Shake It Off
San Andreas is Hollywood at its most mechanical; a movie plotted backwards from a high concept pitch and overlaid with box ticking human interest. The Rock’s a helicopter rescue pilot ripe for redemption. He couldn’t save his daughter from drowning in a white water rafting accident, so lost his family. They’re now shacked up with an aloof architect whose buildings meant more to him than starting his own brood. Buildings: the first hubristic casualty of tectonic mayhem. The cuckoo’s rich and selfish, The Rock’s blue collar and selfless. Nice guys like him don’t get the breaks, unless they’re lucky enough to be on hand when the greatest earthquake in history hits California. What an opportunity for circumstance to show what a snake the new man is under pressure and for The Rock to save his family, maybe pick up a son-in-law on the way, and start again. “Now we rebuild” says the man mountain at the close, his paterfamilias status restored. Sure, millions died gruesome deaths so he could carve the joint every weekend, but it was worth it. Cities fell but the family was restored.
It must be a bit of a chore for director Brad Peyton to have to pretend to be interested in these things when all he, and indeed we, really care about is how much synthetic destruction can be squeezed into the frame, but he does a reasonable job of orchestrating “the big one” – a century overdue according to B-story seismologist Paul Giamatti. His job is to portend doom and say things like, “everybody” when asked who his research colleagues should call to avert disaster. When he’s not hiding under desks, or watching his friend die in the movie’s early setpiece, the destruction of the Hoover Dam, the action switches to the plight of The Rock’s genetically flawless womenfolk – wife Carla Gugino and plentiful daughter, Alexandra Daddario, whose casting tells you the lengths Peyton went to in staying awake on the days he wasn’t planning visual effects sequences.
But it’s The Rock himself – the man sometimes known as Dwayne Johnson, who prevents the Earth moving while you watch San Andreas. It’s not until it’s over that you realise how underutilised he is in a role that could and should have required a great deal more physical virtuosity than we get here.
The comparison is with that other lunk in need of redemption and under pressure in tough conditions actioner, Cliffhanger; a movie that contrived a scenario to show off all Sylvester Stallone’s muscular talents. Andreas’s opening rescue, we feel, is just the first of many instances where Johnson’s superior bulk and strength are going to be the difference between life and death, but instead the script doesn’t give him any opportunities to support crumbling pillars, lift cars off trapped bystanders, fight looters, act as a human bridge to save a bunch of kids, or even have him holding onto his wife or daughter while the ground disappears beneath them. His character’s a know-it-all, a man who has presence enough to deal with every situation, like Titanic’s Leonardo DiCaprio, but doesn’t need to do much more than pilot a plane and drive a boat. This, we feel, could have been accomplished by a man half Johnson’s size. Maybe a man with more personality. Why have this human special effect, the genetic sequel to Arnold Schwarzenegger, if you’re not going to unleash him? The tag line could and should have been “the Earth’s shaking in fear…of him” but no, he’s a caring and considerate family man with a cool head under pressure. Quick, someone render a building collapse!
So San Andreas, despite some decent pacing and good, if not great visual effects, never becomes the heart-in-mouth spectacular it might have been. There’s red meat for the disaster movie crowd – fallen monuments, panoramic destruction, and it has a certain unrelenting quality, but there’s nothing here to shake off genre clichés or provide added marquee value. Next time the suits hire these muscles they should insist they’re flexed.