San Andreas review - 'A disaster flick with nothing new to offer'
It's often been suggested as a possible explanation for Hollywood's hedonism and debauchery that it sits on a geological fault line between two tectonic plates and could, like Sodom, disappear at any time. That's pretty much what happens in San Andreas, a big-budget action romp that wallows in the dubious traditions of the 1970s disaster movies and occasionally even has the wit to make fun of them. But only occasionally, because this is a blundering behemoth of a picture that unfolds with a heavy tread and smothers its storyline with hoary clichés and booming special effects.
The affable but irredeemably wooden Dwayne Johnson is Chief Ray Gaines, a veteran rescue-helicopter pilot with a secret sadness. A few years back his daughter died in a white-water rafting accident, and the poor chap has never got over it: we know this because every now and then he pauses at the chopper's controls and stares wistfully into the middle distance, much to the dismay of his passengers.
This tragedy did nothing for his marriage, and now Ray's beautiful ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino) has taken up with another man, a slick, handsome and suspiciously British architect called Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd).
Their grown-up daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) has decided to spend the summer in San Francisco, and Ray and Emma are seeing her off when he's called away on urgent business. Something's a rattling in downtown Los Angeles, and a team of scientists led by Paul Giamatti (a good actor swimming gamely against the tide) have discovered evidence that the mother and father of quakes is about to hit southern California.
It does (this would be a pretty redundant disaster movie otherwise), and in the film's best scenes, Ray flies through toppling skyscrapers to rescue Emma from an ill-timed lunch date. They're so pleased to see each other you just know they're going to hit it off again, but meanwhile they must find Blake, who's trapped in a tall building in San Francisco and about to experience an even bigger tremor.
San Andreas is not the first film to have dramatised California's worst nightmare: over the years there've been at least five of them, the most memorable being a sprawling 1970s extravaganza starring Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner and titled, not very imaginatively, Earthquake. Brad Peyton's movie seems cognisant of its predecessors, shows an awareness of disaster convention and even appears at times to be in on its own joke.
The earthquake goes out of its way to discommode the wicked: a group of tanned idiots sipping cocktails around a swimming pool at the top of a skyscraper are really asking for it, and Kylie Minogue makes a brief cameo as an odious diner who should have been politer to her waiter if she'd intended walking out of this film alive.
The effects, needless to say, are pretty special, and the panache with which the skylines of Los Angeles and San Francisco are demolished is laudable. An accompanying tsunami is used to prevent the film's action sequences from becoming too samey, and Ray's daughter becomes involved in a rather anaemic subsidiary love story when she meets a shy young lawyer who turns out to be a bit of a hero.
But in a way San Andreas falls between two stools: it's not funny enough to work as a knowing spoof, and too glib and plastic to be taken seriously as an engrossing action thriller. Ray and his family are too contrived, too neat and cookie-cutter perfect to really engage our concern, and while one might shake one's head sadly if a building collapsed on Ray, you wouldn't shed a tear.
Dwayne Johnson does appear to cry at one point, as he 'opens up' to his ex-wife and shares his feelings about the death of their child, but then again there may have been some earthquake dust in his eye.