“San Andreas” unfolds exactly like a Roland Emmerich disaster movie, which means the screen is awash with computer-enhanced destruction of epic proportions, while predictable familial drama – laced with dialogue that no real person would ever utter – plays out in the background. The effects are impressive and the massive annihilation of property is thrilling enough, assuming that viewers can accommodate a modicum of sympathy for the paper-thin characters that fill clichés surprisingly not omitted from modern adventure films. “San Andreas” delivers exactly what its trailers promise, but little else, though a few brief moments hint at potential emotional impact – regularly sidelined for increasingly catastrophic sequences of natural disaster calamity.
Los Angeles Fire and Rescue helicopter pilot Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson) hopes to spend some quality time with his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) before she heads off to college – but a seismic episode in Nevada forces him to abruptly return to work. When an intense earthquake hits Southern California, Ray rescues his estranged wife Emma (Carla Gugino) before determining to travel north across the state to save their daughter. Meanwhile, Caltech seismologist Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) partners with news reporter Serena (Archie Panjabi) to warn as many people as possible of another inevitable quake of even larger magnitude that will hit San Francisco.
The visuals are sensational, but the human drama is comical. Instead of grasping believable forms of chaos and hysteria from frantic survivors, like the oftentimes depressingly dark immoralities witnessed in zombie movies, “San Andreas” opts for opportune romance between grateful youths, comedy relief during split-second decision making, and tearful confessions about guilt-ridden pasts. There’s even a highly exaggerated villain, concocted in an instant to wrench further anxiety from already strained relationships. And the dialogue is regularly laughable as monumental or heartrending speeches are unconvincingly delivered. Just because Paul Giamatti plays the leading expert (studying a revolutionary earthquake prediction system like something out of “Twister”), it doesn’t mean the message can be taken seriously.
The script also strangely juggles its oversized cast, captained by the “American Sniper” of rescuers, who opens the film with a daring helicopter mission to save a girl inside a car that dangles from the side of a crevasse. It’s a bit like the opening scene from “Cliffhanger,” except that it’s nearly devoid of suspense. Although there is plenty of random devastation, the camera focuses on numerous parties, most of which have fleeting resonance on the basic story of a family’s tribulations. A reporter and her cameraman, a team of scientists, a hacker, LAFD members, architects, relatives, job applicants, a waitress, and more all seem to snag screentime away from characters that actually have a part to play.
Then there’s the destruction itself. When dull or pointless roles aren’t interrupting the breathtaking environmental carnage, the screen is filled with staggering imagery of large-scale decimation. It’s all quite exciting until human interactions again replace the alarming CG obliteration of skyscrapers, streets, and cargo ships alike. The first-rate razing of San Francisco is almost enough to forget about the ludicrous coincidences that allow the core group of survivors to continually reunite (and simply stay alive) against a backdrop of millions of people dying and thousands of buildings collapsing.
– The Massie Twins (GoneWithTheTwins.com)