I get the sense that I’m supposed to be morally outraged by San Andreas. In it, Dwayne Johnson plays Chief Ray Gaines, a Los Angeles Fire Department rescue-helicopter pilot, who, when a catastrophic earthquake rumbles along the San Andreas Fault from the Hoover Dam all the way to San Francisco, more or less abandons his civic duty to instead heroically rescue his ex-wife and allegedly teenaged daughter. I’m okay with that, though. A decision between two people you love and thousands you don’t even know – who, in all likelihood, are probably dicks anyway – doesn’t seem a particularly difficult one to make.
This being a disaster movie, there’s more to it than that – barely. Ray’s divorce papers just came in the mail, and he’s been doing that thing where the hero runs a hand over some old family photos (the best being a smiley Polaroid taken in front of San Fran’s Coit Tower, none of it matching). He’s sad because the ex, Emma (Carla Gugino), has just shacked up with her new fella, a slimy billionaire businessman with the face and questionable accent of Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd. He’s the closest thing San Andreas has to a villain: a real estate developer who steals good-looking women from the everyday working man and then brags about taking their daughter to a volleyball tournament in his private jet. You know what’s coming. Ray isn’t just trying to save his family from jostling tectonic plates; he’s trying to save them from weapons-grade smarm.
Meanwhile the daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario), is busy making a fairly convincing case that the whole movie should be about her. It’s not a great character, but Daddario makes her seem like she’s actually worth saving. The temptation must have been there to have her be vapid and irritating and just lean it all against her implausible gorgeousness (her eyes are like trinkets superheroes might fight over in a Marvel movie), but she’s insanely well-adjusted about her familial strife and resourceful enough to save more people throughout the movie than her rescue-pilot dad. You’d think this would be silly and contrived, which in a lot of ways it is, but no more so than the fact she’s playing the white daughter of a brown man or that she’s really earnest and friendly when she gets cautiously hit-upon by a hapless British dork (Hugo Johnstone-Burt).
These characters are as preposterous as San Andreas’s super-quakes, which Paul Giamatti’s Caltech seismologist talks about with the kind of terrified reverence usually reserved for alien invaders or mythological figures. At one point a panicked researcher asks him, “Who should we call?” and Giamatti pauses for a good ten seconds before finally, ominously croaking, “Everybody”. I have absolutely no idea if this guy could really create a working earthquake prediction model, or if the San Andreas Fault could send a giant tsunami sweeping into the Bay Area. I suspect not, but frankly, who cares? Nobody involved seems to know what earthquakes are or aren’t. They’re something to marvel at, to be afraid of. When Giamatti uses a news reporter (Archie Punjabi) to warn the East Coast that the most prurient destruction is being reserved for them, he does it in a way I like to imagine I would, under similar circumstances. Essentially: “Run away or you’re all ******”.
None of this necessarily works, per se, but it mostly worked for me. The director, Brad Peyton, knows how to frame carnage with magnitude in mind. Except for one scene where Johnson and Gugino pilot a speedboat up and over a cresting tsunami, San Andreas has the best CGI I’ve ever seen. More than once all I could think about was how marvellous it is that we get to live in a world where computers can make skyscrapers teeter on their foundations and topple into one another like glass-and-steel dominoes. The benefit of a movie like this is we can spend time thinking about that rather than, say, the plot, and not feel like we’ve missed anything as a result.
Most of the action revolves around Johnson merrily rocketing towards or away from danger, usually in one of several hastily-commandeered vehicles. Before hopping in the boat he finds time to drive cars and pilot helicopters and planes (one of the movie’s best scenes is a tandem parachute sequence with him and a terrified Gugino). He has the occasional emotional moment to remind us that he’s a surprisingly tender star when he has to be, and he gets to save a bunch of people on the street with what can only be described as a kind of “servant of public safety” precognition. He isn’t amazing at his job either in this movie or real life, but what’s made him a star is effortless charisma. He doesn’t play a great dude so much as get filmed just being a great dude.
San Andreas isn’t one of those movies which revel in how much bigger Johnson is than everyone around him, but it certainly doesn’t try and distract from it. Whenever he steps out of his latest ride (always in a ludicrously tight t-shirt – everyone in this movie wears clothing at least a size too small) people peer at him as though the giant wave has brought with it some kind of Polynesian Godzilla. In a movie which has the ground literally cleave itself open, he’s still the most noteworthy natural phenomenon. I don’t know if that makes San Andreas better, but it certainly makes it more fun.
Fun is really the only stock in which a movie like this trades – there’s no time to build anything else. Proper filmmaking is superfluous, almost. As long as the shots are wide enough to capture the carnage and the sound design can properly simulate disorientation, you’re set. There’s a straightforward, zippy quality to San Andreas which is refreshing. The 114 minutes whizz by, and the hammy lines (one, uttered by Johnson, could have been transplanted from a Taken movie) bring down the house. Everything which isn’t there – vision, storytelling aptitude, even acting – feels less like its missing and more like it was left out because it wasn’t needed. On the night I saw it the assembled audience (not critics, admittedly, but still) gave it a thirty-second ovation, and everyone left in a better mood than they arrived in.
San Andreas won’t make you smarter. It won’t enrich you as a human being, challenge you or move you. I watched it yesterday and I can only vaguely remember it. But for an hour or so after the credits roll, you’ll probably feel pretty good about having seen it. Sometimes I’d rather be entertained by harmless stupidity than bored senseless by seriousness. I’d wager most other people would too.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.