Chief Raymond “Ray” Gaines (Dwayne Johnson) has over 600 rescues between his time in the military and as a LA County rescue squad pilot. While he’s dedicated to his job he also has a daughter in college named Blake (Alexandra Daddario) and soon-to-be ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino). Emma is now in a relationship with rich architect Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffudd) and they will soon move in together. Ray has plans to drive Blake back to school but a sudden unexpected earthquake in Nevada destroys Hoover Dam and all area rescue squads are being called in to assist. Seismologist Dr. Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) was at the dam with a colleague verifying his theory of an increase in magnetic readings just prior to a tremblor when the quake hit. The resulting destruction kills Hayes co-researcher and also leads him to realize there’s an unknown fault line connecting Nevada and the San Andreas Fault running up nearly the entire coast of California. Hayes realizes the entire fault is about to unzip and unleash the biggest earthquakes in recorded history. Ray is on the phone with Emma when the first quake hits and he is able to rescue her before the building she is in completely collapses. Riddick has taken Blake back to San Francisco to school and they are at his office as he goes to a meeting when she meets Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt), a perspective employee who is waiting for an interview. Ben has brought his younger brother Ollie (Art Parkinson) as the two are from England and are in the states on holiday. As Blake and Daniel are leaving the parking garage in his limo, a quake hits, killing their driver and trapping Blake’s legs in the back of the car. Daniel can’t free her and leaves to get some help but is stunned by falling debris and runs away from the building. Ben and Ollie hear Daniel tell a security officer about Blake being trapped and head to the garage. Blake uses her cell to call Ray telling him what happened. He and Emma decide to fly the chopper to San Francisco and rescue Blake themselves.
After a pretty intense opening action scene (that tricks you into thinking one thing is about to cause an accident when it’s entirely another) the first thing you’ll notice about “San Andreas” is its pacing. The movie isn’t in that big a hurry to begin pummeling you with computer generated mayhem. We get some domestic drama and a little science leading up to the beginning of the destruction. After the initial bit of build-up, the damage is laid on pretty thick and consistently until we reach more domestic drama. It’s these speed bumps that bring “San Andreas” to several unwanted stops.
While the look of the film is mostly amazing with scenes of building collapse that brought about unpleasant reminders of 9/11, there are a few minor quibbles I had with some of the special effects. The biggest is the lack of reaction by the smoke and dust as the helicopter flew through it. The downwash of a chopper causes enormous turbulence in the air which becomes clear when the vehicle flies through smoke and dust. At least twice, Ray flies through a cloud of some sort that doesn’t react in any way. Is this being nitpicky? Yes it is; however, when you throw $110-million at a movie, the least you could do is add a couple thousand dollars more to get the physics of airflow through particulates correct. Of course, that isn’t “San Andreas” biggest fault.
The story of family torn apart by disaster in the present and the past is at best clichéd. The way it is handled here is so melodramatic as to cause muscle strain from eye rolling. At every opportunity, heartstrings are plucked and the film attempts to force the audience to experience an emotion other than tension. Sadly, that’s all the film really has is tension as Ray and Emma race against time and the elements to find their daughter. All the extra stuff about how the couple came apart and how (spoiler alert) obviously by the end of the movie they’ll be back together is handled in about the most ham fisted way possible. There’s no subtlety or any effort put forth to tell a real story. Director Brad Peyton gives us the equivalent of soap opera or telenovela: Every event is apocalyptic and could lead to the deaths of any member of the cast. All that’s missing is a mustache-twirling villain. Actually that isn’t missing as poor Ioan Gruffudd is given the thankless and tiny role of bad guy. How can a movie about earthquakes have a bad guy, you may ask? Actually, there could have been several from governmental officials telling the scientist to keep quiet or a completing seismologist claiming Dr. Hayes had everything wrong and there was nothing to worry about. That would have allowed for ongoing tension between another set of characters that could have had a satisfying conclusion. Instead, we get a selfish rich guy who abandons his soon-to-be step-daughter trapped in the back of a limo. After he leaves her, we only get two more brief scenes with him. The role is utterly wasted and must have had more scenes showing what a jerk he was that ended up on the cutting room floor to save time and make room for more digital damage. It’s a role that winds up being a complete waste of time and film.
The movie also does something that annoyed me very badly: The inappropriate romantic moment. Blake and Ben, who wind up traveling together, develop the beginnings of a romance that culminates in a kiss. Oh, how I hate the kiss. Not this one in particular, but all the romantic crap that is dropped in to any movie where two characters fighting for their lives develop feelings for each other and kiss when they are in the worst of their journey. I won’t describe the surroundings when the kiss happens as to not spoil anything about the catastrophes preceding it but the last thing on anyone’s mind in such a situation would be swapping spit. Of all the story elements that don’t make a huge amount of sense, this one really defies all logic.
It probably sounds like I hate this film yet I don’t. “San Andreas” has the one thing going for it that is stronger than a computer generated 9.6 magnitude earthquake: Dwayne Johnson. While he’s not the best actor in the world, Johnson is probably one of the most likable. His easy style and every-man attitude instantly grabs your sympathy. Early on, Johnson is looking at pictures of his family from when they were together. Once you get past the horrific Photoshop, you begin to see that Johnson is actually selling the idea of his character’s pain at the loss of his family. Johnson is given a couple of chances to explore the character’s pain and manages to make the audience believe he’s feeling the void. Next to the visuals, Johnson is the best thing about “San Andreas.”
“San Andreas” is rated PG-13 for intense disaster action and mayhem throughout, and brief strong language. Buildings are dropped left and right throughout the film. The destruction of Hoover Dam has a scene showing a person whose foot is impaled by rebar. Another person gets a large piece of glass stuck in their leg. We also see its extraction. While there is some blood there is no gore. Foul language is wide spread and fairly mild with the exception of a couple of “F-bombs.”
“San Andreas” is a decent action picture that sports amazing visuals. It also is a master class in clichéd filmmaking. The one saving grace is a charismatic star that, while built like a Greek god, still seems like a person with whom you’d be able to share an adult beverage. While the film is largely visual disaster porn, Dwayne Johnson manages to give it some heart.
“San Andreas” gets three stars out of five.
You can choose from scares, comedy and dudes this week. I’ll see and review at least one of these films.
Insidious: Chapter 3—
Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and email to email@example.com.