California is shaking and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson is the only man who can save his wife and hot daughter from those antsy tectonic plates. Boys and girls, let’s play the disaster movie drinking game. Take a shot every time someone asks ‘are you okay?’ to someone who really should not be okay; every time the super dad tells the camera he’s gonna ‘get his daughter’; every time someone says ‘little [X] is all grown up’; every close-up of a scary red graph; every time someone busts into an office and says ‘you have to see this’; every time someone has to stop mid-flee to save some crouching idiot. Feeling woozy? I’d add blatant 9/11 imagery but the film’s final couple of minutes would sent you straight to A&E.
San Andreas is directed by Brad Peyton (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) and has had a string of screenwriters working on it but its real author is Hollywood’s disaster movie algorithm. You could set your watch to the story and dialogue beats. An old observation that the disaster genre is always really about the integrity of the family unit is blatantly in force here, where all it takes is a few thousand civilian deaths for mom and pop to finally open up to each other. Jay (Johnson) is an army vet and Los Angeles Fire & Rescue chopper pilot who abandons his post as soon as the Big One hits, civic duty proving no match for brute biological imperative. His daughter (Alexandra Daddario) is heading off to college and his wife Emma (Carla Gugino) is shacking up with a faintly smarmy architect (Ioan Gruffudd), whose money-man femininity just can’t compete with Jay’s bulging manly virtue. (After some hilariously hammy scenes of him being an asshole to other survivors, he’s neatly dispatched by some hostile masonry.)
Every now and then we cut to Paul Giamatti’s seismologist, freaking out about terrifying numbers and delivering Science Exposition, but the movie’s mainly split between dad and daughter. San Andreas is more, well, grounded than Roland Emmerich hyper-catastrophes; there’s no magical planet-killing neutrinos and remarkably few shots of ravaged landmarks. And amongst all the digitally-rendered real estate destruction there are a handful of competently designed set-pieces, like when Emma crashes through a series of collapsing floors on a slab of concrete. San Andreas seems to be going for the character-driven vibe of ’70s disaster movies like Mark Robson’s Earthquake. Trouble is there isn’t quite enough personality to its small pool of or threat of them being killed off to maintain believable suspense.
A large-scale, loud, rumbly blockbuster is exactly the sort of thing Johnson is well suited for, but San Andreas really needed a lighter touch to make good use of his talent for big-hearted, charismatic wisecrackery. Some pleasingly groanworthy one-liners aside, most of his material is stale and over-earnest. Occasionally a decent actor breaks through, like when he breaks down talking about his dead other daughter, standard tragic backstory stuff that’s actually quite affecting. The 29 year-old Daddario, so beautiful she may as well be from another species, is hard to buy as a teenager who’s just finished high school, but it’s good to see a young, female protagonist who is resourceful and not just a victim. She hooks up with an English bloke and his comic relief little brother and steers them to safety with her disaster-zone smarts. Inevitably she still has to be rescued by Daddy (a cleverer film would have reversed the roles). San Andreas’ stupidity is sometimes unbearably naff and sometimes kind of endearing in spite of itself. Go see it with a big audience; we weren’t always laughing for the right reasons, but at least we were having a decent time. Busy but hardly ground-breaking. Conor Smyth