Time was when disaster movies were the domain of cheap ‘n’ cheerful B-movies, all wobbly skyscraper sets and screaming crowds of extras.
The advent of CGI puts paid to all that: in modern blockbusting, filmmakers can now destroy entire cities (Man of Steel), continents (The Day After Tomorrow) or even planets (2012) with barely the click of a mouse or tap of a keyboard.
These days, mass destruction on an industrial scale is frequent, and frequently thoughtless. Can the sight of another city being levelled by visual effects artists hold the power it once could? Are we bored of the apocalypse yet?
San Andreas would hope not. Reuniting the acting-directing partnership of Dwayne Johnson and Brad Peyton (at last!), after their fruitful collaboration on, erm, Journey 2 The Mysterious Island, it sees America’s west coast trembling at the arrival of the ‘big one’ – the long-awaited mega-earthquake predicted along the San Andreas fault.
With all the scientific rigour and accuracy of a medieval apothecary woman, Paul Giamatti’s seismologist sets the scene. Apparently, the tectonic plate under California is shifting. A clutch of disaster movie clichés (“I think you’re gonna want to see this…”) condescendingly explain the finer details.
Small quakes in Nevada portend the computer-generated demolition to come. The Hoover Dam is the first victim; Los Angeles follows; San Francisco is close behind. Buildings topple with barely a moment’s reflection for the cost, human or otherwise.
As ambitious as it is in scale, San Andreas is totally unambitious in plot. Johnson plays a heroic search and rescue pilot – naturally – but he’s dragged down by his dull-as-dishwater family: an estranged wife (Gugino), a slick new romantic rival (Gruffudd), and a doe-eyed daughter (Daddario) who finds time between tremors to bat her eyelids at a new beau (Johnstone-Burt).
A dreary dead-daughter subplot serves only to facilitate the film’s supposed emotional core (and further facilitate a frankly baffling 30-second cameo from Kylie Minogue). Half of the supporting cast are irritating enough that you’ll find yourself willing the ground to swallow them up.
Still, Peyton is a director who recognises the power of an actor like Johnson – or rather, recognises that while he isn’t really much of an actor, he radiates sunbeams of A-list charisma. His broad shoulders, swollen biceps and million-dollar smile hold immense screen presence. He can rescue the dowdiest of films. He’s fought wrestlers, lions, giant bees – and now tectonic plates.
He is, simply put, a latter-day action saint. From first line (“just doing my job, ma’am!”) to preposterously patriotic last, Johnson is the film’s saving grace.
The Rock, you could say, is caught in a hard place here: lumbered with a powerfully stupid script and drainingly repetitive special effects. But as so often in his career, he makes the best of it.