I can imagine the conversation to green light San Andreas wasn’t a particularly long one. “Take action hero Dwayne Johnson, drop him into a flick where an earthquake causes all kinds of damage and watch the money happen. What’s for lunch?”. The entire thing feels like an exercise in mundane Hollywood summer blockbusters – the question is does Dwayne Johnson’s charisma save the film from being rubbish?
San Andreas follows Ray (Dwayne Johnson) as he survives not only a gigantic earthquake but the shattered remains of his marriage to Emma (Carla Gugino). Fighting for the affection of his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) against Emma’s new boy toy; rich man Daniel Riddick – Ray finds his particular skill set (That of being a helicopter rescue pilot) suddenly in demand when the San Andreas fault line creaks its way into action.
The ensuing devastation destroys large parts of the US western seaboard – but also acts as a convenient family bonding experience when it transpires Ray’s daughter is trapped in San Francisco. At least the earthquake cares about Ray’s family.
Up to this point, Johnson has managed to get by in Hollywood’s A-List serving as the big action beefcake, typically not the star attraction. San Andreas serves as one of the first times a major summer blockbuster was leveraged on his drawing power and it must be said – he doesn’t come off as convincingly as you’d imagine.
Johnson is at his best when he’s playing an ironic hero/anti-hero whom the audience can giggle along with. Typically this involves punching things and making one-liners fly off the screen – but when charged with carrying an entire film it’s a different beast entirely.
Dwayne’s typical arsenal of movie beatings and snappy one-liners are left behind, replaced by the need for emotional investment and a more somber performance. This might not be a problem if Johnson was able to capture this spirit without issue – the script here doesn’t do him any favors.
Instead of letting Ray leap around and allowing Johnson to flourish as the action star, large sections of the opening acts park him behind the seat of a helicopter joystick. It’s a frustrating decision that handicaps the first two acts of the movie and exposes Johnson’s shortcomings. There’s not much he can do other than make loud noises and scrunch his face up until the films final third – a hilariously bad way of utilizing his skill set.
But if I’m picking on Johnson for lacking in range, then the rest of the cast gets equal attention for not carrying their roles with any vigor. For all the impressive CGI (and there is a boatload of it crammed onto the screen at any one time) the film makes as little effort as it can when it comes to plot.
Every character reads like a roll call from mid-1990’s disaster films and each one conforms to their role with such rigorous determination that it almost comes off as comedic. I say almost because the film plays everything so deadpan straight, refusing to indulge the over the top nature of everything within, that it threatens to bring the entire thing crashing down.
In absence of any true human villain for the audience to side against – the movie relies on the earthquake. It’s all hilariously dumb with the earthquake made out to be stalking our main characters where ever they roam. All it needed was Jaws music and a comedy sound effect to round out the effect.
Worse still the plot attempts to juggle two distinct strands which never exist in harmony – leading to some jarring switches in scenes between Johnson and Giamatti’s characters – who might as well exist in two separate films. The film gives the latter a love arc so pathetically shallow that you wonder why they bothered.
His character’s purpose is served by the time the earthquake hits but is forced to hang around in order to try and express the scale of the movies disaster. It’s terribly handled and even by action movie standards is a shockingly weak attempt at forcing a character down our throats who has no reason to exist.
Moving back to the main core cast; Daddario’s portrayal of Ray’s daughter is cringe-worthily tepid; delivering the kind of performance that induces eye rolls from all involved. Her over the top exposition and bland deliveries bury any interest in her characters side plot while Gugino is so vapid as Johnson’s wife you’ll almost wish for the earthquake to open up the earth beneath her and swallow her whole.
Then we reach Daniel Riddick – a character the film attempts to position as an early front-runner for “villain” but gives up around the same time the audience does. He disappears into obscurity around a third of the way into the film and then gets landed with one of the most comically inappropriate deaths I think I’ve ever seen in a Hollywood film, “Oh look, we killed that bad man” the film will tell you, expecting you to care – but you won’t. Hell by the time that building lands on him you’ll probably not remember who he is.
To the film’s credit it never really tries to be anything more than a dumb action flick. To judge it as anything more would be to miss the point of the film; it’s knowingly playing up tropes from the action genre. Even knowing this – San Andreas just isn’t that fun to watch.
It moves between set pieces in such a glaringly dull way and manages to bury the core of the film beneath glaringly large lapses in the emotional investment. Even the films ending feels like something ripped from the pages of a “How to write Action film 101”. It’s lazy and ultimately tedious viewing – even by Johnson’s standards.
Give San Andreas a miss.