Since Independence Day, disaster/event films have been an annual summer staple. From Twister to Deep Impact to Armageddon, Hollywood has proven that audiences will flock to air-conditioned theaters every summer to see landmarks explode and the masses threatened, regardless of whether the stories are any good. They’re a guilty pleasure; a 2-hour Universal Studios ride where character development is secondary to spectacle. On this scale, San Andreas is a very fun entry into the disaster film genre. It’s an over-the-top, crowd-pleasing fireworks show strung together by a formulaic plot and heavy-handed character motivations. But as long as we see an earthquake-induced tsunami hit the Golden Gate Bridge, who cares?
Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson plays Ray, a helicopter rescue pilot. You know, for when distracted teenage drivers call for help as their cars dangle menacingly on the cliff of a ravine they accidentally careened into. Someone needs to save the teenagers, guys! And that someone is Ray; a strong, silent type who is incredibly good at being the hero in any situation. Just as a geologist (Paul Giamatti) cracks the code to predict earthquakes, he uncovers an alarming circumstance: the San Andreas fault is about to drastically shift, causing the largest tectonic event in history. Because no one listens to scientists until the ground starts shaking, it’s business as usual for Ray, his ex-wife (Carla Gugino), and daughter (Alexandra Dadarrio). But once the quakes start to ripple from Los Angeles to San Francisco, Ray must use his unique set of skills to save his family.
Bolstered by the true science that California is overdue for a massive earthquake, San Andreas oscillates from a visceral, edge-of-your-seat experience to the silly, eye-roll fest that has become commonplace for disaster films. Make no mistake about it— San Andreas is first and foremost a spectacular display of CGI destruction, especially in 3D. The characters merely exist to exposit why things are occurring or to be walking survival handbooks.
That said, the cast works hard to keep San Andreas interesting in between set pieces. The Rock is great in the Arnold Schwarzenegger role and performs well with the minimal emotional arc he’s asked to express. Carla Gugino is pitch perfect for the tone, as she can emote very real panic in one scene and deliver snarky one-liners in the next. Paul Giamatti’s performance is great as always, despite every one of his lines being foreboding exposition. And Alexandra Daddario is arguably the most interesting to watch; she’s believable, relatable, and doesn’t let the preposterous proceedings compromise her portrayal as the heart of the film. These actors help the audience forget that we’re really just watching The Rock run in front of a green screen for 90 minutes.
San Andreas is fun to watch, the special effects are outstanding, and as disaster films go, it’s the best we’ve seen in years. It’s a good time at the movies; just make sure to exchange your brain for 3D glasses at the door.
San Andreas opens in Philly area theaters today.