State-of-the-art digital mayhem mingles with disaster flick drama that couldn’t be more quaint in “San Andreas,” Hollywood’s latest bit of morbidly sensational speculation about its worst earthquake nightmares come true. Consider it the Big One versus the Big One, as Dwayne Johnson lends his muscle to managing the 3-D seismic chaos.
Still, for all the unabashed cliches and straight-faced silliness delivered by Johnson, Paul Giamatti, and their generally capable castmates, they’re doing something right. The spectacle they put together with director Brad Peyton (Johnson’s “Journey 2” and upcoming “Journey 3”) does get us pulling for these folks to make it out of the rubble OK.
Apparently recognizing that even the Rock probably can’t body-slam tectonic plates into submission, the movie establishes Johnson’s Ray Gaines as an ace helicopter pilot handling dicey rescues for the Los Angeles fire department. We’ll eventually learn that the one save he couldn’t make led to his split from his sympathetic ex, Emma (Carla Gugino), and his melancholy air around their daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario). But for the moment, Ray is all about the job in front of him. It’s one that turns infinitely scarier when a Hoover Dam tremor that Giamatti’s Caltech wonk had predicted spikes into a record quake he could barely have imagined. “Everybody off the dam!,” indeed.
As LA’s office towers begin to fall, Ray detours his chopper to grab shellshocked Emma from a collapsing rooftop, then sets off with her for San Francisco, where Blake is in serious jeopardy, too. The action is all about the Bay Area from here, as we alternate between the fast-reconciling parents’ desperate trek and Blake’s perilous meanderings alongside a courageous, hunky Brit (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his equally likable pubescent brother (Art Parkinson).
Despite the genre cred that writer Carlton Cuse (“Lost”) brings to the script, there are inadvertent laughs, even when the stakes are grave. And Ioan Gruffudd is downright thanklessly cast as Blake’s prospective stepdad, a skyscraper developer who’s all steel, no spine. But there are also clever, organic moments that are as rousing and amusing as intended. Business as usual for Johnson, but Daddario also does a pretty good job of shifting into plucky good-girl mode for someone who was so convincingly down-and-dirty on HBO’s “True Detective.”
Meanwhile, that unbilled megastar — simulated destruction — is immersive enough to stifle any snarking that Roland Emmerich must have been busy for Peyton to have landed the job. As ever with this genre, being able to compartmentalize concerns about questionable taste is an audience prerequisite. (Wonder how those who were permanently affected by the Loma Prieta earthquake feel about seeing their fears played for entertainment that’s not, you know, “Godzilla”?) But there’s no denying the images are darkly spectacular: the Golden Gate violently bisected like we’ve never witnessed onscreen. Downtown San Francisco morphed into a maze of debris-strewn tsunami canals. Downtown LA rolling like a great wave. Even if Giamatti weren’t mustering all his chops for a characteristically frantic line about the East Coast feeling the jolt, we’d still buy it.
Tom Russo can be reached at email@example.com.