Although “San Andreas” boasts one of the more promising face-offs in disaster movie history — The Rock vs. Geology — this mundane earthquake flick is hardly groundbreaking.
Directed by Brad Peyton (“Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore”), “San Andreas” packs plenty of on-screen mayhem in its 114 minutes, and its mostly convincing visual effects make for an impressive spectacle on the big screen.
But it’s nothing new, as a paint-by-numbers screenplay boasts all the standard disaster movie tropes, all while begging the question, “What if earthquakes were as predictable as this dialogue?”
Really, it’s as though the filmmakers were reading off a checklist. A harried scientist trying to warn the population before it’s too late? Check. Troubled family brought together by crisis? Certainly. Golden Gate Bridge destroyed? Well, that goes without saying. In fact, the only thing missing is a golden retriever leaping to safety from a crumbling skyscraper.
It also neuters any sense of urgency, making this less of an action movie and more of a Universal Studios theme park ride. Audiences are simply watching a simulated earthquake, with cardboard characters serving as fodder.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (“Furious 7”) stars as Ray Gaines, a Los Angeles fire and rescue pilot en route to Nevada, where an earthquake of unprecedented magnitude has obliterated the Hoover Dam.
But this is no ordinary earthquake. As CalTech seismologist Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti, “American Splendor”) posits, the entire San Andreas fault is about to “go off,” obliterating the California coast from Los Angeles all the way to San Francisco.
When Gaines realizes his estranged wife, Emma (Carla Gugino, “Watchmen”), is stranded in L.A., while his daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario, TV’s “Parenthood”), is in San Francisco with her smarmy, soon-to-be stepfather (Ioan Gruffudd, 2005’s “Fantastic Four”), he kicks his rescue chopper into third (or its helicopter equivalent) to come to the rescue.
Sure enough, the quakes hit, delivering the CGI carnage as promised — and plenty of it. From toppling buildings to buckling cityscapes to the fleeing and flailing masses, “San Andreas” can’t be faulted when it comes to straight-up disaster porn (Google “Roland Emmerich” for more on this subject). But that’s really all there is to it, with characters serving simply as set-up for the next CGI setpiece.
The problem is that for an over-the-top disaster flick, “San Andreas” takes itself way too seriously, regarding itself and its wacky pseudo-science with an out-of-place sense of gravity. Really, the only gravity to be found is in the literal sense, and even that’s not very exciting.
As far as suspense goes, there’s barely any to be found. Instead of overcoming obstacles, our characters seem to just wander around them. Although Gaines is always on the move, flying his chopper into a narrow canyon, skydiving onto a baseball diamond and charging headfirst into a tsunami, this is probably The Rock at his least ass-kicking.
We’re not expecting him to dive headfirst into a crevasse, land on a tectonic plate and grapple with Hades (obviously played by Vin Diesel), but “San Andreas” barely gives him any room to flex. That would, however, make one heck of a better movie. “The Fast and the Furious: Continental Drift.”
Maybe next summer.
“San Andreas” is rated PG-13 for intense disaster action and mayhem throughout and brief strong language.