If you’ve witnessed the trailers and TV spots of The Rock racing a boat up the face of a tsunami, or weaving a helicopter in between the wreckage of collapsing skyscrapers, and thought to yourself, “I am so on board with this,” then San Andreas delivers. It is exactly as advertised. This is not a showcase for nuanced characters, for a unique or even all that interesting plot, or for any modicum of subtlety. This is Dwayne Johnson fighting an earthquake.
It’s also a gleefully epic blast. The story is simple enough: Ray (Rock) is a Los Angeles Search and Rescue stud with more than 600 saves under his belt—though he is, ever so humbly, just doing his “job.” When an earthquake is unleashed seemingly from the bowels of Hell—like biblical, wrath of god, Godzilla-level earth shaking—he drops everything, and the lives of everyone, in order to save his estranged wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), and daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario). Some other things happen, of course, but they don’t matter.
Carlton Cuse’s (Lost and Bates Motel) first screenplay for a feature film tries to inject more life into the disaster movie formula, but it basically just adds plot threads that lead nowhere and dramatic happenings that only take up precious time between massive bouts of 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, both of whom she has to help survive (she apparently takes after dear old dad); and, for some reason, Emma and Ray also have a dead daughter—all of it totally inconsequential window dressing, just moments of respite before director Brad Peyton stuffs more madness in your eyes.
What San Andreas is—and what it shines as—is a continual, cinematically brazen escalation of cacophony. In every instance, the action is cranked up. It’s not enough that there’s a massive earthquake—the skyscraper you’re standing on collapses beneath you. And then … boom, now there’s fire. The movie seems to, at every moment, ask itself: “This situation is bad, but what would be worse?” San Andreas is all 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’s wanton disregard for human life is truly stunning—maybe Cuse has it out for California, because he absolutely devastates the Golden State. By the end of the movie, literally millions of fictional people have died. Though the film tries to spin the circumstances toward something hopeful, there’s no way around that. Watching Peyton evoke 9/11 imagery, something he does throughout—one collapsing building in particular seriously looks almost identical to the street level news footage of the Twin Towers coming down—will leave some with a queasy feeling. It’s a method that undeniably can tend towards cheapness.
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, the spectacle rarely quits. In fact, by the time the credits role, this large-scale destruction has become commonplace. Jading even. Apparently, once you see a few dozen tall buildings crumble into dust on a movie screen, you’ve seen them all. The lunacy starts to feel normal.
Predictably, the actors here do what they can, but their characters are all so one-note there’s not much to accomplish apart from typical action film physicality. Johnson gets by on his natural charm and charisma, but he has little to do besides hulk from one harrowing situation to the next: flexing, ripping a door off a car, and saving the day. (There’s even some nice underwater man-grunting going on.) On the opposite side of that coin, Gugino and Daddario exist as little more than maidens in peril. For a brief moment, as Emma leads her hapless British wards through the near post-apocalyptic streets of San Francisco, we glimpse her becoming an action hero herself—but those embers are extinguished in short order.
San Andreas is sheer, utter absurdity on every level: Like 2012 jacked up on both steroids and meth, there are no surprises to be had, no shades of grey, only the epic, the over the top and, at its brain-bursting best, the rollicking escape of a popcorn disaster flick.
Director: Brad Peyton
Writer: Carlton Cuse
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Paul Giamatti, Ioan Gruffud
Release Date: May 29, 2015