It may be big, loud, and pretty dumb, but San Andreas is a fun (albeit fleeting) piece of summer blockbuster escapism.
After returning home from years of service in Afghanistan, Los Angeles Fire Department rescue-helicopter pilot Chief Ray Gaines (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) is taking some much deserved time off - so that he can accompany his eighteen year-old daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario), to her first week of college. However, Ray's plans are interrupted when a massive earthquake destroys Hoover Dam - and his rescue team is called in to help evacuate survivors.
Unfortunately, the Hoover Dam disaster is only the first in a string of tremors along the San Andreas fault - with each quake growing in magnitude. As danger spreads along the fault line, and California residents scramble to escape, Ray embarks on a solo mission into the fray to save his estranged wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), and Blake - who is now trapped in San Francisco (the epicenter of a record-breaking earthquake).
Following Roland Emmerich's near-back-to-back attempts at over-the-top natural disaster movies 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow, director Brad Peyton's San Andreas is a surprisingly straightforward and fun, but still inane, ride that stretches the boundaries of scientific accuracy in the interest of supplying non-stop ground-shaking mayhem. Without question, viewers looking for a realistic earthquake drama, based in layered characters and seismologist-approved physics, will find San Andreas to be CGI style over substance; yet, moviegoers who want a rousing natural disaster extravaganza, Peyton (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) has produced an action-packed popcorn flick - galvanized by a likable performance from Johnson in the starring role.
The San Andreas screenplay was penned by LOST and Bates Motel showrunner Carlton Cuse, with Andre Fabrizio as well as Jeremy Passmore receiving story credit, and the script provides an adequate, albeit clumsy, line through CGI chaos. Cuse imbues Ray with enough backstory and development to ensure viewers will root for him - both in his personal life and as he puts his life on the line to save others. Though, in spite of his skill and determination, Ray's journey is packed with on-the-nose drama and a handful of fortuitous conveniences that aid in the search for his family. As a result, San Andreas is a jumbled mix of moments: eye-popping visuals, feel good heart-to-hearts, and cheesy humor that all fall short in nuance and innovation but should sate audience members who saw the film trailer and assumed, correctly, that Peyton would rely more on CGI bedlam than insight into his rescue-helicopter pilot protagonist.
Still, Johnson is a charismatic lead in San Andreas - and, without question, the wrestler-turned-Hollywood icon is instrumental in elevating Peyton's film above competing CGI-heavy disaster movies. Since Johnson is fighting an earthquake instead of human adversaries, San Andreas takes little advantage of the actor's size and signature brawling; regardless, building off affecting performances in Faster and Snitch, San Andreas allows Johnson room to be vulnerable and courageous at the same time - providing a relatable hero: a father (more human than many of the actor's previous roles). This isn't to say that Johnson's performance is groundbreaking (even by action movie standards), but Rock fans should be pleased with the actor's time on screen.
Carla Gugino's Emma is mostly relegated to support for Ray, and the pair's dynamic is saddled with the standard tropes of an estranged (but cordial) husband and wife, who must work together in a time of crisis. Despite undercooked damsel in distress traits, Peyton ultimately presents Emma as a fitting partner for Ray - and Gugino is afforded a few choice opportunities to steal the spotlight from Johnson (even if only briefly). Sadly, the same cannot be said for Emma's new boyfriend, Daniel Riddick (played by Ioan Gruffudd), who becomes an oafish (and borderline-mustache twirling) diversion after the first act.
Paul Giamatti's Caltech seismologist and Archie Panjabi's TV anchorwoman are isolated from the quake's pandemonium but succeed as a relatively nuanced exposition machine - educating viewers on San Andreas' hyper-science of earthquake behavior while also imbuing heartfelt reaction to the circumstances of (and victims caught in) the tremors. Daddario also makes the most of her role, and even though Blake may be in need of fatherly rescue, she is far from helpless - even dropping a few real-life survival tips along the way. Blake's friendship with a pair of European brothers (Hugo Johnstone-Burt and Art Parkinson) occasionally borders on teen melodrama but the trio deliver a mix of standout scenes (charming as well as thrilling) and, by the time the dust settles, the group's bond earns honest payoff.
San Andreas is playing in 2D and 3D theaters - and, for those who were taken by the initial trailers, the 3D is worth premium ticket cost. Since Peyton's film is fueled by scale, where characters run from tsunami waves and scramble inside crumbling high-rises, the added depth of field adds subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) immersion. That said, for viewers who are already on the fence, San Andreas' devastation is overloaded with CGI (and short on practical effects) to the point of potential desensitization. The visuals are striking, and aid in Peyton's natural disaster thrills (especially as the quakes tear down iconic West Coast landmarks), but viewers who are no longer wowed by sweeping green screen destruction may find their aversion to CGI effects compounded by San Andreas' use of 3D.
San Andreas is not a subtle tale of environmental turmoil, it is a big screen roller coaster ride - where viewers journey with Dwayne Johnson into the heart of a city-destroying earthquake. It's an excessive misadventure, where bad situations routinely take a turn for the worse, and CGI spectacle takes priority over scientific fact and soul-stirring character drama. Still, thanks to Johnson, San Andreas also includes a sincerity that has been absent in recent natural disaster movies. It may be big, loud, and pretty dumb, but San Andreas is a fun (albeit fleeting) piece of summer blockbuster escapism.
San Andreas runs 114 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for intense disaster action and mayhem throughout, and brief strong language. Now playing in 2D and 3D theaters.
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For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant editors check back soon for our San Andreas episode of the SR Underground podcast.
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