‘San Andreas’: Film Review

Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino struggle to hold their family together as California splits apart in Brad Peyton’s disaster thriller.

Mother Nature always gets the last word, but don’t tell that to the filmmakers of San Andreas who envision California bravely persevering after a series of earthquakes of unprecedented severity erupt along the titular fault line. West-coasters are known for their often nonchalant attitude toward disasters, but Warner Bros.’ third big-budget release of May is far too upbeat in the face of catastrophe to spur any tectonic shift in perspective.

While San Andreas won’t exactly tip the Richter scale, it will clearly inject some fresh PG-13 action into theaters and could still resonate with crowds gearing up for summer vacation. 

The Bottom Line

Not exactly earthshaking

Any feature inclined toward a realistic depiction of a monster earthquake is wise to stick with first-responders, so San Andreas gives us Ray (Dwayne Johnson), an Los Angeles Fire Department search and rescue helicopter pilot. Ray’s expertise aloft isn’t matched by his interpersonal skills though, as he’s reminded when his estranged wife Emma (Carla Gugino) serves him with divorce papers and announces she’s moving into her wealthy boyfriend Daniel’s (Ioan Gruffudd) fancy mansion, along with their daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario). Ray’s plans for spending a final weekend with Blake before she begins university in the San Francisco area are dashed when a major earthquake hits Nevada and his squad mobilizes to respond — while Daniel offers to fly Blake up north on his private jet. 

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The LAFD isn’t aware, however, that the Nevada quake is part of a “swarm” of tremblors headed toward LA, as predicted by Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti), a seismology professor at CalTech. Before Hayes can get word out to the public, however, the first big one hits downtown where Emma is lunching in a highrise restaurant as the building begins crumbling around her. Already airborne and flying solo, Ray plucks her from the roof in his chopper and they impulsively zip off to retrieve their daughter.

Blake has already reached San Francisco when another quake hits and she finds herself trapped in an underground garage. After managing to reach Ray by cell phone with her location, she’s rescued by handsome Brit engineer Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his younger brother Ollie (Art Parkinson). The three quickly flee into the marginally safer streets of San Francisco and start developing a plan to rendezvous with Ray and Emma.

Although the geological principals that underlie the plot are fairly solid, the film predictably exaggerates them to apocalytic proportions, as earthquakes split California apart with a zipper-like effect. Those particulars may be of little concern to audiences, but some may raise an eyebrow at Ray’s dereliction of duty as an active-duty LAFD pilot who ignores orders and go AWOL on a personal mission with one of the department’s helicopters. No matter, the extended trip north gives Ray and Emma a chance to sort out their failing marriage as they make a beeline for their daughter.

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Unpacking all of that personal baggage makes for an uneasy fit with the action-adventure scenario, and the movie is at its strongest when it integrates family dynamics into the plot rather than indulging in extreme couples therapy. Johnson is totally up for it, however, remaining one of the few contemporary action stars who can reassuringly embrace emotional situations at the height of catastrophe. When he’s not being vulnerable while hashing out his marital issues, he gives the type of heroic alpha-male performance we’ve come to reliably expect, along with the occasional twinkle of characteristic humor. Gugino and Daddario are no slouches either, barreling full-bore through physically intense scenes that are no less demanding for all their liberally deployed special effects.

Together with cinematographer Steve Yedlin and VFX supervisor Colin Strause, director Brad Peyton achieves a persuasive blending of practical shots and superior CG techniques for the most complex sequences, which may leave some viewers holding onto their seats for stability (the movie will be released in 3D in select theaters.) The scale of the spectacle is often disproportionate to the destruction depicted, however, with few scenes of the inevitable death and trauma that follow a major earthquake.

So if San Andreas eventually emerges as a feel-good disaster movie, it probably just reflects our aspirations for maintaining order in the inevitable chaos of a catastrophic quake. Wishful thinking, indeed.

Production companies: New Line Cinema, Village Roadshow Pictures, Ratpac-Dune Entertainment, FPC Productions

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Paul Giamatti, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson, Kylie Minogue, Will Yun Lee

Director: Brad Peyton

Screenwriter: Carlton Cuse

Producers: Beau Flynn

Executive producers: Richard Brener, Samuel J. Brown, Michael Disco, Toby Emmerich, Steven Mnuchin, Rob  Cowan, Tripp Vinson, Bruce   Berman

Director of photography: Steve Yedlin

Visual effects supervisor: Colin Strause

Production designer: Barry Chusid

Costume designer: Wendy Chuck

Editor: Bob Ducsay

Music: Andrew Lockington

Casting directors: Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood

Rated PG-13, 114 minutes