Needless to say, it’s a very big earthquake. It starts at the Hoover Dam, snakes its way west to Los Angeles, then cuts north through Bakersfield on the way to the big enchilada, San Francisco. With “San Andreas,” audiences get a glimpse of the Big One, only here there’s not a single Big One, but Big Ones. Taking into account after shocks and that various localities feel each other’s quakes, the filmmakers figure out a way to keep things shaking for most of the movie’s 114 minutes.
Credit must be given for truth in advertising. The movie promises earthquake effects and delivers them. Ten years from now, these effects may be old stuff, but in 2015, you will not find better. And while after about an hour, the sight of buildings exploding and imploding starts to get numbing, the movie stays alive by focusing on the micro-disasters, as well, like what it’s like for a person to be inside a building as it’s pancaking, or to be trapped inside a car in a basement garage, right before a cave in.
The earthquakes are the stars of “San Andreas,” and no one pretends otherwise, but there are actual people in the movie, because debris has to fall on somebody. Paul Giamatti, walking a line between drama (on the surface) and comedy (what he’s really thinking), plays a seismologist whose mission is to predict catastrophic earthquakes. At the start, he’s smart enough to forecast the Hoover Dam quake about eight seconds before it happens. Later, he improves his method to the point that he can issue televised warnings: “I cannot emphasize this enough to the people of San Francisco. You need to get out – now!”
Of course, the safest route out is to the north, over the Golden Gate Bridge … uh-oh.
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Giamatti is the man of intellect. Dwayne Johnson plays the man of action, a rescue pilot who, at the start of the movie, has the same family difficulty that Liam Neeson had at the start of “Taken.” His workaholism has wrecked his marriage, and now his wife (Carla Gugino) and loving daughter (Alexandra Daddario) are living in the Los Angeles mansion of a rich guy.
Money usually means security. But when you’re on the roof of a building that’s collapsing, it’s better to know somebody who flies a helicopter.
Though no one will ever confuse Johnson for Olivier, Johnson is ideal in this kind of movie – huge enough to compete with the special effects, and with an aura of doggedness and competence that makes you believe he’d never give up. For most of the action, Johnson and Gugino, playing ex-spouses, travel across California to find their teenage daughter, and their relationship is convincing and nicely built. Johnson is the kind of actor who needs a mission. Tell him his character’s purpose is to save his family, and that’s what he plays – every second he’s on screen. There’s not much nuance there, but it’s a form of good acting.
If anything, the young people are even better – Daddario as the capable daughter, a chip off the old Rock; and Hugo Johnstone-Burt as the lucky young Englishman who will soon be her boyfriend, if they can both survive the next 24 hours.
Hoover Dam is the hors d’oeuvre; Los Angeles is the appetizer, and San Francisco is the main course. The places in between are light snacks, occasioning the odd remark. (She: “Where are we?” He: “Bakersfield. Or what’s left of it.”) Say goodbye to the Hollywood sign. The TransAmerica Pyramid is now the TransAmerica Stump. The Bay Bridge finally gets its close-up, and AT&T park will soon have to adopt new rules. For example, if the baseball drops through a crevice and falls to the center of the earth, that’s a ground-rule double.
By turns frightening, exciting and ridiculous, “San Andreas” is, in the end, more impressive than anything else. We take for granted that a movie can show a tsunami, but when filmmakers come up with ways to make that tsunami particularly vivid and horrifying, that’s something else. (And isn’t it nice that San Franciscans can have the Venice experience without flying to Italy?) Likewise a helicopter roof rescue is all well and good, but how about one from a low building, while taller buildings are collapsing all around it?
Some movies are easy to mock, but hard to resist. This is one of them. And as much as a barbecue by the pool, with the ballgame playing on the radio, “San Andreas” has the feeling of summer.
Rated: PG-13 for intense disaster action and mayhem throughout, and brief strong language
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario
Directed by: Brad Peyton