It’s big, it’s loud, it’s incredibly dumb — and it’s pretty funny, which I suspect was not the idea. It sets out to prove that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson can go toe-to-toe with two earthquakes and a tsunami and come out on top by the sheer power of his biceps and a helpful screenwriter (TV writer Carlton Cuse). And it succeeds in proving just that. Whether it proves anything else is another question altogether. I’d say the main thing it proves is that the disaster movie is no better than it was back in its heyday. The truth is that we already were in the midst of a disaster movie renaissance — only today’s disasters are typically generated by folks in spandex or giant robots duking it out. I suppose you could call those unnatural disasters, while San Andreas returns us to the days of the natural disaster. In practice, there’s not a nickel’s worth of difference between the two — and it’s actually debatable whether any movie with someone as pumped up as The Rock can truly be called natural.
All in all, it’s an expensive-looking movie in which Los Angeles and San Francisco (and presumably all points in between) are destroyed by a series of earthquakes. Thousands, maybe millions, of people perish, billions of dollars in property damage — not to mention cultural destruction — are racked up, and it’s all in the service of bringing the estranged Mr. and Mrs. The Rock back together. After all, there’s no kind of bonding experience to equal massive destruction and a frenzied journey through it all to save your imperiled daughter — and her manufactured-for-the-occasion boyfriend and his cute-as-a-button, smarter-than-him little brother. (How a dog was left out of this mix, I do not know. Maybe someone thought it would make the whole thing unbelievable.) Before tut-tutting over this cavalier treatment of humanity as extreme marriage counseling, just remember Spielberg destroyed a great chunk of the world to fix things for Tom Cruise and his estranged family in War of the Worlds (2005). Well, after all, one of the earliest depictions of the real San Francisco earthquake — Old San Francisco (1927) — suggested it was the result of God protecting Dolores Costello’s virtue from the lecherous intentions of Warner Oland.
Of course, no one is going to a movie like this for anything like intellectual stimulation, or even marginal realism. It seems a disturbing thing to consider, but audiences go to this sort of thing for the joy of watching mass destruction — as only CGI can render it. In this regard, San Andreas can be said to be on par with Roland Emmerich at his … er … best. The effects are generally excellent — though the minute the film personalizes the destruction by including the human element, the composites are pure 1963. Fortunately, little is actually personalized. There’s one sympathetic death and one unsympathetic “deserved” demise. Everything else is kept safely at arm’s length — unless we’re talking about the main characters, who aren’t likely to be handing in their dinner pails (they can drive a speedboat through a tidal wave). This assures us a guilt-free glut of catastrophes of escalating preposterousness.
Characterization is largely nonexistent (because it’s unnecessary), perfunctory (Paul Giamatti’s egghead seismologist, who mostly just says brainy-sounding things) or badly sketched in. In this last capacity, we have Ioan Gruffudd as Carla Gugino’s new billionaire boyfriend (a stark change from Dwayne Johnson). I guess he’s evil. Certainly the film treats him that way — even expending its grace PG-13 F-word on him. Yet, I was never sure if he was a sniveling coward who deliberately abandoned the leads’ daughter (Alexandra Daddario), or if he was dazed by it all, or if he was upset because he lost one of his shoes and had to hobble through the rest of the movie with one shoe and one sock. It hardly matters. Seriously critiquing a movie like this is impossible, impractical and useless. If you can get worked up about seeing landmarks various and sundry being destroyed again, it won’t matter — though you may reasonably wonder about the flag-waving (literally) “We will rebuild” message. Mightn’t it be wiser to rebuild somewhere else? Rated PG-13 for intense disaster action and mayhem throughout and brief strong language.