4 out of 10
Dwayne Johnson as Ray
Directed by Brad Peyton
When an unprecedented event signals that the entire San Andreas Fault might blow causing earthquakes across the Western Seaboard, an L.A. rescue copter pilot (Dwayne Johnson) needs to find and rescue his estranged wife (Carla Gugino) and daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) before the quakes cause even more destruction.
At this point, I’m highly dubious any filmmaker short of Martin Scorsese might be able to make a disaster movie that can stand up to some of the classics from the ‘70s, mainly because they don’t seem to realize you have to put as much time into the script and the characters as you do the FX sequences of destruction. San Andreas basically has the same problem as every other recent disaster flick, because it requires so much suspension of disbelief even as it tries to use scientific facts to show us nature at its worst.
We meet Dwayne Johnson’s Ray, a skilled helicopter rescue pilot and his crew as they save a teen girl whose car has gone off a mountain pass during a small quake, a scene that serves little purpose except to show how brave Ray is. No one else in that scene ever appears again, including Ray’s support team. We’re then introduced to Paul Giamatti’s Lawrence Hayes, a Caltech professor of seismology who is working with his partner Dr. Kim Park to find a way to predict earthquakes (Don’t worry too much about having a Korean actor playing a character with the most Korean name humanly possible since he doesn’t stick around too long after they witness the Hoover Dam being destroyed by one such quake they fail to predict.)
From there, the film jumps between Daddario as Ray’s daughter, stranded in San Francisco with two British guys she meets when the first quake hits, and Ray’s estranged wife Emma and him trying to get to San Francisco to save her. The characters are such bland disaster movie stereotypes, there isn’t much there to keep you interested in their plight, which is basically all it has to offer in terms of a story.
In fact, Ray may arguably be one of the worst rescue pilots ever. After the brave save that opens the film, he literally abandons his duty as part of the L.A. fire department, essentially stealing his chopper to save his soon-to-be ex-wife and then deserts his city altogether to go with her to save their daughter in San Francisco. What a hero. Not only is Ray a skilled copter pilot, but he’s also capable of other amazing feats including a tandem jump out of a small pilot-less plane and pulling off seemingly impossible feats with a speed boat. Even Emma has the skills to do some pretty fancy boat driving herself.
San Andreas is like a lesson in how to ruin a movie by over-foreshadowing every single thing that happens later in the most blatantly obvious way. When Emma’s new boyfriend Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffud), who happens to be an architect, shows Blake his new high-rise building in San Francisco, it’s hard not to laugh at the fact that yeah, that building is probably going to come crashing down sometime during the movie. It does.
There are other similarly dumb moments like when Blake and her companions, realizing their cell phone service is out, goes out of their way to find an electronics store, just so they can find a phone to plug into a wall jack so she can call her worried parents to let them know she’s okay. Oh, and that Daniel abandoned her, which they repeat over and over to drive home the fact that Daniel’s a jerk, which we already know. That doesn’t stop them from going to great lengths to go to San Francisco to rescue Blake as they switch from one vehicle to the next in the process.
While the heroes seem to be able to outrun the quakes that level entire city blocks in seconds, everyone else is fairly expendable, from the obnoxious character played by Kylie Minogue who dies as soon as we meet her, to the other extras who essentially run around, reacting to the effects of the quake before they’re similarly picked off.
Johnson gives such a flat and lifeless performance that mainly consists of him sitting in his chopper’s cockpit against a green screen giving all sorts of hilariously inappropriate reaction shots to what’s going on around him. Gugino is probably the best of the bunch in terms of acting, although she isn’t given much to do except yell “Oh My God!” at everything. Many of her scenes with Johnson seem to have been shot on a green screen stage with backgrounds that are far from seamless. Throughout all this mayhem, everyone seems to have time to talk at length about Ray and Emma’s other daughter, who they lost when she drowned while white water rafting, which normally would be a good way to develop the characters if done in the first act, but instead it’s more of that awful foreshadowing we mentioned.
Even the film’s single Oscar nominee, Paul Giamatti, seems unable to disguise his sudden realization what a bad movie he’s in as he spouts all sorts of scientific babble that he easily could be reading straight from Wikipedia. In one particularly funny scene, Hayes is being interviewed on television by Archie Panjabi–really? That’s the best role this talented actress can get?–when one of his assistants comes in to tell him that the entire San Andreas Fault is about to blow. Most reporters would be on the phone to their news room immediately breaking this enormous potentially life-saving scoop, but instead, they continue to talk until the quake hits taking out communications in order to create a subplot about them hacking into the networks to warn people about an impeding earthquake… after it’s already devastated most of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Not much of a scientific breakthrough to create software that can predict earthquakes mere seconds before they happen, is it? Of course, Dr. Hayes is hailed as a hero as well.
But that’s par for the course in a movie that’s so ridiculous, it makes Roland Emmerich’s 2012 seem almost sane… and that’s saying something considering how insane that movie gets. With such infernally uninteresting main characters unable to keep things even remotely grounded, you end up with a lot of spectacle and not a lot of real payoff.
Clearly, Brad Peyton isn’t a good enough filmmaker to understand how to make the most out of such a weak and lazy script, so he focuses more of his attention on the bigger set pieces, but the visual FX are so cheesy at times they don’t do much to make up for how bad everything else is.
At times, San Andreas is so bad it’s funny, but most of the time, it’s just bad.