In San Andreas, The Big One finally hits California, and not even Dwayne Johnson’s mutant biceps can keep those infamous tectonic plates from separating (although it would have been great if the movie had thrown in a scene showing him try, like Samson pulling down the pillars). This is pure Disaster 101 formula, although distilled to the minimum amount of dialogue and characters possible. Compared to San Andreas, 1974’s cheesy epic Earthquake with Charlton Heston comes off like The Godfather (parts I and II combined).
Instead, director Brad Peyton (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) settles for an endless series of shots of skyscrapers and bridges and highways crumbling, sending millions of nameless, faceless people to horrible deaths. But who cares about them when search-and-rescue helicopter pilot Ray (Johnson) is scrambling to save his soon-to-be ex wife (Carla Gugino) and their two kids, who are somewhere in the city as it’s falling down like it did in Roland Emmerich’s 2012?
Yes, the gigantic CGI effects are aces, but at this point, bungling this sort of thing would be inexcusable (and to give Emmerich props, nothing in San Andreas beats that long sequence in 2012 of John Cusack driving his ex-wife and kids through L.A. as it collapses around them). Johnson, the kind of rare action star who has genuine magnetism and movie-star chops, spends half the picture inside his helicopter, which is akin to casting Jason Statham to play a nun. What’s the point? San Andreas does score points for not throwing in any cheap villains for the sake of a plot: Even though they are about to divorce, Johnson and Gugino are so sweet and nice to each other that they might as well be on their honeymoon — and that’s long before the earthquake strikes.
The only bad guy in San Andreas is Ioan Gruffudd as a wealthy land developer, who is a cowardly cretin because in the destruction-film genre, architects and designers are almost always cowardly cretins. At routine intervals, the movie cuts away to a scientist played by Paul Giamatti, whose sole purpose in the film is to make sure the audience understands just how serious this earthquake is by spouting breathless exposition disguised as scientific jargon (“It’s a 9.5 on the Richter scale!”). Giamatti also warns that even though the quake is originating in California, the shock waves will be so monstrous that they will reach the East Coast. But either the screenwriters forgot to follow that subplot through or the filmmakers ran out of money, because by the time the end credits roll, every city from Miami to New York is still standing, as if nothing had happened.
San Andreas isn’t bad enough to laugh at, although I did chuckle at the scene in which singer Kylie Minogue suddenly popped up for no apparent reason. I was braced for her to break out into the Love Theme from San Andreas, but before she could even clear her throat, she falls off the side of a building, never to reappear. San Andreas was shot partly in Australia, so maybe her cameo was part of whatever tax incentives that country offers. But the bulk of this huge, visually impressive and aggressively stupid movie could have been shot in someone’s basement, and the overall effect would have still been the same: Been there, done that, tired of it. Also, what’s with the film’s lazy approach to its few character deaths? They come off as afterthoughts, as if the script supervisor said “Oh yeah, we forgot about this guy!” Even The Poseidon Adventure was decent enough to send off Shelley Winters with a great, hammy exit. At least San Andreas does offer one new message: Massive earthquakes can bring broken families together. When you manage to live through the biggest disaster in our planet’s history, what is there left to do but go in for a group hug?
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, Paul Giamatti, Kylie Minogue.
Director: Brad Peyton.
Screenwriter: Carlton Cuse.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 114 minutes. Brief vulgar language, depictions of mass destruction and peril that look a lot like outtakes from the big finale of The Avengers. Playing at area theaters.