San Andreas is a big, dumb brute of a film, a lumbering CGI spectacle with paper-thin plot and some positively wince-worthy dialogue. And yet, despite all that, it somehow manages to remain strikingly entertaining for most of its running time, delivering escalating thrills, absurd escapades and even the occasional one-liner.
Dwayne ‘not-the-Rock-anymore’ Johnson stars as Ray, what passes for an everyman in a Hollywood action film – that is, a Search and Rescue helicopter pilot who can also fly a plane, sail a boat and skydive, and who looks like he could probably carry his own chopper into work tucked under his arm.
Ray has the requisite disaster movie family: a soon-to-be-ex-wife (Carla Gugino), her slimy new boyfriend (Ioan Gruffudd) and a glamorous (and refreshingly capable) teenage daughter (Alexandra Daddario). This all-too-predictable setup is the first sign that San Andreas intends to fully embrace every possible disaster movie cliché it can get its hands on, and it only builds from here.
At points it’s hard to tell if San Andreas is surprisingly self-aware or bafflingly unaware. As it jumps from one cliché to another (the coward gets his comeuppance, an elderly couple die gracefully in one another’s arms, the hero has a standard-issue tragic backstory) it’s hard to imagine writer Carlton Cuse isn’t aware of exactly what he’s doing. But then when the film cuts to a shot of an American flag unfurling and Johnson intones, straight-faced, about “rebuilding,” you begin to worry that everyone involved is taking this very seriously after all.
In an entirely separate plotline, Paul Giamatti looks panicked as a seismologist who has invented technology to predict earthquakes about ten seconds before they happen, which is exactly as unhelpful as it sounds. Giamatti’s main job is to breathlessly tell everyone else to stay terrified and remind the audience that earthquakes are really bad. It’s a testament to the script’s ‘will this do?’ plotting that Giamatti and Johnson never cross paths once, with the result that he feels increasingly inessential as the film progresses.
Johnson continues to prove that he deserves bigger and better leading roles than this, bringing considerable charisma and energy to a part bogged down by lines about “just doing my job” and a lot of po-faced staring into the middle distance. Gugino disappoints, with a strangely sedated performance, but Daddario has enough charm to keep her chunk of the plot moving – though the 29-year-old never quite convinces as a teenage college student. She’s given the film’s inevitable perfunctory romance subplot, with British wannabe-architect Ben (played by Home and Away alum Hugo Johnstone-Burt, putting on his plummiest English accent), but the script puts in as little effort here as it does in building most of the other major relationships.
If the film’s emotional core tends to disappoint, it’s the wholesale destruction of California around it that rarely does. In an era when city-destroying climaxes have become de rigueur for Hollywood blockbusters, San Andreas still manages to up the ante, wrecking San Francisco and Los Angeles on a scale perhaps never seen before. As giant earthquake after giant earthquake are followed by a mammoth tsunami, director Brad Peyton continually finds novel ways to up the stakes. One sequence sees Johnson and Gugino attempting to crest the wave of the tsunami, with a sudden twist that provides the film’s adrenaline-pumping highlight.
San Andreas is not a clever film, but perhaps not all films need to be. Let’s be equal opportunities audiences, and give intellectually-challenged fare a chance every now and then. For what it may lack in brains, it more than makes up for in brawn, spectacle, and giant bloody earthquakes.
San Andreas is released in UK cinemas on May 29th