The biggest earthquake in recorded history rocks California, amidst the dire warnings of a leading seismologist (Paul Giamatti). Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson), the biggest man in the Los Angeles Fire Department, is THE man to save the day. Buildings crumble, fissures open in the ground, but nothing will stop this man mountain from saving his family. Lots of other people die but apparently that’s not interesting.
The spectacle of San Andreas is impressive, as whole sections of cities buckle, landmarks are destroyed and judder after judder shake the audience. But the film lacks an equivalent human scale, its focus too narrow on the broken family of Ray, ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino) and daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario). Disaster movies like Titanic and The Day After Tomorrow as well as classics like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno work because they either show the wide effects of the disaster or focus on a small group of characters. San Andreas falls between these stools (or should that be continental plates) by occasionally presenting other victims of the earthquakes, but then abandons these plot lines to just focus on the Gaines. This is most glaring when Ray is on a rescue missions that he suddenly abandons to rescue Emma before both of them set off, in an LAFD helicopter, for San Francisco to get their daughter, Ray and the film apparently disregarding everyone else.
Politically, this is an unfortunate manifestation of conservative individualism – save yourself and your family – but it is also narratively aggravating because tighter plotting could have avoided it. It may seem odd to complain about the plot of a disaster movie, but action films of this type, when done carefully, often exhibit precise and efficient storytelling. But the sloppiness of Carlton Cuse’s screenplay, including the tired device of INEXORABLY RISING WATER as a climactic set piece, detracts from director Brad Peyton’s fine handling of the action sequences, including some enthralling long takes that draw the viewer through the onscreen architectural carnage. The generic clichés are perfectly fine, such as the slimy new boyfriend and the random strangers Blake bonds with in the crisis, while scenes at Cal-Tech with Lawrence (Giamatti) and a news crew are very good. Overall, however, San Andreas is let down by its shaky screenplay that could easily have been tightened up.