson racing a boat up the face of a tsunami and weaving a helicopter in and out of collapsing skyscrapers, and thought to yourself, “This San Andreas movie looks pretty awesome,” then you are going to be really happy. If you had the opposite reaction, or are looking for nuanced characters, a unique and interesting plot, or any form of subtlety, you will not be. San Andreas is, however, exactly the movie that’s been advertised. This is Dwayne Johnson fighting a fucking earthquake, and as ridiculous as it is, it’s also a gleeful epic blast.
The plot is simple: Johnson plays Ray, a Los Angeles Search and Rescue stud with more than 600 saves under his belt—he is, of course, ever so humbly just doing his job. When an earthquake strikes—like biblical, wrath of god, Godzilla-style earthquake—he drops everything, and everyone, in order to save his estranged wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), and daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario). He's really the worst first responder ever, but he's one hell of a dad. Some things happen along the way, but that’s all that really matters.
Carlton Cuse’s script tries to inject more life, but it basically just adds threads that don’t matter and take up time between massive bouts of disaster and chaos. Paul Giamatti plays a seismologist who, just in time to be totally useless, develops a new, apparently foolproof way of predicting earthquakes. He exists to say ominous things and give people warning that they’re about to be slaughtered wholesale by Mother Nature. Emma has a turd of a new boyfriend (Ioan Gruffud), Blake runs into a charming British guy and his kid brother who she has to help survive (she apparently takes after dear old dad), and, for some reason, Emma and Ray also have a dead daughter. But again, all of that is inconsequential window dressing that only gives you brief moments to catch your breath before director Brad Peyton throws more madness at your face.
What San Andreas is, and where it is the most fun, is a continual escalation of disaster. In every instance, the action is cranked up time and again. It’s not just enough that there’s a massive earthquake, the skyscraper you’re standing on collapses beneath you. And if that’s still not bad enough, boom, now there’s fire. This movie takes the old storytelling axiom “put your characters through hell” to new and dizzying heights. They seriously come up with shit you’d never in a million years dream of, like the writers sat around thinking, “This situation is bad, but what would be worse?” It’s just ludicrous stacking, and before long Ray is skydiving out of a pilotless plane, buildings are knocking each other over like bowling pins, and random extras are being crushed by falling debris.
San Andreas’ wanton disregard for human life is truly stunning—maybe Cuse has it out for California, because he lays waste to the Golden State. By the end of the movie, even though they try to spin it the other way, there are literally millions of people dead. There’s no way around that. Watching them evoke 9/11 imagery, something they do throughout—one collapsing building in particular looks almost identical to the street level news footage of the Twin Towers coming down—will leave some with a queasy, cheap feeling.
From a technical standpoint, San Andreas is a sight to behold. Even before the carnage begins, Peyton fills the frame with sweeping 3D helicopter shots of sprawling cityscapes and breathtaking natural landmarks. And once he lights the fuse, starting with the destruction of the Hoover Dam, it rarely stops. In fact, by the time the credits role, this large-scale destruction has become commonplace. Apparently, once you see a few dozen tall buildings crumble into dust on a movie screen, the lunacy has been upped so far that it starts to feel normal.
The performances are nothing much to take note of; the actors do what they can, but the characters are all so one note that there’s not much to accomplish. Johnson gets by on his natural charm and charisma, but the movie is all about putting him in the next harrowing situation where he can flex, rip a door off a car, and save the day. There’s even some nice underwater man-grunting going on. On the opposite side of that coin, Gugino and Daddario exist a little more than objects to be in peril. For a brief moment, as Emma leads her hapless British wards through the near post-apocalyptic streets of San Francisco, she shows glimpses of becoming an action hero herself, but those embers are extinguished in short order.
San Andreas is sheer, utter absurdity on every level. It’s like 2012 jacked up on steroids and meth. There are no surprises to be had here, no shades of grey, but it is epic and over the top and, at its best, a rocking good time of a popcorn disaster flick. [Grade: B-]