Movie Review: “San Andreas”

Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Paul Giamatti, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi
Brad Peyton

Roland Emmerich would be proud. “San Andreas” is every bit the big, dumb and loud disaster movie that everyone expected it to be, delivering on that promise with some sensational, effects-heavy action that’s practically begging to be turned into a theme park attraction. Though some people will undoubtedly criticize the film for doing exactly what it sets out to achieve, “San Andreas” is pretty upfront about its intentions, doing no more and no less than it needs to in order to get its characters from point A to point B. This is the type of guilt-free popcorn movie that the summer blockbuster season is built around, and while it never amounts to much more than cinematic eye candy, that’s kind of the point.

Dwayne Johnson stars as Chief Ray Gaines, a former military helicopter rescue pilot who now works for the Los Angeles Fire Department saving lives alongside the same crew that served with him overseas. When a big earthquake hits Nevada, tearing apart the Hoover Dam in the process, Ray is forced to cancel a road trip with his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) to help with the rescue effort. But Cal Tech seismologist Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) predicts that an even bigger earthquake is going to occur along the San Andreas Fault, with San Francisco getting hit the hardest, placing Blake smack dab in the middle of the impending destruction. After rescuing his soon-to-be ex-wife, Anna (Carla Gugino), from a crumbling building in Los Angeles, the pair heads to San Francisco to save their daughter before she becomes another victim of the devastating quake.

Like most films in the genre, many of the characters are painted with very broad strokes, none more so than Anna’s wealthy architect boyfriend played by Ioan Gruffudd. He’s the closest thing the movie has to a villain, abandoning Blake during the initial stages of the earthquake before fully earning his asshole credentials with numerous acts of cowardice. Gruffudd plays the role so well that when he finally meets his fate (and in hilarious fashion), my theater erupted in applause, although that’s hardly the first instance of “San Andreas” pandering to the audience. After all, that’s what these films do, whether it’s minor characters getting heroic moments before their deaths, or Johnson’s protagonist pulling off seemingly impossible feats with remarkable ease. Though the half-hearted attempts to develop the characters beyond mere pawns feels more like a tactic designed to provide a respite from all the devastation, director Brad Peyton and writer Carlton Cuse deserve credit for trying anyway, even if it’s not really necessary.

And it works to some extent, because you actually care about the core group of characters, thanks to a solid cast led by Johnson, Gugino and Daddario. Giamatti also turns in some good work as the seismology expert, but he’s mostly there for exposition, taking a back seat to all the action once it kicks into high gear. This is the movie’s bread and butter, and Peyton doesn’t hold back on the destruction that he unleashes upon California, culminating with a fantastic sequence in the final act where a tsunami wreaks havoc on the San Francisco Bay. The visual effects are top-notch, and though the unrelenting obliteration of entire city blocks becomes a little overwhelming, it’s handled with such panache (the overhead shots of the tremors’ wave-like effect is especially cool) that all you can do is sit back and gawk at the sheer scale of it. “San Andreas” doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is – VFX-driven disaster porn at its finest – and as long as you know that going into the film, you’ll probably have a good time.