It has been a while since an old-fashioned disaster movie came around the pike, and "San Andreas" fits the bill as a certain brand of summer action picture that somehow, once again, feels significantly fresher than the marketplace's recent oversaturation of comic book fare. Full of coincidences, plot conveniences and shoehorned love blooming amongst the ruins, the film is approximately as dumb as a sack of snails, but provides plenty of hair-raising thrills and eye candy to balance out Carlton Cuse's (A&E's "Bates Motel") dopey screenplay. With the reliably macho yet down-to-earth Dwayne Johnson (2015's "Furious Seven
") leading the charge under the helm of Brad Peyton's (2012's "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island
") skillful direction, audiences who choose to seek out "San Andreas" will get exactly what they came for.
L.A. Fire and Rescue pilot Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson) has a lot on his mind. No sooner has he received divorce papers in the mail when he finds out his soon-to-be ex-wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), is planning to move in with her new boyfriend, high-powered architect Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffudd). Plagued with guilt over a tragedy from the past, he wants nothing more than to retain his close relationship with college-aged daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario). When expert seismologist Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) discovers that the shifting tectonic plate of the San Andreas fault foretells of a cataclysmic earthquake that is about to hit the better part of the west coast, it strikes almost instantly. With Blake in grave danger in San Francisco and the world seemingly toppling down around them, Los Angelenos Ray and Emma join together for a harrowing journey north to save their daughter.
"San Andreas" is perhaps slightly smaller in scale than the grandaddy of recent disaster cinema, Roland Emmerich's underrated 2009 epic "2012
," but is at least as big as every other entry that has come before it. Looking twice as expensive as its still-hefty $110-million price tag, the film is an unlikely study in economically thrifty Hollywood moviemaking. The visual effects are top-of-the-line fantastic, the ensuing scope is massive, and action is shot and edited with blessed coherence.
In a jolting opening scene that emphatically turns Taylor Swift's "Style" into a beacon of high anxiety, a teenage girl (Morgan Griffin) irresponsibly looking in her backseat and texting on her cell as she drives down a twisty mountain road gets a terrifying surprise when a falling boulder sends her careening off a cliff. Arm-clenchingly tense and brutal, it is a spectacular start to a film with plenty more harrowing sucker punches on the way. From Emma's rampantly implausible but still unquestionably spine-tingling escape from a collapsing sky restaurant to the climactic tsunami that pummels an already-ravaged San Francisco, the film gets high marks for the sheer spectacle of it all.
Viewers would be wise, however, to check their brains at the door. The pile-up of close calls the characters face is off the charts, as are the amount of buildings that fall and cars that get flattened split seconds after the leads escape from doom. Nearly as cloying are the romantic pairings that occur when it is neither the time nor the place. In San Francisco, Blake shares a brief meet-cute with Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) before the earthquake whammies the city, immediately takes control of the situation as they dart from one debacle to the next, and still has time to make eyes at him as his younger brother, Ollie (Art Parkinson), smiles on. As for Ray and Emma, a middle-act lull in the action allows them to deal with their relationship issues and a shared loss years ago from which they never recovered. Contrived though this is, director Brad Peyton takes it one step too far by allowing them time to kiss and share some wistful parting words as their daughter clearly is in the midst of drowning mere feet away. Back at the California Institute of Technology, there is even the suggestion by the end that something more than professional respect is brewing between Lawrence and news reporter Serena (Archie Panjabi) after the two of them spend the better part of the day taking shelter under a desk.
The opening hour and closing twenty minutes of "San Andreas" work as pure, solidly paced escapist fun. While momentum flags in a middle section that could have afforded tighter editing, the film is decidedly spot-on as far as what a summertime popcorn flick should offer. Performances are typically an afterthought in this subgenre, but Dwayne Johnson, Alexandra Daddario (2013's "Texas Chainsaw
") and an especially strong Carla Gugino (2011's "Sucker Punch
") emotionally commit to the near-apocalyptic zaniness before them. Paul Giamatti's (2014's "The Amazing Spider-Man 2
") work verges on the thankless, but he acts the heck out of quote-worthy lines like, "Even though it's happening here in California, you will feel it on the east coast." Undeniably silly but riveting when it means it most, "San Andreas" delivers the goods. Snooty cinephiles need not apply.