Skyscrapers collapsing in Los Angeles and San Francisco qualify as the best parts of “San Andreas” (* OUT OF ****) with Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino struggling to patch up their ailing marriage while everything else around them topples into rubble. Unfortunately, the soap opera clichés that clutter up the lives of our hero and heroine amount to forgettable fodder. When the Rock and company aren’t dominating director Brad Peyton’s lackluster disaster epic, a bespectacled Paul Giamatti scrambles around hysterically as Cal-Tech seismologist Dr. Lawrence Hayes. He cannot fathom all the cataclysms occurring around him starting with the destruction of Hoover Dam. When he isn’t delivering dire warnings for everybody to evacuate from California’s two largest cities, he is ducking under desks to avoid dying from debris. The chief problem with “San Andreas” is that it simply isn’t awesome enough to be engaging. Most disaster movies assemble a cavalcade of stars with box office clout, and we are challenged to guess the order in which they will perish. Dwayne Johnson is the biggest star that “San Andreas” musters, and Warner Brothers has miscast him in a role that doesn’t accommodate his massive screen personality. Mind you, the Rock isn’t a bad actor when he lands a solid part like the ex-con in Michael Bay’s “Pain and Gain” or when he deploys his larger-than-life charisma in the “Fast & Furious” franchise. Just as good disaster movies boast a big enough cast so some of those biggies can bite the dust, nobody on screen who you would worry about dies in “San Andreas.” The body count consists of fewer than five! Two of them die rather suddenly, crushed by huge objects, without abundant amounts of blood, gore, or screams. One somewhat likeable character takes a little longer to depart, but we don’t witness his demise. Meanwhile, anybody who finds themselves caught in a terrifying predicament survives because the Rock is around to defy death so they don’t have to die. You might get tense and gnaw your knuckles when somebody finds themselves in jeopardy, but “San Andreas” refuses to sacrifice lives like the best disaster movies from the 1970s. Major stars died in “Earthquake,” “The Towering Inferno,” and “The Poseidon Adventure.” Recent disaster epics like “Titanic,” “The Perfect Storm,” and “Pompeii” racked up enviable body counts, too. Comparably, this scenic PG-13 rated potboiler isn’t tragic enough, and this abysmal quality may endear it to family friendly audiences who prefer thrills and chills instead of stars screaming, crying, and dying. Worst, after blockbusters like “Furious 7,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” and “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “San Andreas” appears lightweight. Nothing genuinely surprising or horrific occurs, and the characters lack depth that not even the spectacular 3-D effects can enhance. Personally, I’d rather stay home and watch John Cusack in the tolerable “2012” careen across town in his limo as the bottom falls out of Los Angeles.
When we see our hero for the first time, Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson of “Hercules”) is flying a search and rescue helicopter into a narrow opening between two mountains where a small car has plummeted and hangs precipitously from a crag with a girl trapped within it. This sequence is reminiscent of a similar scene from director Marc Webb’s “The Amazing Spider-Man” (2012) where Spidey rescued an adolescent stuck in a car dangling from a bridge. Since we know there is no way that our hero is going to die in the first scene, it is difficult to worry about either the fate of the Rock or the terror-stricken girl that he rescues. After repeatedly attempts to save her life fail because the guys flying with Ray lack his expertise, he braves peril and proves why he is the best of the best. After this respectable opening cliffhanger, we learn that Ray Gaines is poised to divorce his wife, Emma (Carla Gugino of “American Gangster”), because their marriage has suffered since the unfortunate death of their youngest daughter Mallory in a rafting incident. Nothing that Ray did could save her from drowning, and Emma has never recovered from this tragedy. Meantime, their oldest daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario of “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters”), is preparing to head back to college in Seattle. Things go from good to bad after Emma introduces her affluent but obnoxious fiancé, Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffudd of the “Fantastic Four” fantasies), to Ray. Ray smolders with fury but manages to restrain himself during the introduction. Ioan Gruffudd plays such an unsympathetic character you know he won’t survive in the grand scheme of destruction. Daniel proves how untrustworthy his character is when he abandons Blake in a limo trapped in an underground garage. Frantically, he assures her that he will bring help, but he leaves her without a second thought about saving her. “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” director Brad Peyton and “Lost” scenarist Carlton Cuse do little to redeem Gruffudd’s selfish character. Ironically, the only interesting thing they do that sets this disaster movie apart from others is make the hero and the heroine selfish. After he rescues Emma from a buckling skyscraper, Ray decides that the welfare of his family comes first rather than the welfare of strangers. Indeed, rather than performing his job as a Los Angeles Search and Rescue chopper pilot, Ray and Emma work their way north using a variety of vehicles to get to San Francisco and rescue Blake. Naturally, Emma changes her mind about their divorce and demands Daniel’s head on a platter. Inevitably, Ray finds himself trying to save Blake’s life after she has passed out and gotten too much water in her lungs. The Rock pounds away at Blake in an effort to revive his daughter. She doesn’t respond, but you know there is no way they are going to let her die. This scene is reminiscent of a far better scene in director James Cameron’s “The Abyss,” where Ed Harris hammers Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s body repeatedly before he manages to revive her. The first cliffhanger scene and the dying daughter scene simply don’t generate enough white-knuckled angst because these scenes have been done before and done better.
Ultimately, everything in “San Andreas” is strictly by the numbers. Sometimes, you don’t want to walk out on a movie to answer nature’s call or replenish your supply of popcorn and candy. You’ll miss little in this second-rate spectacle during the time that it takes to carry out either task. Nothing about “San Andreas” is memorable with regard either to its one-dimensional characters or their repetitious dialogue. Carla Gugino has the distinction of uttering the F-bomb once because it can only be said once in a movie rated PG-13. Indeed, the state-of-the-art computer generated scenes of disaster look impressive, but you won’t see bodies plunging from those buildings. In the new “Mad Max: Fury Road” movie, for example, you see bodies catapulted from exploding cars. Altogether, despite its devastating CGI, “San Andreas” is nothing to get shaken up about where disaster movies are concerned.