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San Andreas

D: Brad Peyton / 114m

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Paul Giamatti, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson, Will Yun Lee, Kylie Minogue

Ray Gaines (Johnson) is a helicopter rescue pilot with the Los Angeles Fire Department, separated from his wife Emma (Gugino), but on very good terms with his daughter, Blake (Daddario). He plans to take a few days off to spend some time with her in San Francisco, but he has to shelve those plans when an earthquake destroys the Hoover Dam, and he’s called back to work. In apologising to Blake, he learns that Emma is planning to live with her new boyfriend, property developer Daniel Riddick (Gruffudd). Daniel suggests taking Blake to San Francisco himself and they leave soon after.

While Ray takes part in various rescue missions, seismologist Lawrence Hayes (Giamatti) – who was at the dam when it broke – is becoming increasingly worried that that earthquake was just a precursor to a series of much bigger, much more devastating ones. When one such earthquake strikes Los Angeles, Emma finds herself in a high rise building having lunch with Daniel’s sister, Susan (Minogue). As the quake hits she’s talking to Ray on the phone; he tells her to get to the roof and he’ll come and rescue her. Further quakes strike towns and cities up and down the California coast, including San Francisco. With Emma safe on board his helicopter, Ray receives a call from Blake: she’s trapped in a car in the basement of Daniel’s office building and it’s about to collapse.

Ray and Emma decide they have to try and rescue Blake, but the helicopter they’re in develops a fault and they crash land in Bakersfield. Managing to commandeer a plane, they continue on to San Francisco. Meanwhile, Blake has been rescued by a British engineer she met earlier at Daniel’s offices. Ben (Johnstone-Burt) and his younger brother Ollie (Parkinson) stay with Blake as she works out a way to let Ray know she’s okay. When she does he tells her to meet him in a particular place that has a special meaning to both of them. But it’s not possible for her to get there, so she heads for Daniel’s latest high rise development instead. Ray and Emma parachute out of the plane and land in San Francisco; when they realise Blake can’t get to the rendezvous site, they also discover that a tsunami is coming that will swamp the city. And when it does, Blake, Ben and Ollie find themselves trapped in Daniel’s building with the waters steadily rising, and Ray and Emma having no idea of where they are…

San Andreas - scene

A disaster movie – the moviegoer’s guilty pleasure – should always favour spectacular destruction over coherent plot, story or characterisation. It should feature enough devastation to leave the viewer slack-jawed in admiration at what the special effects wizards can achieve. It should cater to that part of us that slows down to look when we pass a road accident. And above all, it should show us something that we might all experience some day, regardless of how safe we might feel in our own little corner of the world.

San Andreas should give us all that and more. But instead it’s a curiously bloodless affair, full of moments where the cast look awestruck at some fresh new aspect of the disaster around them, and where Hayes’ doom-laden dialogue hypes the destruction to near-apocalyptic levels. There are some impressive shots it’s true, but some – such as the awkward destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge – seem too absurd to appear feasible, or are rendered in such a way that the wow factor plays second fiddle to any plausibility. This might not be too much of a concern though if what we’re witnessing is something new, but the devastation wrought in the movie, while impressively mounted, has been done elsewhere already, and San Andreas, while promising the mother of all earthquakes from very early on – one that will be felt “on the East Coast” – actually falls short of doing so.

Instead, what we have is a tale of a family’s determination to survive against all the odds, and in Ray’s case, without regard for the job he does. Once the earthquake hits Los Angeles and all points Californian, Ray becomes a solo pilot, where before he’s been part of a four-man team. He rescues Emma and then jettisons any notion of helping others with a quick “we have to find our daughter” (not that anyone’s trying to contact him with any instructions or requests for help). He’s reckless as well, putting himself and Emma in harm’s way time after time: let’s crash the helicopter in a clothing store, let’s parachute out of a plane, let’s head into the swell of an oncoming tsunami – the more dangerous the action, the more determined he seems to tackle it. In a different kind of movie, Ray would be an adrenaline junkie with a death wish; here, he’s a big-hearted father who’s doing the best he can (gosh darn it!).

It’s a good thing then that Johnson is more than capable of helping the viewer ignore or forget these contradictions, putting in an emotive performance that sees him remind everyone why he’s the go-to guy for this kind of big-budget nonsense. Whether he’s ripping car doors off their hinges, or holding his breath underwater for minutes at a time, Johnson’s amiable muscularity fits the needs of the script admirably, even when Ray is called upon to relive a past tragedy. As a chip off the old block, Daddario provides an earnest counterpoint to Johnson’s grim-faced determination, while Giamatti bleeds sincerity as the tormented seismologist who saw it all coming. Spare a thought however, for Gugino – along for the ride and little else – and Gruffudd – asked to become a prick in the space of a nano-second. Both actors are ill-served by Carlton Cuse’s ill-focused screenplay, as is Johnstone-Burt, who’s called upon to play the kind of stereotypical good-natured bumbling Brit who sounds like minor royalty.

Behind the camera, Peyton orchestrates all the mayhem with a good eye for packing the frame with as much incident as possible, and there’s an effective score from Andrew Lockington that supports the action without overwhelming it. Fans of the disaster genre will particularly approve of the many building falling into/against/onto other building shots, and the refreshingly practical effects work used to show that a movie of this sort doesn’t have to be all digital. Others, though, may look at all the devastation and wonder, why does a lot of it have problems with scale?

Rating: 6/10 – while it’s enjoyable in a big dumb leave-your-brain-at-the-door kind of way, San Andreas has a script that features enough fault lines to warrant a warning sign all its own; a movie where the spectacle never quite inspires the awe or wonder it needs to, it fits neatly into the category of guilty pleasure but without really doing too much to earn its place there.