Of the many charges that can be levied against Brad Peyton’s “San Andreas,” false advertising is not one of them. The disaster pic promises nothing more than the complete CGI destruction of California as foregrounded by Dwayne Johnson’s jackfruit-sized biceps, and it delivers exactly that. After providing some blissfully stupid B-movie thrills for its first hour, the film suffers from spectacle overkill (you know what’s cooler than an apocalyptic earthquake? Two apocalyptic earthquakes … and a tsunami) and a fatal lack of invention in its second, more concerned with toppling buildings one by one than ever drumming up a lick of suspense about the fates of those inside them. Still, “San Andreas” boasts an undeniable sort of pre-verbal lizard-brain appeal that should make it a strong earner, especially in territories far removed from the titular fault line.
Hewing much closer to Roland Emmerich’s teenage symphonies to Shiva than to the more conscientious disaster-pic approach of Juan Antonio Bayona’s “The Impossible,” “San Andreas” is the kind of film that can imply the violent deaths of millions of innocent people without batting an eye, just so long as the five or six Californians who matter make it out with only cuts and bruises. The recent earthquake in Nepal might make that proposition a bit dicier, offering a reminder that catastrophic natural disasters aren’t exactly, well, fun. (The film was forced to retool some of its marketing materials as a result.) But as thoroughly cheesy and mindless as it is, “San Andreas” certainly isn’t glib about its central calamity, and no one is lining up expecting documentary realism anyway.
In any case, the five or six characters whose lives matter are as follows. Ray (Johnson) is a hulking, heroic helicopter pilot who segued from flying missions in Afghanistan to performing search-and-rescue operations in Los Angeles. His soon-to-be-ex-wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), has shacked up with uber-rich building developer Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd), who is busy constructing the tallest, sturdiest skyscraper in San Francisco (this bit of information may be useful later). Ray and Emma have a college-aged daughter named Blake (Alexandra Daddario), who thumbs a ride up to the Bay Area on Daniel’s private jet, where she meets cute with fumbling, flustering British twentysomething Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his obnoxious, wisecracking younger brother, Ollie (Art Parkinson).
Meanwhile, a Cal Tech seismologist (Paul Giamatti), prone to muttering science-y gibberish under his breath while drawing lots of diagrams, heads off to Nevada to study a recent flurry of “mini-quakes.” These jolts give him the data he needs to predict future earthquakes — “something-something magnetic pulses mumble-mumble” — moments before a sudden trembler takes out the Hoover Dam. He’s just arrived back in Pasadena to put his theories into practice when the entire San Andreas fault lights up with warning signs, indicating the Big One is imminent.
Well aware that it isn’t the science that’s bringing butts into the seats, director Peyton makes the most of this first cataclysm. As the assembled characters dodge debris and do lots of screaming — the quake demolishes L.A. and San Francisco simultaneously — Peyton shows us both the computer-scaled chaos (well rendered, if indistinguishable from the similar destruction present in every disaster pic and comicbook film of the past half-decade) as well as some glimpses at more immediate epicenters. It’s the little details that are more memorable, such as the unaware, airborne Ray glancing down to see a freeway interchange silently crumble, or a long tracking shot through a luxury rooftop lounge as Emma pushes past frantic waitresses and flaming kitchen staff in search of safety.
(Shot partially in Australia, the film carves out a strange cameo role here for Aussie pop star Kylie Minogue: After “Holy Motors,” “San Andreas” is Minogue’s second consecutive film in which she appears for a single scene, then promptly falls off a roof.)
Ray plucks Emma from the top of a crumbling building in his chopper, while Ben and Ollie pull Blake from a crumbling parking garage. (For all the screenplay’s attempts to make Blake the resourceful survivalist of her little band, she’s still invariably the one getting saved.) After learning that Blake is temporarily safe, Ray and Emma resolve to head up to San Francisco to rescue her themselves.
With the earthquake having passed, it’s here that the film ought to stir up some novel perils to test and develop its characters, and the aftermath of an earthquake should provide plenty of dangers — gas leaks, explosions, fires, riots, slightly worse traffic, etc. Instead, the film simply doubles down on its initial gambit, as Giamatti’s scientist discovers that the biggest, most devastating quake in American history is merely a precursor for a bigger, more most-devastating quake that could turn California into Arizona Bay at any moment.
Thanks to this lack of tension — when two major world cities lie in ruins, it’s hard to get too worked up over the danger of the rubble re-collapsing — the film drifts off in its last hour. Ray and Emma have a few quiet moments together, though they’re largely wasted dealing with the recriminations of a needless backstory. Meanwhile, Blake and Ben develop a nervous sort of romance as they trudge through the streets, with Blake losing a new article of clothing at every aftershock. Bay Area natives will surely chuckle at some of the geographic oddities here, as the trio consult a map to find their way from Chinatown to Coit Tower, a landmark that ought to be easily visible simply by looking up.
Daddario maintains a bright screen presence, and she manages to keep her half of the narrative afloat well enough, yet Johnson is the main attraction. Best utilized when he’s allowed to arch his famous right eyebrow at the tumult unfolding around him, Johnson affects a more solemn, Stallonian presence here, and he’s as solid an action hero as ever. Still, one can almost sense the actor breathing a sigh of relief when, after parachuting into the infield of AT&T Park with Emma, he gets to quip, “It’s been a while since I got you to second base.” The line is dumb, forehead-slapping, and totally out of sync with the rest of “San Andreas.” It’s also the best thing in it.