The technical magic of San Andreas gives the pleasure of seeing a city you love obliterated and trashed and turned into a Sargasso of debris—I mean, it looks far worse than San Francisco does already today. Everyone who lives here knows that cold finger of dread in their guts as they enter the underground parking garage that might suddenly become their tomb. They know that element of fear that comes from walking under skyscrapers covered with lethal glass just a fault-line twitch away from plummeting like the ultimate guillotine. They entertain bad daydreams about what it would be like to be speared with rebar, or squished with concrete.
It’s all here for the delectation: the East Bay hills ablaze, the bridges sundered, AT&T Park crumbled to the satisfaction of the most ardent Dodgers fan. Vast armies of people got some very sore tendons shifting these pixels. All those effects pale compared to the amazement of Dwayne Johnson’s massive head. How does he move that thing? It’s an irony that a man with deltoids like that is stymied when it comes to the heavy lifting required in drama.
I blame crapmeister director Brad Peyton, who keeps loading stuff onto Johnson’s Atlas-like shoulders. Ray (Johnson) is a heroic chopper pilot for LA search and rescue; he has a sad home life that contrasts his fearlessness. Of course The Rock is an underrated performer, but who wants to see him pantomime regret for a broken marriage?Or watch him mime fatherly pride for his vacuous daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario)? Peyton tries to add the tectonic plates of class rubbing against each other for more dramatic friction. He has a half-hearted villain: Daniel (Ioan Gruffud), an architect with a private jet charter reserved at all times. Daniel is currently affianced to The Rock’s ex-wife (Carla Gugino, trying to keep her baby face straight and interested). This architect is a rich creep who will cut and run in the clinch. Before that happens, though, Peyton spoils the potential fun. Blake flashes a half-smile of compassion when Daniel explains that he forgot to have children because his skyscrapers are his children. Maybe a little parental arrogance would have been more savory—“Not even God himself could topple my buildings, ha ha! Do you hear me? Not even GOD!”
If you thought The Impossible was a matchless work of moral idiocy, in the way that it claimed that one European family’s survival mitigated the thousands of Asian dead, please get a load of this. In San Andreas , a man going out there and rounding up his strayed womenfolk outbalances the matter of most of California being destroyed. We’re supposed to be so sympathetic to Ray’s plight as a family man that we won’t notice that he, too, has cut and run. He flees the city he was paid to protect in a stolen helicopter. It’s just a quick hop up the coast. How far can LA be from SF? But Ray is anxious to look for his daughter who — if her poolside bikini scene is a clue — is built well enough to look out for herself.
Not only is there an idiotic place of rendezvous for the family — “that big nozzle thing,” meaning Coit Tower — but Blake carries her own survivors in tow. That’s romantic lead Hugo Johnstone-Burt (kind of like Hugh Grant playing a cadet member of the Windsor family) as well as the Englishman’s little brother and chaperone, Ollie (Art Parkinson). Young Ollie’s behavior is inexplicable for a well-brought up Brit. I suspect that in an early draft of the script Ollie was “special”: I mean, special like Simple Jack in Tropic Thunder . I can hear the script conference now: “Does he have to be ‘special’ ”? Can we just dress him funny and give him a bad haircut?”
There are two things that keep the calamitous dumbth of this movie from sinking to the center of the earth under its own weight, triggering its own seismic activity as it crashes to the solid core. One is a berserk shoot-the-tsunami surfing moment wherein the shamelessness pays off—like the snakes on the plane, or the laser at 007’s crotch.
The other, far more precious, is Paul Giamatti as the Cal Tech seismologist who sets the stage for us. Giamatti knows how to sell a quake. “It’s not just a matter of if… but a matter of when.” The ‘when’ part is up in the air, a little: “Contrary to popular belief, scientists don’t know everything!” he twinkles. Giamatti’s marvelous comic timing is evident in every scene, and if the movie is no great shakes, he is.
Opens Friday, May 29, 2015 in theaters nationwide. www.sanandreasmovie.com.
Richard von Busack is a staff writer at San Jose’s Metro Newspapers. He’s the author of The Art of Megamind and has written for Entertainment Weekly, n +1 and cinematical.com. He’s a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.