The disaster movie model holds up better than the hundreds of crumbling, shattering buildings in the earth-rattling San Andreas, a film that finds Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (and his biceps) battling Mother Nature to a stalemate. Expecting the film to live up to the staggering heights of classic ’70s disaster flicks is probably too much, but director Brad Peyton, who teamed up with Johnson on the equally campy Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, knows that he’s got a star who can literally carry this kind of old school action spectacle on his broad shoulders.
The tropes of disaster films have become so ingrained at this point that we no longer expect any variation, and San Andreas certainly doesn’t try to break the mold. Johnson plays heroic helicopter rescue pilot Ray Gaines, a guy so good at what he does the Los Angeles news sends crews to chronicle his exploits. Basically, Johnson is playing Johnson here; his t-shirts are a size too small, he always looks like he just bathed in baby oil and anything can be solved with a flex of his biceps and some strong words. That’s the Johnson audiences paid to see and they get it in spades. Gaines has a soon-to-be ex-wife (Carla Gugino) and a beautiful young daughter (Alexandra Daddario), who we all know will be in need of rescue when disaster strikes. But they also need to be rescued from the mother’s new boyfriend, a sleazy architect (Ioan Gruffudd, always good at playing the rich sleaze bag) who builds skyscrapers we know are destined to crumble.
So lots of easy setup here by screenwriter Carlton Cuse (Lost), who gives us some family drama to tug at our heartstrings while the entire west coast shakes, rattles, and rolls into oblivion when the largest earthquake in history strikes. Paul Giamatti plays CalTech’s Dr. Lawrence Hayes, and gets all of the geeky geological stuff about fault lines that nobody really cares about. His job is to make everything sound ominous, and to predict stuff we already know is going to happen. When he tells us the worst is yet to come, we already know it.
That San Andreas is predictable as Johnson sweating buckets isn’t going to surprise anybody. That the film is still largely entertaining throughout is all that really matters, and that is due to Johnson’s alpha male performance and genuine chemistry with Gugino. While their characters’ marital issues are laid out pretty thin, the past tragedy they share is what inspires their dogged quest through Hell (meaning Hollywood) to save their wayward daughter. That we can buy into easily, with Gugino and Johnson delivering solid performances as the frantic parents. As great an actor as Giamatti is he’s had more than his share of junky roles and this is another one. But he also knows how to calibrate his performance perfectly to the level of the material, so we can sense him having quite a bit of fun as the stodgy professor urging citizens to evacuate “because your lives depend on it”.
Peyton acquits himself well with this Emmerich-sized disaster, delivering an impressive mass destruction of San Francisco and Los Angeles, with the decimation of the Hoover Dam the biggest payoff scene. But when you’ve seen one CGI building collapse you’ve seen a thousand, and pretty soon it loses any real shock value. It doesn’t help that Johnson and Gugino’s characters are often above the fray, literally flying over the worst of the chaos. The bulk of the survival action involves Daddario and co-star Hugo Johnston-Burt as a British tourist and potential love interest, plus Art Parkinson as his precocious little brother.
Reverberating like massive aftershocks, the film goes from one exciting set piece to another with little time to catch a breath in-between. It also doesn’t leave much time to think about the plot, such as it is. Disaster movies may be the most reliable genre Hollywood has to offer, but as a recent flick like Into the Storm proves, they’re also remarkably easy to screw up. San Andreas is predictable fun, but with Johnson swinging in to the rescue it also delivers plenty of muscular thrills.