There’s an innate preposterousness to San Andreas, as there usually is in disaster pornography. Like horror movies, there’s something to the mass catastrophe genre that embeds itself in the popular psyche. There’s something to watching the destruction of recognizable cities while clutching a tub of popcorn. And there’s something to cheering on impossibly attractive people as they run from stuff.
Usually, the factor that helps make such horrors easy to digest is fun. It requires a certain sense of idiocy to actually find amusement in such chaos, but San Andreas proceeds with such tacky earnestness that it’s rather dull. It’s also repetitive and self-absorbed, filled with predictable characters that don’t give a rat’s ass about anyone else outside their circle of cinematic influence.
Dwayne Johnson stars as Ray Gaines, a Los Angeles Fire Department Air Rescue pilot. He’s in the middle of a divorce from his estranged wife Emma (Carla Gugino) and is supposed to take his college-ready daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) to San Francisco. Unfortunately, a massive earthquake strikes as the San Andreas Fault is beginning to shift.
Seismologist Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) handles things away from the action, warning about the biggest earthquake in history that’s about to strike. Naturally, Ray and his daughter get separated after Emma’s new beau Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd) flies her to the city instead. Ray and Emma reunite to rescue their daughter from the disaster-stricken city, ducking the fallout as they go.
Some disaster movies have a point, like the 1974 film The Towering Inferno. That picture illustrated the consequence of cutting financial corners when building a superstructure. In the case of Brad Peyton’s San Andreas, it’s all about saving and refurbishing the family unit. This isn’t an uncommon theme when all hell breaks loose (see Jurassic World), but it does invite a certain degree of banality.
San Andreas telegraphs this from the start when the Rock performs a daring rescue in front of an approving reporter and her cameraman. His hero status is never in doubt. He’s even revealed radiant in white light, a sheer sign of his beatific presence as he hovers from above over the bloodbath. How helpful he is to his fellow humans manages to be another matter.
Gaines has the usual demons. One of his daughters died, which seems to have led to the breakdown of his marriage. And the breakdown of his marriage has led his wife to run to the arms of the obvious scoundrel, which leads to the projectable comeuppance scene right on schedule. It also leads to the further coagulation of the unit, especially after Blake discovers her love interest (Hugh Johnstone-Burt).
These dramatic moments are offset by Peyton’s disaster porn, which showcases buildings tumbling down and going boom over and over again. There are the expected set pieces and the expected landmarks fall to ruin by either the quake or the subsequent tsunami. It’s all built with sleek CGI, which gives it that necessary dehumanizing effect required to make mass destruction fun for the whole family.
Very little in San Andreas actually matters. The characters are dull and overdone, with the family dynamic draining any authentic humanity from the film. The CGI is predictably “nice-looking,” with slivers of glass and crashing waves paving the way for more obliteration. And the Rock is the Rock, a reliable if underwhelming action performer cast in a role that asks him to do too much.
San Andreas is the sort of contraption put together in a laboratory, like a fast food “hamburger.” It’s designed to provide maximum impact, offering up stories people are supposed to care about and destruction they’re supposed to enjoy. It’s formulaic and, as a result, manages to be remarkably monotonous if taste comes into the picture.
Of course, taking thinking off the menu would make Peyton’s feast of folly all the more impressive. Having a few drinks beforehand would also help, but those inadequate distractions don’t actually make San Andreas a good movie. Sometimes trash can be elevated to the level of entertainment and even art because it has the energy and/or passion to get the job done. This isn’t one of those times.