"San Andreas" may not be a great movie by normal standards, but it is the best "San Andreas" it can be. Its goal is to be the epitome of disaster movie schlock and oh how that goal has been achieved. If you like crumbling rock, rushing water, plummeting extras, impossible rescues and laughable dialogue that's only intentionally funny about half of the time, then this is the movie for you.
The film follows an estranged family as they try to survive the worst earthquake in human history. Ray (Dwayne Johnson) is a rescue helicopter pilot about to be divorced from his wife Emma (Carla Gugino) and their daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) is caught in the middle. When the San Andreas Fault takes a turn for the worse and effectively destroys California, Emma is in Los Angeles and Blake is in San Francisco with her soon-to-be-stepfather (Ioan Gruffudd), who you can tell is going to turn out to be a self-preserving jerk. There's also an awkward-but-brave love interest for Blake (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his annoying kid brother (Art Parkinson). It's up to Ray to rescue and reconnect with his family. Best not to think about the other people he could and frankly should be saving through his duties as a rescue pilot.
An unnecessary subplot follows a Caltech scientist (Paul Giamatti) attempting to study and warn people about the earthquake from a relatively safe area. A character like this is supposed to have the people around him think he's crazy, but he's gotten to a prominent position at Caltech, so clearly he's a respected authority on the matter. There's a great sequence with him at the beginning where he and a colleague are on the Hoover Dam when it bursts but otherwise he serves little purpose other than to spout exposition about earthquakes. Around the halfway mark, the film pretty much forgets about him.
The film largely focuses on the five main characters (Ray, Emma, Blake, the boyfriend and his brother) trying to stay alive. They have to avoid falling out of skyscrapers; being inside skyscrapers when they fall; having skyscrapers fall on them once they're outside; falling into fault lines; dangerous driving, flying and boating conditions; tsunamis; tidal waves; and other forms of deadly water. There are also gun-toting looters, but they're not really a threat. Dwayne Johnson's in this movie, he can just punch them out.
Ray passed on some good survival instincts to his family because they always know where to go, even when everyone else is running in the opposite direction. And of course they're rewarded for their counterintuitive thinking. This movie loves seeing extras get swallowed up by the catastrophe of the minute. Needless to say there's also a lot of damage done to scenery. It's done using some less-than-stellar CGI, though I can't say I blame the CGI for being subpar when the film has the monumental task of destroying entire cities every 10 minutes.
"San Andreas" is a disaster movie that is staggeringly typical of the genre. It isn't so investing that audiences will gasp and the multitude of dangers, but they will go "oooh." They will, however, probably cheer and clap as much as the movie wants them to, and that should count for something. A few lines of dialogue will elicit either healthy laughs or horrible groans (I'm looking at you, ending of the parachute sequence). It's a corny movie that stands out in a field of corny movies because it's a student of the other corny movies. It knows exactly what it wants to be, which means that it doesn't make many missteps, but it also doesn't do much that's original.
Two Stars out of Five.
"San Andreas" is rated PG-13 for intense disaster action and mayhem throughout, and brief strong language. Its running time is 114 minutes.
Contact Bob Garver at firstname.lastname@example.org.