San Andreas is basically an “Honest Trailer” movie. If you don’t know what an “Honest Trailer” is, it comes from the Youtube channel Screen Junkies and is usually a four-to-five minute set of clips summarizing a film, usually a blockbuster, via its detriments. Clips of bad dialogue are shown, nonsensical character decisions too. Bad acting isn’t safe either. All of those traits aren’t merely prevalent in the disaster film San Andreas; those are its only traits.
The film stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Ray, a military veteran, helicopter pilot and all-around saving people-person. He’s kind and also going through the final stages of a divorce with Emma (Carla Gugino), much to the dismay of their daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario).
Then the earth shakes and, give or take, millions die. This is all caused by secret fault lines and the famous San Andreas one of the movie’s title, which unleashes its full might over and over again on parts of Nevada and California. Ray tries to save, well, not really anyone other than his wife and daughter, the latter who ends up thousands of miles away. Said miles Ray plots to cross via helicopter because in this movie that’s a thing. We all know disaster movies tend to be on the dumber, leave your brain at the door variety. San Andreas asks us not to just leave the brain, but to have it shipped to Mars.
Directed by Brad Peyton (Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore), a film like this is meant to wow with its disaster porn. Admittedly, this has never been a genre I’ve particularly warmed to, but this kind of thing can work on different levels. The spectacle can be awe-inspiring. Here, it’s mostly the same things we’ve seen before. A tsunami wiping out a major metropolis; seen it. A boat struggling to reach over the crest of a giant wave; done that. Skyscrapers crumbling like Jenga pieces; tired of it. This isn’t so much cliché as it is lazy.
The alternate route for a disaster picture is to delve into the characters. Here’s it dusty, old stock tropes. Johnson, usually at least charismatic, is rather bad here. The character is admittedly nothing beyond good guy, silent type, whose dialogue is largely shouting, “Are you okay?!” Nevertheless, Johnson sports the same three faces over and over again. We have squinty, something is tough to do face. There is wide-eyed, deep breath as craziness occurs face. Rounding out the group is the classic Rock smirk. It’s all part of the annual reminder that Johnson is a weak leading man (Faster, Snitch) but an enticing supporting spice (Fast anything).
The supporting ensemble isn’t aiding matters. The normally reliable Gugino is borderline bad, overacting and then some. Ioan Gruffadd pops up to be the laughably self-centered step-dad to be. Paul Giamatti is here because, sure, why not. He’s a scientist there to talk about give perspective to how bad all of the earthquakes are and little else. There’s also a pair of English boys, the older of which appears willing to risk little brother’s life to make goo-goo eyes at Ms. Daddario.
It all ends in a bit of hurrah America that is entirely unearned and ignorant of the shear devastation it gleefully plays with.