Living in Southern California, there are two constant worries on the mind: earthquakes and bad movies. With San Andreas, Californians can simultaneously indulge themselves woefully inane disaster porn while watching a computer generated reproduction of their backyard being torn apart on screen. But there’s nothing in San Andreas that makes it work watching as the film is a moronic mess of muddled character motivations and massive set pieces overly reliant on CG effects.
San Andreas expends its limited amount of wit in the open scene of the film. A young woman driver is constantly being distracted while driving. She texts while driving. She reaches back for a water bottle on a winding road. Each time nothing happens. It’s a clever little fake out and the only clever thing to occur throughout the film. From there, the young girl is side-swiped by a rock slide. Her car tumbling down rocks, broken glass flying, as she flails around in the wreckage. Amazingly, this young woman is able to remain conscious, let alone survive, following such a violent fall. She dangles close to death until Ray (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) and his team of rescuers swoop down and save her. Now you might think that this opening sequence, which involves Ray and his team being interviewed by television new reporter Serena (Archie Punjabi), would establish this team of men who worked together in Afghanistan will work together when the advertised earthquake hits. That’s not the case as the team are jettisoned, never to be seen again.
Following the narratively pointless opening scene, the film tries to put all its pieces in place before the eventual disaster. There’s Ray’s wife Emma (Carla Gugino), who has just recently filed for divorce and plans to move in with her billionaire boyfriend Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd). There’s also The Rock’s blue-eyed daughter Blake (Alexendra Daddario). Then there’s the CalTech seismologist Lawrence (Paul Giamatti) and his partner Kim (Will Yun Lee). Finally, there’s the British man Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt), who for some reason brings his kid brother Ollie (Art Parkinson) along with him on job interviews. When the Big One hits, Ray is working as a rescue pilot in the LA area. He turns around from a rescue mission and flies into Los Angeles to save his soon-to-be ex-wife. After rescuing her, Ray receives a call from his daughter trapped in the rubble of San Francisco. Like any true hero, Ray turns his back as an emergency worker in the midst of a catastrophic emergency, diverting valuable resources to save his daughter.
Of all the many faults within San Andreas (get it?), perhaps the most unforgivable is the absolute wasting of Dwayne Johnson. One of the most charismatic actors working today plays a character that is as interesting as a wet paper bag. What really makes the Johnson’s character so astoundingly unlikable is the fact that, as mentioned earlier, he uses his position as a rescue worker to help his family, passing the plight of countless others along the way. This is a movie for people who thought Superman rescued too many people in Man of Steel. Singling out Dwayne Johnson’s Ray is to be unfair to the rest of the cast burdened with paper-thin characters. Carla Gugino is the ungrateful wife who never realized her husband’s bravery until she witnesses first-hand his disregard for others in an attempt to save his daughter. Alexandra Daddario may be a fine actress, but one would never know based upon her performances as a perpetual damsel in distress. She has the kind of character that is referred to as smart without presenting any corroborating evidence. The only actor to understand the inherent absurdity of the film is Paul Giamatti. The guy’s just a pro and is the only one that even remotely sells his character in the film.
It’s so hard to determine exactly who is to blame for the chaotic mess of San Andreas. Director Brad Peyton does sneak in slight moments of cinematic competence only to have them buckle under the weight of a shaky script. Penned by Carlton Cuse of Lost fame and based on a story by Andre Fabrizio and Jeremy Passmore, the script is muddled and borderline nonsensical. It’s only concerned with moving from set piece to set piece without putting forth the effort to make us care what happens in these set pieces. For example, after just rescuing Emma, Ray receives a call from Blake – because cell service is perfectly functional after a catastrophic disaster. All this does is completely eliminate any tension. Everyone’s fine and in communication, not an ounce of suspense. But Peyton doesn’t do himself any favors in the big action set pieces either. Computer generated destruction of major cities isn’t anything new and lacking any kind of emotional investment in the characters or what is happening, it’s just this weightless devastation.
San Andreas is a movie that confuses the selfishness of its main character for heroism. I’d say that the film also confuses spectacle for story, but the story is nothing more than a bunch of events tied together by coincidence and the spectacle is lackluster at best, usually punctuated by ripping off the “BWARGH!” from Inception. I entered San Andreas with modest expectations, hoping mainly for a fun throwback to classic disaster films. What I found was a movie that isn’t even dumb fun, just dumb.