“San Andreas” proves that even though the pictures in disaster films have improved over the years, the writing, stories and characters are just as awful as ever.
To begin with, even though thousands are dying in collapsing buildings, fires and tsunamis after an earthquake, moviegoers are asked to root for only a handful of people. Resourceful dad, rescue chopper pilot Ray Gaines (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), is reluctantly divorcing his ex-wife, Emma (Carla Gugino).
During the disaster, Emma's rich, cowardly new boyfriend (Ioan Gruffudd) is willing to sacrifice others to ensure his own safety. His inevitable death scene is a cue for the audience to cheer.
The equally resourceful daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario), has learned survival from her dad and also looks amazing in a tank top.
Two polite, but intrepid vacationing English brothers (Hugo Johnstone-Burt and Art Parkinson) help save Blake, and she in turn, helps them.
We also get the scientist (Paul Giamatti), whom no one believes, the scientist's partner (Will Yun Lee), who heroically gives his life to save a little girl, and the bold TV news reporter (Archie Panjabi) who helps warn the world.
It can be painful to watch these actors check off all the items on the disaster movie checklist, but when it's Johnson's turn onscreen, he somehow seems comfortably tuned into the material.
He's perhaps more at home than the others with visual effects and knows not to take things too seriously.
He may have also formed a decent working relationship with “San Andreas” director Brad Peyton on their previous movie, the uninspired “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island.”
Peyton seems comfortable filming the destruction of San Francisco, including the Golden Gate Bridge and AT&T Park, as well as most of the rest of California. The chaos is logical and exhilarating, raising the stakes at every turn, but without ever resorting to shaky-cam.
It's just that the creaky writing (screenplay by Carlton Cuse, based on a story by Andre Fabrizio and Jeremy Passmore) keeps turning up, forcing coincidences, shortcuts and bad exposition into the storytelling. It's hard to care.
The even bigger question is: Why do moviegoers love disaster movies so much? Aren't they, in general, depressing, and even kind of sick? Or are they, in essence, somewhat cathartic? Do our tiny, daily issues mean less in the face of such enormous problems?
Or maybe we just like to see stuff blowing up while The Rock runs around, kicking the quake's hindquarters.
“San Andreas” will likely please viewers who don't think too much, but anyone interested in asking bigger questions will have to wait for a real disaster.
Two and a half stars
Starring: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Paul Giamatti
Written by: Carlton Cuse
Directed by: Brad Peyton
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes