Anyone expecting a disaster movie of disastrous proportions may be pleasantly surprised by this unashamedly dumb but fun multiplex-friendly popcorn fodder.
Since the release of the Charlton Heston-starring Earthquake in 1974, Hollywood has merrily laid waste to various parts of the world (mostly New York) in a multitude of different ways, be it attacking monsters, aliens, meteors or even solar flares.
The biggest culprit remains good old Mother Nature, though; and while we’ve sat through exploding volcanoes, extreme weather, tornadoes, tsunamis and floods, it’s hard to believe we’ve had to wait more than 40 years for another earthquake movie to hit the big screen.
Was it worth the wait? Well, kind of. There’s no doubt San Andreas delivers in the visual effects department, with Los Angeles and San Francisco being torn asunder by a cavalcade of super-destructive quakes; but anyone going into the movie with delusions of anything except nuts and bolts genre filmmaking should probably lower their expectations.
Carlton Cuse’s screenplay ticks off the clichés with shameless abandon. Our hero, LA Fire Department helicopter-rescue pilot Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson) is brilliant at his job, but his personal life is a mess. His estranged wife Emma (Carla Gugino) is filing for divorce to shack up with wealthy real estate developer Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffudd), while his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) is slipping further away.
Just as all hope for a reconciliation appears dead, the San Andreas fault dutifully decides to shift its tectonic plates, causing a cataclysmic series of ever-increasing earthquakes and giving Ray the chance to save Emma and Blake – and his marriage – from the ensuing chaos.
As many a Roland Emmerich movie has attested, the performances in disaster movies generally play second fiddle to the sensory-shredding effects. While San Andreas isn’t really any different, it at least tries to make you root for its key characters, thanks in no small part to the central performance of Johnson – an underrated actor who refuses to phone it in despite the ramshackle material he occasionally has to work with.
Johnson gives a solid turn as Ray and even comes close to welling up in one reflective scene opposite the reliable Gugino. Daddario is less engaging, although she’s made to look better than she actually is opposite a pair of annoyingly posh English brothers played by Hugo Johnstone-Burt and Art Parkinson.
Paul Giamatti, meanwhile, adds an extra bit of gravitas to the film (think Ian Holm in 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow) as another of those genre staples, the scientist no-one listens to until it’s too late, while the wooden spoon goes to the sleep-walking Gruffudd, whose make-up-ridden face is looking particularly strange these days.
To say San Andreas follows a narrative straight line probably won’t come as a surprise, but there’s a guilty pleasure to be had in watching the west coast sliding into the Pacific. Hardly a work of great originality or vision then, but San Andreas is far from a disaster.