Disaster movies should be called “Roland Emmerich movies” from now on.
Testaments to his talented eye for classical composition, mass destruction, blunt political message-mongering, and earnestly silly loosely connected character stories exist in such huge hits as Independence Day, Godzilla The Day After Tomorrow, and White House Down (hey, I didn’t say they were all good!). It’s nothing short of strange, then, to consider that San Andreas, a good-natured, well-acted, and pretty-looking genre entry, has most of the trappings of an Emmerich project, but is actually directed by Brad Peyton, the Canadian-born director we can thank for Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore and both of the modern Journey To The Center Of The Earth flicks. The cinematography and special effects are top-notch and the cast (mostly) keeps things level and engaging, they don’t prevent the ultimately generic San Andreas from hitting several story potholes along the way.
It’s safe to say that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has officially made the transition from wrestling god to action movie star, and he does bring immediate sympathy to rescue-helicopter pilot Ray Gaines, a recent divorcee who’s taking his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) back to college while ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino) moves in with her hotshot engineering boyfriend Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd). Little do they know, the San Andreas fault line that runs up the state of California is in danger of ripping the state in half due to strong earthquakes, and after a chance rescue, Ray and Emma put aside their differences to go save their daughter from certain doom. And if that were the extent of the story, it would’ve been enough. But screenwriter Carlton Cuse, one of the writers for the hilariously overcomplicated Lost, adds more knots to the cluster; Blake eventually hoofs it through the city with a generic love interest and his kid brother, all the while Paul Giamatti leads the major B-story as a seismologist who serves little purpose other than to put the quakes into perspective.
It’s head-scratchingly weird, especially considering that the story uses a best friend/colleague who dies tragically as framing device buildup, for Giamatti’s scientist to just spout facts for the rest of his screen time. We’re also treated to some weird slapstick scenes of the not surprisingly sleazy Daniel making off on his own before getting his at the business end of a loading crate. This would be easier to swallow if there was an overall point being made, tongue-in-cheek energy, or even just narrative rhyme or reason, but San Andreas takes itself way too seriously for that kind of fun or cohesion.
But while the story spreads itself too thin and leaves poor Giamatti with buildup but no real payoff, you’re most likely here to watch The Rock & Friends brave their way through apocalyptic war-torn San Francisco, and there’s a lot to chew on visually. Whatever story panache Cuse seems to be lacking, Peyton more than makes up for with the overall look and feel of the film. Earthquakes cause buildings to crumble, 80-foot walls of water to crash, and dust storms that would make Into The Storm blush. Much like Day After Tomorrow, just about every weather anomaly is on deck except insta-freezing cold. After proving that he knows how to have a ball in the Fast & Furious movies, Johnson dials back his charisma for a more serious, or at least earnest, portrayal of a flesh and blood hero out to save the world. He and Gugino wring as much pathos and humor out of their pairing as Cuse’s bland and meandering screenplay will allow.
While this isn’t the movie to go see if you’re expecting The Rock to tame and hitch a saddle to a cresting tsunami like I thought it would be, San Andreas is serviceable, an ultimately routine disaster flick whose only distinctive quality is proving that a different director deserves to have an entire genre named after him. This movie could’ve either been a deliriously fun or exceptionally dark take on the disaster flick, but isn’t confident enough in itself to skew any one way.