Let’s cut to the chase: San Andreas, like most of its disaster-flick brethren, is an inherently silly film. It’s also a film that’s better than it should be, thanks to an across-the-board talented cast. Just don’t go in expecting The Rock. This is Dwayne Johnson in a non-Rock mode.
Johnson plays Ray, the head of a rescue team in LA. His wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), left him after a personal tragedy, and took their daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) with her. Emma has just served Ray with divorce papers, and is moving in with her new boyfriend, billionaire Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffudd). And…cue the earthquake.
That’s what these sort of disaster pictures are about, after all: set up a nominal plot to hook in viewers, then bring on the disaster. To his credit, director Brad Peyton delivers on that front. San Andreas basically takes the state of California, and unleashes massive earthquakes to shake up entire cities. The action starts early on, and recurs frequently enough to keep up the action, each incident larger than the one before.
San Andreas benefits from Johnson’s presence. Johnson is one of a few bankable actors working today who’s actually able to deliver in different genres. While action is the obvious choice for Johnson with his physique, San Andreas actually requires a significant amount of his dramatic skills as well. While it’s easy to imagine Johnson would have chemistry with anybody, he works surprisingly well with Gugino. The two are able to generate a sense of shared history in their scenes that don’t involve action, which goes a long way to sell the semblance of a story the film carries. Daddario also brings a surprising amount of heft to her character, and its to their credit that all three leads are clearly capable of handling the looming disaster.
I’m sure Hollywood will try to prove me wrong, but it’s hard to imagine where else a disaster film could go in terms of ramping up the carnage. What else can be done? San Andreas does offer an option: bring in strong actors to sell the scenes that aren’t CGI carnage. The emotional high point of San Andreas comes with a piece of glass separating Ray and Blake, and the relative intimacy of that scene is more harrowing than seeing the entire city of San Francisco shake. It’s easy to grow numb to spectacle. It’s harder to grow numb to real emotions. Maybe future disaster pictures should expand on the story and its characters.