Review: Dwayne Johnson shines but earthquake takes center stage in ‘San Andreas’

“San Andreas” is a very silly movie.

Then again, disaster movies are almost always silly. That's just the nature of the beast. They're all roughly the same, and they end up as narrative excuses for mayhem and little more. Carlton Cuse's screenplay for “San Andreas” (apparently written on a napkin during a “Bates Motel” lunch break) is no exception, and if you are curious about whether or not you should see the film, look at the trailer. Do you want to watch California shake to pieces? Yes? Then see the movie, because it absolutely lives up to that promise. Do you want anything else from the movie? You may come up short.

First of all, there is no scene in this film where The Rock punches an earthquake. For that reason alone, I have to take a full letter grade off. Instead, Dwayne Johnson plays Ray, who heads up a rescue team in LA. He's about to finalize his divorce from Emma (Carla Gugino), who left him when there was a personal tragedy, taking their daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) with her. Emma's about to be remarried to billionaire Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffudd), aaaaaaaaaand… then there's a giant earthquake.

That's what makes me laugh about these movies. Watching them go through the busywork to make you “care” is basically a giant magic trick. Who is being fooled here? The reason you go see “San Andreas” is to see what the state of the art looks like when you destroy an entire state, set piece after set piece, and Brad Peyton delivers on that. The film's first big disaster set piece comes early, and then he makes sure to keep them rolling out every fifteen minutes or so, one preposterously scaled act of chaos at a time.

Paul Giamatti, ArchiePanjabi, Hugo Johnstone-Burt and Art Parkinson are all also involved in the shaking and the running, but it's really a three-person movie. I may kid about Johnson's uber-macho image, but I am an unabashed fan. Dwayne Johnson is one of our true movie stars right now, a guy who exists because if he didn't, they would have to invent him using CG. He is capable of comedy, he's bred for action, and he is enormously capable at drama. There is nothing you can throw at him in a script that he can't play. Now, is that enough to make a script like this work? He makes it work as much as anyone could. Gugino makes a nice match for him, and you can see how relieved she is that he gives as good as he gets in any scene he plays. Daddario's character is very capable, and I'll say this for the movie… at least the three leads are all smart and capable. Poor Giamatti spends the movie yelling “HERE IT COMES!” and hiding under various tables, stranded at the Exposition Labs, but the Johnson Family all handle themselves well, jumping out of planes, handling boats, climbing skyscrapers… it's small wonder they're our heroes.

I'm not sure there is a better version of a disaster movie. The entire point here is the disaster. Like Roland Emmerich's “2012,” this feels like an endgame. I'm not really sure there's anywhere else to go after something like this. You can do more, certainly, but how different is it going to be? How many more buildings or cruise ships or bridges can be knocked down? How many tidal waves finally satisfy our seemingly insatiable lust for giant tidal waves?

When Warner Bros. screened this, it was at the 4DX theater in downtown LA. If you haven't seen 4DX in action before, it is a theater that has been built so every seat is on a motion-control gimbal platform, complete with built-in environmental effects. When you see someone flying a helicopter onscreen, your seat shakes and gusts of air blow on you and the entire theater seems to slowly tilt this way and that. If there's a scene involving a giant tidal wave, believe me… you're getting wet. And when there are explosions, actual clouds of smoke roll through the theater, while lights pop in strobe patterns. It represents the perfect Venn diagram intersection of theme park ride and movie that the studios seem to be chasing these days, and “San Andreas” feels like it was designed specifically to play in one of those theaters. My kids thought it was the greatest theatrical experience of their young lives, and that's not an exaggeration on my part. My seven-year-old announced that he only wants to see movies like that from now on, and my ten-year-old started making a list of other movies this summer we have to see in that theater. If a movie is good, it obviously stands on its own and can work in any theatrical setting. Hell, I'd say that if a movie really works, you can watch it on a phone or a watch or the back of an airplane seat, and it still works. A film like “San Andreas,” stripped of every bell and whistle, would have little to offer. It is big and goofy and rowdy and loud, and it is a workout for any projection system. It is also inconsequential dramatically, the script a mere function to glue together the money shots. Movies like this (I hesitate to call it a “film”) are not lesser simply because of why they were made, but it is useless to try to apply any standard metric of discussion when you're reviewing it. Tech credits are through-the-roof good, as they have to be for any of this to work at all.

But here's the thing… when I look at the scene here that is meant to be the emotional lynchpin of the movie, and it comes down to two actors on opposite sides of a piece of glass and all you have is whatever emotionally happens between them? And those actors are as good as Dwayne Johnson and Alexandra Daddario? It seems a shame that we have reached a point where they are the window dressing and the effects are meant to be the stars. After all, genuine emotional connection is an infinitely renewable resource in film, and audiences will never grow numb to that when it's earned. We've found the ceiling for how big spectacle can be and how much destruction can be accomplished. Now why not start the search for the ceiling on great storytelling and real characters?

“San Andreas” is in theaters Friday.