By Thomas Simpson
It feels like Dwayne Johnson can do no wrong. After helping revamp the Fast and the Furious franchise in 2011, he went on to become the highest grossing actor of 2013. Audiences love him and even the most hardened critics aren’t immune to his charm. His latest film is the catastrophe laden San Andreas. If it feels familiar, it’s because it should. This is every disaster film of the last 20 years recycled in 3D, or 2D if you prefer not to get headaches. Johnson has massive shoulders, but is he capable of carrying a film like this to blockbuster status? Or maybe it’s more fun than its premise suggests.
Johnson is Ray Gaines, a Los Angeles Fire Department helicopter-rescue pilot and recognized hero. Despite being an all-round awesome guy, he’s going through a divorce with his estranged wife Emma (Carla Gugino). Gaines has to grit his teeth and grin when he finds out Emma and their daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) are shacking up with Emma’s new boyfriend Daniel (Ioan Gruffud). Not that Daniel is a suitable replacement for Gaines. When the San Andreas fault starts to shift, Blake finds herself trapped and Daniel leaves her like the coward he is. Gaines must battle his way across the country as he fights nature to save his daughter.
San Andreas puts its cards on the table from the offset. This film is full of clichés, stereotypes and wanton destruction. It does so however in the most unapologetic fashion, and this is partly why it manages to be an enjoyable adventure movie. Director Brad Peyton can be forgiven for serenading us with disaster porn as this is a film that does what it says on the tin. He is very effective at ramping up the tension and prevents the action from getting stale and overwhelming. Maybe news coverage of real life natural tragedies are too fresh in the memory as there is something genuinely distressing about some of the set-pieces.
Screenwriter Carlton Cruse may be most famous for his work on Lost, however here he keeps things simple. The plot is predictable with many of the characters fulfilling the usual tropes; estranged wife, gutless new boyfriend and the science guy (a criminally underused Paul Giamatti). Yes, it may seem overly familiar and that’s what makes it work. That and its lead star.
Johnson’s natural charisma makes it difficult to dislike him. The only way he’s made more likable is by contrast to the sniveling Gruffud, who plays the pathetic Daniel with ease. Gugino isn’t given much to sink her teeth into as she inevitably realizes that Ray is a much better catch then Daniel. It would be easy to relegate Daddario to damsel in distress, instead she is one of the stronger characters as she helps keep two brothers alive, as she offers more than a walking talking McGuffin.
San Andreas isn’t going to be bothering judges come awards season, but so what? Not every film has to be thought provoking with deep meaning, some of them can just be fun and with San Andreas, fun is what you get. It may not warrant repeat viewing but as far as disaster films go, it doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t. Stock up on popcorn.
Thomas Simpson is a writer and filmmaker based in Glasgow, U.K. Find him on Twitter: @Simmy41.