In my review of Godzilla last year, I noted how my current hometown of San Francisco gets pretty thoroughly clobbered during the course of that movie's hot monster-on-monster action. Well, here we are one summer later, and once again the poor Bay Area falls victim to the mega-destructo demands of summer blockbuster season. Thank goodness for musclebound Dwayne Johnson then. After a bone-crunching brawl wherein he took on Jason Statham in Furious 7 a few short months ago, the once and future Rock has moved to a higher weight class, facing off with Mother Nature herself in Brad Peyton's San Andreas.
And while the disaster pic makes full use of current computer technology to bring vivid life to the nightmare scenario that might ensue should the titular fault-line go off, it's Johnson (re-teaming with his Journey 2 helmer) who practically single-handedly hefts the entire enterprise on his oversized shoulders. His ever-flowing wellspring of charisma has served him well throughout his career, and it's almost enough to offset the grab bag of tired tropes and overplayed cliches in the script by Carlton Cuse (from a story by Andre Fabrizio & Jeremy Passmore), not to mention the inevitable apathy that comes from watching one too many CGI buildings topple into each other.
As the story starts, we meet LA fire & rescue pilot Ray Gaines (Johnson) as he's attempting to extricate a young lady trapped in her car, seconds away from plummeting into an earthquake-induced ravine. Taking charge after a subordinate gets pinned, Gaines descends from his helicopter, and executes a daring, last-second maneuver that not only illustrates how much he cares, but also the fact that he's Just That Good. From there, we meet Gaines's daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario), who's shipping off to college, and estranged wife Emma (Carla Gugino), who's ready to move in with new boyfriend Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd), a smarmy architect who might as well have a placard around his neck that says "I'm a jerk. Hate me."
Interspersed with all of this is seismologist Paul Giamatti ominously intoning that the Big One is on the way, and California is due for a thumping. Naturally the promised quakes hit at the exact time that Blake is in San Francisco on her way to college (having hitched a ride with douchebag Daniel. Grrr!). Naturally this sends Ray flying across the state in his chopper to rescue her. Of course, he also stops midway to rescue Emma from a similarly precarious situation in LA (but not, y'know the thousands of people between here and there who also need help). Two realizations that were firmly cemented in my mind upon the conclusion of San Andreas: 1) I'm tired, tired, tired of CGI destruction overload; and 2) I never dislike watching the Rock.
Now, if those two observations seem like they're at cross-purposes, welcome to the battle that was being waged inside my brain while watching. I get that we're talking about a genre whose expectations -- from Earthquake to Volcano to 2012 -- have been pretty firmly set (family drama plays out against backdrop of horrible human suffering) and there's not a lot of "give" within those boundaries, I still maintain that even within a predictable framework it's possible to spin things in an interesting way. Case in point, that midair rescue opening sequence I mentioned above had me flashing back to a similar scene at the start of 1993's Sylvester Stallone starrer Cliffhanger.
That film (arguably the pinnacle of director Renny Harlin's catalogue) also centers on a rescue expert (Stallone) specializing in high-risk, high-rise situations who's called into action early in the first reel, but with results that don't quite go the way we've been conditioned to expect. Maybe because I'd just seen Cliffhanger relatively recently, that's what was on my mind as I watched Johnson mount his rescue in the early-goings of San Andreas. And I couldn't help but feel they'd missed an opportunity to subvert our expectations early on for what the ostensible hero was capable of, and not only set similar stakes for the characters and the audience, but to set any stakes at all.
Instead, the movie starts by demonstrating Ray's infallibility, and ends after having repeatedly confirmed it. There's no obstacle he can't overcome, never a moment to dwell on the enormity of what's happened other than as a set-up for the next big action sequence ("Oh man, it sucks that San Fran got hit by a quake -- look out, tsunami!"). The end of the film presents an improbable "the sun will come up tomorrow" situation (complete with the American flag frapping in the breeze) that feels like the studio was afraid their flick about a sizable portion of this nation's most populous state dying horribly might be a downer or something. Per San Andreas, if the big one hits, just sit back, cross your fingers, and wish the Rock was your dad. C