Just to clarify before we begin, San Andreas is not the kind of movie one should see if one requires such elements as “realism” or “dialogue” or “originality” or “plot.” It cares not at all for scientific accuracy, or logic, or narrative cogency, and its most pressing structural concern seems to be the maximum amount of tension its characters’ physical attributes can impose on Lycra without their clothes giving up the good fight.
All this acknowledged, it’s enormously entertaining, thanks to the undeniable charisma of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and the wanton CGI destruction of all of the West Coast’s greatest landmarks (in 3-D, no less). Johnson plays Ray Gaines, a burly Afghanistan veteran who spends his days as a rescue-helicopter pilot for the Los Angeles Fire Department. His soon-to-be-ex-wife (Carla Gugino) has found new love with a gazillionaire architect (Ioan Gruffudd), his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) is heading off to college, and the now-separated spouses are trying to move on from the death of another daughter, Mallory. All is calm, until an earthquake of unprecedented proportions forces Ray to go AWOL with a helicopter and rescue his family.
Ray’s plot is juxtaposed with that of Lawrence (Paul Giamatti), a seismologist at Caltech who coincidentally happens upon a new method of predicting earthquakes approximately five seconds before one comes along that happens to be 50 times more intense than any mankind has ever experienced. As far as timing goes, it’s pretty rough. Still, Lawrence joins forces with a local-news reporter (Archie Panjabi) to try and find ways to warn the state of California that the ground is about to fall out from underneath it, presumably under the impression that way too late is better than never. If nothing else, it adds him to a lengthy list of scientists in disaster movies who predict that Very Bad Things are about to happen (The Day After Tomorrow, Dante’s Peak, 2012, Deep Impact, etc).
San Andreas, for all its lumbering attempts at understanding and explaining something as complex as seismology, is nevertheless breathtaking in its simplicity. Ray, when told that his ex-wife is currently atop a skyscraper in the middle of an earthquake, turns the helicopter around and tells her that he’ll be right there to save her (if not the thousands of other doomed people in the building, one of whom, bizarrely, is the Australian pop singer Kylie Minogue). Blake is somehow guileless, sweet-natured, innocent, and yet enormously practical in an emergency, looting an electrical store, a fire truck, and a number of empty buildings while trying to get to high ground—with the bizarrely confident knowledge that her father will find her. The obvious bad guy, who pretends to be a good guy quite convincingly for his first few scenes, turns out to be a real heel after all. And when Ray needs a helicopter (or a truck, or a plane, or a boat, or a parachute), lo and behold, he finds one.
The screenplay by Carlton Cuse (Lost, The Bates Motel) is perhaps the biggest disappointment, only because it seems like such a clunker coming from an accomplished writer. The film’s extreme succinctness when it comes to dialogue is remarkable, even for a dumb action flick: “Let’s go get our daughter.” “I’m gonna get you out.” “People need to know that the shaking is not over.” And yet, somehow, the whole thing is kind of a blast. The movie takes a sanitized approach to the theoretical greatest mass disaster in American history—there are no shots of bodies floating in the water, or even so much as a lone kitten stranded in a tree. There’s no ethical complexity, or nuanced storytelling, and very few surprises. When Ray finds out Blake is stranded in San Francisco, he deprives earthquake-leveled Los Angeles of one of its few rescue helicopters with nary a moment’s thought. He’s a man on a mission to save his daughter, and God help the walls or steel gables or 100-feet tsunamis that get in his way.
As Ray, Johnson is intensely committed to his hero’s journey while making the case that he’s as stolid and dependable a national treasure as Mount Rushmore. Gugino and Daddario are consistent, if unexceptional, but San Andreas finds more charm in two brothers with plummy British accents: Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt), a wannabe architect and a love interest for Blake, and Ollie (Art Parkinson), his younger sibling, who provides much-needed comic relief. But the primary thrill of the movie, indubitably, is watching various terrifying acts of nature pit themselves against a 6 foot 5, 260-lb leviathan of a human being and then promptly wither in their unworthiness.
The secondary thrills are in director Brad Peyton’s gorgeous sequences of live-action ruin porn. Spoiler: It all falls down. But in 3-D, seeing the Hoover Dam crumble into obsolescence, the Golden Gate Bridge shatter, and downtown Los Angeles topple to the ground like a particularly unwieldy Jenga tower is eminently satisfying. Knowing that The Rock is going to do his best to add to the ongoing mayhem and destruction—when was the last time you wrenched a car door off to free a girl while dangling from a helicopter in a narrow precipice, after all?—is just the icing on the cake.
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