If a major American city is leveled in the near future, will we be shocked by the imagery that we see on the news? Such an event is unlikely, of course, but so many blockbusters of the past couple of decades have collectively managed to make such large-scale destruction feel routine. I've seen New York City, San Francisco, Chicago and so many other cities torn apart time after time on the big screen. Now, when I visit a big city, it's entirely too easy to imagine a version of it that's nothing but dust and rubble. I don't know why we're so drawn to such imagery, but it continues to anchor one massive hit after another.
Brad Peyton's disaster film San Andreas not only incorporates such destruction, but builds an entire movie around it. Sure, there are “characters” and a “story” and “themes” - or at least cardboard cutouts of such things – but the real stars here are the massive earthquakes that rip cities in half and kill thousands of people in a matter of mere seconds. It was a modest hit in America, but a massive one internationally: expensive special effects are a universal language.
Our hero is Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson, The Rundown), a Los Angeles Fire Department rescue pilot who devotes his life to incredibly dangerous, sexy rescue missions (a blustery opening sequence finds him pulling a young woman out of a car dangling off the edge of a cliff). Ray's done a lot of brave stuff, but the biggest challenge of his career arrives when a 7.1 earthquake hits that collapses the Hoover Dam and does serious damage to the west coast. This is only the beginning: scientist Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti, Sideways) has developed a foolproof way of predicting earthquakes, and he anticipates that a far more devastating quake is just around the corner.
This sets up an opportunity for San Andreas to deliver a series of high-stakes setpieces, with Johnson flying around from one place to another and saving damsels (and dudes) in distress. Alas, it turns out that Ray doesn't really care that much about the no-name extras being crushed by falling buildings. He only cares about his family, so he quickly abandons his post and teams up with his estranged wife Emma (Carla Gugino, Sin City) – who has just moved in with a shifty guy named Daniel (Ioan Gruffud, Fantastic Four) – to find and rescue their daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario, True Detective). Meanwhile, Blake is having her own adventure of sorts, simultaneously dodging debris and falling in love with a dopey British hunk (Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Goddess).
Self-absorbed dereliction of duty aside, the biggest problem with Johnson's character is the film doesn't give the actor enough room to have any fun. In the right setting, Johnson can be an enormously appealing movie star (just look at the way the Fast/Furious franchise has employed him), but San Andreas has no interest in taking advantage of his swaggering, playful charisma. Instead, Johnson has been asked to play a gloomy man haunted by a tragedy in his past, which he does competently but blandly. He's asked to serve up a goofy one-liner here and there (after parachuting into the middle of a baseball field while holding his wife: “It's been a long time since I got you to second base”), but it happens so infrequently that those moments always feel tonally out-of-sync with everything else.
For the most part, San Andreas is a gloomy, mournful blockbuster, which is a pity since it's entirely too dumb to take seriously. Peyton and writer Carlton Cuse would have been better off aiming for disaster movie fun, but instead they insist on presenting everything with tiresome, stone-faced gravity. The movie feels tired, and not just because the technically impressive special effects feel like variations on things we've seen in a million other movies. The characters are so consistently dull – colorful stereotypes would have been an improvement on the vanilla versions of Hero, Hero's Girl, Teenager, Scientist and Cowardly Heel (Gruffud, naturally – the movie doesn't want to complicate Ray's attempt to patch things up with Emma) this movie gives us. The only actor who manages to overcome the limitations of his part is Giamatti, who brings such wide-eyed conviction to his generic proclamations of doom. “It will be so big, that even though it's happening here in California, you will feel it on the East Coast,” he declares, and for just a second, you're on the edge of your seat. Imagine what he could have done with a good movie.
Rating: ★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 114 minutes
Release Year: 2015