Review

'San Andreas' rocks technically if not dramatically

Kenneth Turan
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Film Critic
'San Andreas,' starring Dwayne Johnson, wields compelling effects but by-the-numbers drama: a review

While residents of other locales can experience the new earthquake drama "San Andreas" with equanimity, we who live in the Golden State are not so fortunate. Oh, no.

As temblors of unprecedented size and scope, not to mention one towering tsunami, turn California into a smoldering ruin, causing the Hollywood sign to unceremoniously collapse and the Oakland Bay Bridge to undulate like a strand of spaghetti, we have to ask ourselves, do I really need to see this? Is the entertainment on offer going to be worth the sweaty palms sure to come? The answer is ... maybe.

On one hand, even though scientists are already lining up to debunk some of its suppositions, "San Andreas" has the technical might to make the post-quake horrors it depicts all too plausible. VFX producer Randall Starr has used more than 1,300 visual effects shots to such compelling effect that moving to Bemidji, Minn., seems like a plausible option.

On the other hand, as directed by Brad Peyton and written by Carlton Cuse (from a story by Andre Fabrizio and Jeremy Passmore), "San Andreas" is woefully by-the-numbers from a dramatic point of view.

Even by the non-Olympian standards of the disaster genre, "San Andreas" is chock-full of cliché characters, staggering coincidences and wild improbabilities. And its dialogue is so of the "this is gonna hurt" variety that I tallied close to half a dozen "Oh, my Gods" before I stopped counting.

Yet films this preposterous can be engaging if you know what you're getting in for, especially if they have the advantage of Dwayne Johnson, once known as the Rock, in the starring role.

An action hero with a rare kind of gravitas, Johnson has a stabilizing influence on all the silliness that surrounds him. At 43 and a movie star for more than a dozen years, he has a face that is showing signs of emotional erosion, enabling him to convey a conviction that can't be easy given the implausible nature of the proceedings.

Johnson plays Ray Gaines, who pilots a rescue helicopter for the Los Angeles Fire Department search and rescue unit. An all-business type who never gets flustered — think "Dragnet's" Jack Webb with arms like fire hydrants — Ray has a chance to show us how he operates when a car driven by blond Natalie (Morgan Griffin) goes over a cliff somewhere in the Valley and he has to make it all right.

Cut to the hallowed halls of Caltech, where rumpled seismologist (is there any other kind?) Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) is showing his class unnerving footage of the 9.3-magnitude 1964 Anchorage earthquake. "Could something that intense happen here?" a student conveniently asks. You better believe it.

Hayes is working on a theory about the possible predictability of quakes, a hypothesis that takes him and a colleague to Nevada where, in a hint of things to come, a potent quake causes all kinds of mayhem, even dramatically pulverizing the massive Hoover Dam.

Back in L.A., Ray Gaines is trying to sort out his personal life. Ray's estranged wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), turns out to be keeping company with massively wealthy developer Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd). And Ray's plans to take his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) up north to college fizzle, and she ends up hitching a private plane ride with her mom's new boyfriend.

Then, as Hayes has shrewdly predicted, the entire San Andreas fault gets activated, triggering a rolling series of quakes in Los Angeles and finally San Francisco, causing more chaos than you can shake a stick at.

You'd think that with all that damage caused by a 9.1 quake, with freeways buckling and huge buildings crumbling into dust before our eyes, chopper pilot Ray would be rescuing as many people as possible, but you would be wrong. It turns out to be "San Andreas' " peculiar plot dynamic that Ray spends the entire movie dealing exclusively with his immediate family.

First, there is Emma, who is having lunch at a tony rooftop restaurant in downtown L.A. and has the good fortune to be on the phone to Ray when the quake hits.

Up in San Francisco, Blake is also in trouble, though she also has a polite young Brit named Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his younger brother Ollie (Art Parkinson) to keep her company. She, too, places a call to Ray, who turns to Emma and says, yes, "We're going to get our daughter." It's that kind of a movie.

Not that any of that turns out to be easy, not with a second, even bigger quake headed for the Bay Area and a tsunami that makes the parted Red Sea in "Exodus: Gods and Kings" look like a kids' wading pool. "Pray for the people of San Francisco," someone piously intones at one point. And, while you're at it, spare some good wishes for the viewers of "San Andreas." They're going to need them.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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