San Andreas is the latest blockbuster (and I mean literally blockbusting) starring the People’s Champ, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as rescue pilot Ray Gaines racing against time to save his separated wife Emma (Carla Gugino) and their daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) during the biggest earthquake to hit North America. Paul Giamatti also stars as seismologist Lawrence Hayes alongside Archie Panjabi as a reporter.
Johnson reunites with his Journey 2: The Mysterious Island director Brad Peyton, whose experience with 3D would have been a major selling point 2 or 3 years ago. In today’s cinemas, San Andreas has to stand by its intrinsic merits as a thriller and a drama. And how does it do on those merits?
Dwayne Johnson is magnetic and commands the screen. The work done by a multitude of digital studios (Cinesite, Hydralux, Scanline, Method Studios) is magnificent, with some of the best compositing, simulations and sheer data crunching I’ve ever seen. However, San Andreas is a melodrama that wants very much to be a drama.
Johnson does some of his best acting ever in this movie, a father pushed to the brink to save his family as the earth opens up. He plays Gaines as an ordinary fella whose job just so happens to make him a man of action. Johnson respects first responders and military/law personnel; even his Fast & Furious role as the superhuman DSS Agent Hobbs is a tribute to law enforcement. He is making a concentrated effort to play real, fully dimensional adults and not cartoon characters, as evident here and in Snitch and Faster.
San Andreas wants to be a crowd-pleaser, but forgets that classic disaster movies like Earthquake, The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure were loaded with A-list stars (Charlton Heston, Paul Newman, Gene Hackman) who could sell salt to snails. As much as audiences love watching The Rock do his thing, Johnson still needs an ensemble around him as strong and notable as he is, which is something only the Fast & Furious series has given him so far.
Giamatti and Gugino give it their best, but the script (co-written by Lost’s Carlton Cuse) hamstrings what is a pretty good cast. The daughter Blake Gaines is as intelligent and tenacious as she is lovely, helping two brothers (Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson) navigate the chaos. Ray and Emma are doing their best not to vilify one another in a hurtful divorce. Even Giamatti’s Dr. Hayes refrains from scene-chewing… for the most part. There is nuance and emotion in these performances, more than in say Roland Emmerich’s 2012.
But San Andreas is still cheese (like gourmet queso dip*), with all the groaners and one-liners that come with that. Dwayne Johnson has an excellent sense of humor, comic timing and great charisma. He can use none of that here, because the situation demands to be played straight. Yet the PG-13 rating means the actors and screenwriters can’t show realistic gore or use the colorful metaphors that would surely pop up in a scenario like this. The film isn’t brainless, but the script and the rating means it gets kinda dumb.
There’s only so much excitement you can obtain from disaster when you directly focus in on the people trapped in that disaster. Man of Steel’s final battle was confusing because Zack Snyder took pains to show us the people stuck in the rubble, but still made the destruction look cartoonish. San Andreas doesn’t have that problem as the effects are very realistic, and its tone is somber in the proper places. But there are times it still wants to be a summer thrill ride, and a stark drama at the same time. It’s like if Six Flags opened Hamlet: The Roller Coaster. (To be or not to be. That is the — WHOA!!) You just can’t have it both ways.
In light of recent events, San Andreas doesn’t get to be a popcorn movie, not really. The twin Nepalese earthquakes took the lives of thousands and injured thousands more, and that knowledge unintentionally impacts the viewing of the film. To the filmmakers’ credit, human life is treated as something of worth with brief asides showing the toll on San Francisco and Los Angeles. In fact, the opening image of the film hints at the tragic proportions of an event like this. Kudos to Warner Bros. for a properly subdued marketing campaign.
If you’d like to help the victims of the Nepal earthquake, visit Charity Navigator for more information.
Now I know there is concern for bias, so let me make one thing clear: yes, I am a fan and yes, that has probably affected this review. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is not only one of my favorite entertainers, but possibly the truest movie star we have today. But as far as San Andreas goes, and no matter how hard the cast and crew worked on this film (and they did), Dwayne Johnson’s performance in this film outclasses the film itself. It’s champagne in a dirty glass.
San Andreas is better than recent disaster pics like Poseidon (2006) and 2012, and if you’re a fan of Dwayne Johnson and disaster pics, you won’t be sorely disappointed. It’s still solid entertainment; just manage your expectations.
*Here’s a great queso dip recipe. I recommend unsalted butter and 2% reduced fat sour cream, if you don’t mind changing the texture a bit. Add 1/4 cup of sautéed onion like a boss.