Director Brad Peyton dishes up a mean-sized serving of landscape-devouring green screen carnage in San Andreas, a new blockbuster disaster pic starring Dwayne Johnson as a helicopter rescue pilot and Carla Gugino as his estranged wife. Audiences are offered large-scale demolition with an allegorical twist: the film uses an earthquake as metaphor for a broken marriage, the requisite sound and fury standing in for emotional tumult.
Suddenly and inexplicably, at a point in the running time where the scenery is just starting be ripped apart, Kylie Monogue appears for a short scene that ends with her running out of a doorway to nowhere (the building around it has collapsed). It is in this spirit of random carnage that Peyton’s movie exists; the loose structure it has is tied to the story of a handful of lives considered infinitely more important than squillions of other poor sods crushed and battered in the background.
In the scene that immediately follows Ray (Johnson) coming home to discover divorce papers — cue forlorn gazes at old photographs — the Hoover Dam collapses and the disaster movie proper begins.
Paul Giamatti is handed the lion’s share of trite character-based tropes, extending his ability to keep a straight face amid the most ludicrous of contrivances. We meet seismologist Lawrence Hayes (Giamatti) as he gives a university lecture on the effects of earthquakes and mass destruction. We understand that this is pertinent information, of course — particularly when a student asks whether devastation such as the kind depicted on his slides will occur in America, to which the harbinger of CGI-enhanced horror responds that “it’s a matter of when, not if.”
By “when” the audience understands that he means in our time “a few minutes” — and by George it happens quickly. In Giamatti’s very next scene he runs and screams as tourists scram and the Dam explodes, his character presumably wondering whether natural disasters these days are somehow voice activated. Lawrence is given a drawing-on-a-map-to-figure-things-out scene and declares that all hell is about to break loose in LA. The San Andreas Fault is beginning to shift, creating a 9.1 earthquake that will tear apart cities along the fault line.
It’s times like these that 20-something Blake (Alexandra Daddario) is glad her father is a helicopter rescue pilot whose skills extend to operating any kind of vehicle (plane, boat, etc) in any kind of weather conditions. With the dogged devotion of a Liam Neeson, Taken-esque father character Ray is all about saving his family no matter how many other bodies get in the way.
The turning point at which this disaster-palooza ups the ante is probably the moment the Hollywood sign topples over (hardly the first time tinsel town has fetishised its own demise). Buildings get blown to smithereens; running and screaming abound; creaking/breaking/smashing effects clutter up the soundtrack. When the characters are not talking they are generally in front of ravaged backdrops: the city-gone-to-hell scaffolding with which contemporary audiences are now deeply familiar. Peyton’s direction is intensely heavy-handed, with a workman-style lack of flair and the grace and pleasure of a terrible stomach ache.
Horns, strings and images that last longer than a couple of seconds give a spectacular tandem sky jump scene much welcomed lighter feeling. But even this moment is conspicuously engineered for an ulterior purpose: a rare flourish of comedic relief that culminates with Ray and Emma landing in a baseball field so that Ray can remark that, ho ho, it’s been a while since he’s taken her to second base. Destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge is the show-stopper, arriving at a point where the film hits a breezier sweet spot. But Peyton gets suffocatingly heavy-handed again, his staging of large-scale bedlam like a series of convulsions.
Dwayne Johnson might have added some camp to the material but a deadpan screenplay boxes him in and the director’s instruction was clearly to play it straight. Despite all the carnage and hullaballoo the actor’s boulder-like physique is still both San Andreas’ greatest natural element and its most impressive special effect.
There are few better words than Johnson’s moniker (‘The Rock’) to describe the 43-year-old’s distinctive carved-out look, topped with a cleanly shaved head as perfectly round and cylinder-like as the tip of a tampon. Whatever charm San Andreas has Johnson can legitimately claim it to be his own. He goes some way in alleviating what is ultimately a stiff and weighty SFX mash-up; disaster porn with a great many money shots but very little foreplay.