San Andreas enjoyed an excellent opening weekend, and it’s easy to see why. The only wide-release movie it went up against was Aloha, a critical failure on its way to becoming a commercial one. Plus, San Andreas is one of the summer’s first big-scale, big-budget movies, a straightforward disaster flick with a likeable cast and visual spectacle in spades. The movie has no problem delivering on these fronts, but the story is shaky at best.
Our mountainous (almost rock-like) hero is Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson), a rescue helicopter pilot in the process of divorcing his wife Emma (Carla Gugino). When work forces Ray to cancel his San Francisco trip with his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario), she hitches a ride on the private jet of Emma’s super-rich boyfriend Daniel (Ioan Gruffud). Spoiler alert: he’s an asshole. Meanwhile, at Caltech, seismologist Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) predicts a monumental Earthquake that will pass through Los Angeles and culminate in San Francisco. You don’t need a PhD in Earth Sciences to see where this movie is going – watching The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, and Twister will suffice.
San Andreas is relentless in its pursuit of checking every disaster movie box imaginable: the failed marriage re-ignited by catastrophe, the destruction of iconic landmarks, the tragic family past (read: dead kid), the seemingly-nice love interest who reveals his selfish nature when the chips are down, the inevitable karmic death of said love interest, the doom-saying scientist who’s ignored until it’s too late, and more. This is a movie so stuffed with clichés that it almost sets itself apart.
The actors do what they can with the material. Johnson remains a charismatic presence, and has enough star power to avoid getting lost in the special effects shuffle. Giamatti has some fun slumming it, and gets away with a few funny lines. Daddario and Gugino look great, which helps distract from their characters’ lack of personalities. But the movie’s most thankless role by far belongs to Gruffud, whose character arc consists of convincing the audience to be okay with him dying, then dying.
In some strange way, San Andreas’s biggest fault (sorry) turns out to be something of a strength as well. Though it doesn’t have an original bone in its body, it delivers on what it promises: an exciting, visually spectacular disaster movie. It’s competently made, and does a good job of pacing the earthquake set pieces throughout its two-hour running time. There’s an honesty to this movie that I appreciate: what you see is (exactly) what you’ll get.