The earthquake in “San Andreas” reaches a whopping 9.6 on the Richter scale. And the movie earns some equivalent of that on Hollywood’s bang-for-your-bucks meter.
This furious and ridiculous disaster epic splashes every bit of its $110 million budget on the screen. A legion of talented technicians ensures that everything in the foreground and background is teetering, collapsing, burning, flooding or some combination thereof. And it’s in glorious 3-D, which here stands for Danger, Destruction and Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson.
The latter serves as the heroic center of this tectonic chaos. He plays Ray, a war veteran and L.A. Fire Department chopper captain who boasts “over 600 documented rescues” to his credit. (No telling what that total balloons to by the end of the movie.) Based on his brawny physique and confident skills displayed in an opening sequence featuring a car hanging off the side of a mountain, he might as well be Captain America.
“Just doing my job, ma’am,” he explains to a reporter covering the incident. (Note: The hokey dialogue in the screenplay by Carlton Cuse of “Lost” and “Bates Motel” barely registers on any scale.)
But Ray has trouble salvaging his home life. Already rocked by the drowning death of one child, he’s saddened to learn his estranged wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), and daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario), are moving in with a fancy-pants architect (Ioan Gruffudd).
Nearby, a Cal Tech seismologist (Paul Giamatti) becomes a harbinger for horrors lurking beneath the feet of those living on the San Andreas fault. He spends the movie like Chicken Little with a Ph.D., the mantra “The sky is falling” replaced with “People need to know that the shaking is not over!”
Once this “whole lotta shakin’” escalates, the story follows the congruent course of Ray as he uses all manner of vehicles to get to San Francisco in search of Blake. Meanwhile, his daughter tries to vacate the city, hampered by challenges ranging from looters to tidal waves. She picks up key allies in British brothers Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and little Ollie (Art Parkinson). What they lack in physicality they make up for in moxie.
Director Brad Peyton (“Journey 2: The Mysterious Island”) works hard to make viewers continually root for these characters, no matter how ludicrous their predicaments. As opposed to the superhuman Ray, Blake and her cohorts survive due to resourceful, practical decisions. The blue-eyed beauty proves so proactive that she never devolves into a damsel in distress who’s only waiting until Daddy arrives.
Ultimately, “San Andreas” delivers a collection of harrowing set pieces where the sets inevitably go to pieces. As outrageous as is the image of a tsunami-propelled container ship cutting the Golden Gate Bridge in half, it gets presented with maximum believability. That’s the whole point of this enterprise, right? To see California crumble? Then job well done.
Last weekend’s box-office champ “Tomorrowland” berates the gloomy mindset of movies about massive disasters or end-of-the-world dystopias. But “San Andreas” actually comes across as a hopeful film. The “good guys” include scientists, the military and rescue workers who use their skills to make things better. The core story involves families bonding together.
Hardly any cynicism touches this picture. But it is rather satisfying when the famed Hollywood sign rattles off its lofty perch.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Rated PG-13 Time: 1:54
COULD IT HAPPEN?
U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Susan Hough accompanied The Associated Press to see “San Andreas.” Despite the implausible plot, she said the 800-mile-long fault will indeed break again, and without warning: “We are at some point going to face a big earthquake,” she said.
Not as big as the movie’s 9-plus quake, though — 8.3 is more like it, but that’s still very deadly.
Unlike Paul Giamatti’s character, real seismologists can’t predict when a jolt is coming and are pessimistic about ever having that ability. Also unlike the movie: The San Andreas can’t spawn tsunamis. And even the largest quake there won’t rattle the East Coast,
One thing it got right: safety precautions. Dive under a table or, if you’re outside, find a secure wall. “Having Paul Giamatti shouting, ‘Drop, cover and hold on!’ and the Rock telling people to crouch against a wall if they can is one heck of a PSA,” Hough said.
3-D OR NOT 3-D?
Since the entire film hinges on viewers getting caught up in the destruction of the West Coast, the clean and vivid 3-D presentation is crucial to the you-are-there factor.