There's no denying it, disaster movies stopped being interesting many years ago. It probably occurred around the time Roland Emmerich destroyed the world again in The Day After Tomorrow. Respectable box office takings aside, audiences haven't been treated to original ideas by any of the genre’s recent entries, regardless of changing locations (Poseidon — water) or styles (Into the Storm — first person).
Brad Peyton’s hulking San Andreas is unlikely to change that pattern. It bears all the usual hallmarks: family strife set against catastrophic events, attractive leads and an unbending central figure pressing on through the chaos for the sake of his kin. With its glossy CGI and an unhinged level of destruction, this is not a film trading in subtlety or nuance.
That said, the presence of Dwayne Johnson as its figurehead renders San Andreas a far more likeable beast than many of its progenitors. The artist formerly known as The Rock is a seriously underrated actor who is quickly cornering the market in uncompromising heroes, low on flaws and high on integrity. With a physique to rival the Terminator and a moral compass set by Atticus Finch, Johnson’s rescue pilot is a man for whom the word ‘capable’ was originally conceived. "Just get up against something sturdy," he intones to a crowd of people saved from being squashed late on. If you don't stick with this guy, you're an idiot.
The story is hardly complex. When a series of massive earthquakes tear through California, Los Angeles Fire Department stalwart Ray Gaines (Johnson) eschews piffling official duties to rescue his estranged wife, Emma (the ever solid Carla Gugino), and their daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario). The latter is stuck in a San Francisco undergoing some major redevelopment and so, naturally, Ray has no intention of leaving her to a watery fate.
The subsequent picture is largely free of surprises and in no way could Peyton’s film be described as accomplished, or profound. Yet, it wields an unmistakable charm, not least in the form of Johnson, and mines genuine peril from beneath the layers of digital mayhem. If there is a more impressive piece of pure cinema this year than the tsunami hurtling towards the Golden Gate Bridge, Emma and Ray scrambling to beat the crest, then it will be a fine sight indeed.
A cheekiness, too, sets San Andreas apart, whether it is the impromptu skydive into AT&T Park or Kylie Minogue’s bizarre cameo. Beyond that, Paul Giamatti is soon on hand as the ignored scientist-forecaster (aren’t they all? Maybe we should listen to them) who suffers a genuine loss to sit alongside his exasperated encounters with red dots on a computer screen.
The flaws are obvious, of course. A standard romance between pretty youngsters is crowbarred into proceedings, even as the waves crash down, and Peyton — a Canadian — makes room for the most brazen piece of jingoistic nonsense this side of the Super Bowl. If the sight of a massive Stars and Stripes unfurling in the haze of a dystopian dusk doesn’t make you guffaw, then you probably watch Fox News more than you should.
Check your brain at the door, however, and there are guilty pleasures to be had.