There was a moment while watching San Andreas that I started applauding. Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson) has just parachuted out of an airplane along with his soon to be ex-wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), landing safely inside AT&T Park, the home of the San Francisco Giants. Ray then cracks a one-liner about getting to second base, or something, that instills a sense that this movie is “fun.” This line happens not long after a devastating earthquake rips apart most of California, and right before a second, even worse earthquake hits. And then the tsunami comes, washing most of San Francisco away.
San Andreas is one of those movies that is kind of fun — in an old fashioned disaster movie kind of way — until it’s not. We don’t get the hour or so of The Expert No One Will Take Seriously (here played by Paul Giamatti) before the eventual destruction happens — here, it’s pretty much all destruction. After a while, it’s hard to watch without becoming numb and sad because I’ve just seen millions of computer generated digital people die who were just living their computer generated digital lives.
But there’s a catch: The Rock.
Is there anything Dwayne Johnson’s presence doesn’t make better? (My friends who like wrestling tell me the answer is “wrestling.” I will take their word for it.) If you were on a long road trip, wouldn’t Johnson’s presence make that trip better? Think of your favorite restaurant, what if you went into the kitchen and found out that Johnson had been preparing your food the whole time. How would that not be better? Think of your favorite band — if Johnson’s only role was to be like that guy from The Mighty Mighty Bosstones who just dances the whole time, how would that not make the band better? I can’t think of another actor who — if you inserted him or her into the lead role of this movie — could make me enjoy this movie as much. This movie only works with Johnson. He’s impossible not to like. And even as I got numb to the destructions, here comes Dwayne Johnson with his pure presence that somehow makes it an enjoyable experience.
The other night, the original The Poseidon Adventure was on basic cable. I have a soft spot for movies like this (and The Towering Inferno and the lesser known When Time Ran Out) basically because they follow the same formula: disaster hits, then all these people who have nothing in common have to team up in order to survive. I wish there was a little more of this kind of interaction during San Andreas, a movie in which everyone is just kind of doing their own things. In fact, not only do Johnson and Giamatti’s characters never meet, it’s highly unlikely they are even aware that the other exists.
Giamatti, like Dwayne Johnson, has a way of making everything better. (There’s a comparison I’ve never made before.) So it’s a weird feeling to be happy that Giamatti is in this movie while realizing at the same time that his character is worthless. Giamatti plays a renowned seismologist who has finally cracked the code to predicting earthquakes. But the way this model is presented to us, the viewers, it appears that he gets, oh, about 45 seconds of warning before these massive earthquakes hit. A big deal is made out of the fact that no one would listen to his warnings, but, honestly, I’m not sure what anyone is supposed to do with such little lead time. So that’s it for Giamatti, his role is reduced to basically screaming, “Here comes another!” before he hides under his desk.
Another big deal is made about the brotherhood between Ray and his team of Los Angeles Fire Department helicopter rescue pilots. The film starts with a pretty good rescue scene that establishes that (A) they are all good at their job and (B) they all served together in the military. A massive quake hits Nevada and his team is dispatched to help, but then another quake hits California and Ray decides to rescue his family — we never hear from or about his team again.
But, again, when Johnson is on screen, which I wish was a little more, it’s almost impossible not to be entertained. And he and Gugino make a good team as they head for San Francisco (using three modes of transportation before it’s all said and done) in an effort to rescue their daughter, Blake, played by Alexandra Daddario. (Because it doesn’t happen enough, it should be pointed out that San Andreas at least gives us a believable age former married couple, as Gugino is actually eight months older than Johnson.)
Look, if you want to watch Dwayne Johnson be charming in a disaster movie, you should see San Andreas — it’s pretty much exactly what you’re expecting, only it just keeps coming and coming and coming. By the end, you will be exhausted by all of the digital destruction, but you’ll still somehow want to see more of Dwayne Johnson.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.