The first scene of San Andreas sets the tone and indicates why this will be is more fun than expected. It opens with a bubble-headed blonde driving her car on a mountainside, where there’s no guard rail and a steep drop below. She’s texting and driving, only half-paying attention to the road and completely oblivious to the danger. To no one’s surprise, she drives off a cliff. Now, had this been a serious-minded, reality-based drama, her possible death would come as an early tragedy. But here, we’re meant to cheer on her potential demise, as her introduction and paper-thin characterization are so over-the-top, the only thing we can do as she’s hurtling off a cliff is chuckle. Unfortunately, she doesn’t become the ultimate text n’ drive cautionary tale but finds herself wedged cliff-side (one of those impossible feats of gravity that only happens in the movies).
Her rescue by a helicopter pilot introduces us to the film’s star, Dwayne Johnson, in a way that’s equally shameless: Johnson’s back is initially to the camera, but he turns around and utters a cool line for the camera. It’s a real movie star introduction and, again, all we need to remind us to take none of this seriously.
Ray, Johnson’s character, is an airborne hero but suffering from a troubled home life. His wife (played by Carla Gugino) is leaving him, due to a shared personal tragedy. While Ray is flying around California, a massive earthquake hits a building where his wife is visiting her new boyfriend. While Ray swoops down to rescue the future ex-Mrs. Ray, his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) informs them by phone that she’s trapped in a nearby building. While much of San Francisco is crumbling, Ray attempts to reunite his family before everything around them burns.
San Andreas is an indefensibly stupid but premium junk food movie. There are lots of moments where the camera goes for a close-up and cast members pause to sell yet another cheesy, trailer-ready line of dialogue. Paul Giamatti, as the seemingly lone earthquake expert in San Francisco, makes this a master class of firing off cornball lines with a straight face.
Johnson doesn’t give a fully committed performance, which is actually fine. The screenplay wants our emotional investment but the relax-it’s-just-a-movie turns by Johnson and Giamatti keep winking at the audience. The real star is Daddario, who’s appealing, gorgeous and has a presence so strong that she never gets overshadowed by the special effects.
Since the whole thing is so predictable, it’s never a question as to whether Ray will reconcile with his wife. Since Ray is played by none other than The Rock, we know the new boyfriend won’t last even before we meet him (unless he’s played by John Cena… which he isn’t and I digress).
This is the kind of movie where characters are always able to outrun the pursuing cracks in the pavement and sprint ahead of the earth opening behind them. There are stolen bits from The Perfect Storm, Cliffhanger, Deep Impact, Earthquake and, most absurdly, even Titanic (apparently, every disaster movie requires an old couple who just want to hug each other and die).
This is a must for the big screen and a much better and shorter movie than 2012. The spectacle is truly something to see, as there are lots of big, dumb, extravagant summer movie thrills to savor.
Here’s all you need to know if this movie’s for you: at one especially thrilling moment, Johnson and Gugino sky dive in tandem and land in a baseball field. As soon as they touch ground, Johnson turns to Gugino and says, “I’ve always wanted to get you to second base.”