Okay, let’s get this out of the way first: the obligatory joke that it’s an ingenious bit of stunt casting to have Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson heading up the new earthquake disaster movie San Andreas. Pretty much every critic will feel at least an urge to make some variation on this joke, because there’s pretty much nothing surprising or noteworthy about this one. It’s every bit as dumb and indulgent as it appears on the surface; there is nothing moving in the depths here.
There is one almost-smart bit of writing in the movie, but they get it out of the way in the first few minutes so it doesn’t spoil anyone’s time by asking them to think. A young woman drives along a cliffside road through one of the California valleys. Twice she turns her attention away from the road, and we cringe as we expect her car to ram head-on into one going the other way. But then, while not even distracted, a rockslide runs her off the road, leaving her car precariously perched halfway down a gully. This obviously serves as an appetizer for the thrills to come, and allows us to meet Ray Gaines (Johnson) as an LAFD rescue helicopter pilot. But it also serves another, subtler purpose: it tells us that this is a movie where Bad Things Happen, and they’ll happen to you whether or not you engage in safe behaviors or avoid unsafe ones. The earth doesn’t care who you are or what you do when it shakes, and all that matters is how we pick up the pieces afterwards.
Of course, the story then undercuts this thesis of amorality with a story dripping in moral clichés. They can’t just show a reel of CGI effects shots knocking down Los Angeles and San Francisco, so there’s a fig leaf of a story running through the disaster porn.
Ray’s almost-ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino) — we see the divorce papers not yet signed, so we know they won’t be — is about to move in with architect Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffudd). And when Ray is called away on an emergency and can’t take his daughter Blake (Alexandria Daddario) to school in Seattle, Daniel replaces him there too. Of course they’ll be using Daniel’s private jet instead of Ray’s pickup truck, and there’s just one little stop-off for a business meeting in San Francisco.
Daniel may be fantastically rich, but he’s not a Man’s Man the way Ray is, so of course when the first quake shakes San Francisco he abandons Blake to save himself. Instead, she is rescued by a “charmingly” stammering British aspiring engineer (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his little brother (Art Parkinson) while Ray saves Emma from a rooftop in Los Angeles. But Blake still needs her daddy because we know there’s another, bigger quake coming, thanks to a Caltech seismologist (Paul Giamatti). And the trip up the California coast will provide Ray and Emma the time together they need to repair their relationship. Surprise: the hunky father-figure saves the day and gets both women back as his reward.
But let’s be honest: nobody is watching San Andreas for the paper-thin plot, and the reflexive reinforcement of paternalistic norms is just playing to what the expected audience wants to hear. It’s no surprise who will turn out to see a bunch of stuff get broken just for the sake of breaking it, and telling them that they’re actually the greatest people in the world is just good business sense.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.