Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated PG-13 for intense disaster action and mayhem throughout, and brief strong language.
Running time: 114 minutes.
One and a half stars out of four.
The question isn’t whether “San Andreas” is ridiculous — of course it is, it’s a disaster epic about earthquakes devastating California — but rather, how effective is that ridiculousness? Oddly, the answer is: not very.
For a big, splashy summer blockbuster about destruction and carnage starring Dwayne Johnson, “San Andreas” is surprisingly dull. There’s a repetitive, relentless sameness to the action without much scale or suspense. A massive quake rocks the Hoover Dam or downtown Los Angeles or middle-of-nowhere Central Valley or the streets of San Francisco. Buildings topple, concrete and glass rain from the sky and frightened masses flee in terror. Then a series of aftershocks starts the process all over again. Then the quakes trigger a tsunami, which levels everything once more.
But director Brad Peyton rarely builds to these moments to maximize their potential tension. A powerful image like a gigantic wave flipping over a loaded cargo ship, snapping the Golden Gate Bridge in two as if it were made of Legos, doesn’t wow us as much as it should. It’s just one more event within a litany of mayhem.
Peyton, who previously directed Johnson in 2012’s mediocre “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island,” smothers all the action in thick, glossy globs of CGI to such an extent that there’s an emotional disconnect. We are detached from the stakes here; the fact that millions of people probably die and major U.S. cities are decimated feels like an afterthought, like collateral damage. The Big One, which we in Los Angeles have prepared for our entire lives, basically serves as a catalyst for Johnson’s character to reconcile with his estranged wife and become a family once more with their 19-year-old daughter.
The normally charismatic Johnson is stuck in a ruggedly stoic role as Ray Gaines, a Los Angeles Fire Department helicopter pilot. At the film’s start, it’s clear he couldn’t be more capable or commanding at work, but his home life is a wreck. His wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), has just served him divorce papers as she prepares to move into the Beverly Hills mansion of her new boyfriend, a slick and insanely wealthy architect named Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd). Ray had been looking forward to driving his daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario), up the coast to college, but Daniel takes over that part of Ray’s life, too, by offering to fly her there instead in his private jet.
Even before the first hints of a rumble, it’s clear that the earth ripping apart will bring them all back together. But first, Ray must commandeer various vehicles in order to swoop in as Super Dad. It’s like “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” only with a catastrophic body count. First stop is the roof of a Los Angeles high rise, where Emma had been lunching at a luxurious restaurant with Daniel’s disapproving sister (a barely-there Kylie Minogue). (Peyton does stage a long and impressive tracking shot through the shaky chaos here, though.) Then, the two head north as a team to find Blake, who’s trapped in a limo inside the collapsed parking garage at Daniel’s San Francisco corporate headquarters. (So much for his skyscrapers being structurally sound).
But as Paul Giamatiti points out as Caltech seismologist Lawrence Hayes — the lone voice of reason and a welcome source of beautifully understated melodrama — the only thing to do in a situation like this is pray. Giamatti is the only person here who finds any subtext in “Lost” co-showrunner Carlton Cuse’s script, giving his rather unimaginative lines more gravitas and camp than they deserve.
Speaking of camp, Johnson gets one brief, shining opportunity to showcase his comic abilities when he unleashes a groaner of a pun in the middle of AT&T Park, the San Francisco Giants’ home, even as the city is collapsing all around him. “San Andreas” actually could have used more of that instinct. If nothing else, acknowledging its own over-the-top nature provides a much-needed variance in tone.
Mostly though, this guy is all business. There’s never any concern that Ray won’t save the day. He’s The Rock. He’s a behemoth. Although, in his quest to rescue Emma and Blake, he allows untold thousands to perish, even though it’s, like, his job to help people. This being a PG-13 movie that aims to appeal to the widest possible audience, “San Andreas” couldn’t be bothered with realistic stuff like suffering.
But the film does deserve credit for the strong female characters it offers in Emma and Blake. Thanks to all those years they spent with a quick-thinking and resourceful firefighter in the family, they not only know how to keep themselves alive but rescue others, as well. A pair of British brothers (Hugo Johnstone-Burt and Art Parkinson) not only survive thanks to Blake but also learn some first aid and emergency response tips.
Folks in the audience can learn a little something, too. For example: The perfectly coifed television reporter (Archie Panjabi) who’d been interviewing Giamatti’s character dashes for the doorway at the first seismic shift. He tells her not to do that — to get underneath a sturdy table or desk and hold on tight instead. So ultimately, this mindless spectacle is most effective in its traces of realism. How groundbreaking is that?