San Andreas review: A Rock-solid movie with plenty of action
Despite a few small cracks Andrew Johnston backs Dwayne Johnson's earthquake-hit blockbuster as a big summer smash
San Andreas: (12A, 114 mins) Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, Paul Giamatti, Kylie Minogue, Director: Brad Peyton.
Disaster movies never die. They just get bigger budgets. With £65m to throw at the screen, San Andreas was always going to be more spectacular than 1974's Earthquake, the last major cinema release to portray seismic strife on screen. If Brad Peyton's film has ambitions to be the final word on the Richter scale-shattering subject, he comes pretty close.
The action-packed summer blockbuster imagines the nightmare scenario that the 810-mile-long San Andreas Fault has finally given in, triggering a nine-plus magnitude earthquake across California that threatens to level the land from Los Angeles to San Francisco. It's a far-fetched premise, but as Paul Giamatti's ashen-faced tremor boffin predicts early on "It's not a matter of if, but when".
The disaster genre has endured down the decades, from the doom-laden biblical epics of the 1920s and 1930s to its arguable commercial peak in the 1970s, which saw the likes of Airport, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno dominate the box office, and a resurgence in the 1990s with event flicks such as Twister, Independence Day and Titanic.
San Andreas nicks bits from each and casts as its leading man Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson, a force of nature in himself. He plays LA Fire Department search-and-rescue boss Ray Gaines, the archetypal hero with demons. But these are 12A-rated demons, namely an impending divorce from Carla Gugino's Emma and a fraught relationship with their teenage daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario).
Add in Ioan Gruffudd, as Emma's new beau, a slimy architect with more money than morals, Australian actor Hugo Johnstone-Burt and Co Donegal's Art Parkinson, playing British brothers caught up in the melee (the duo's attempts at the English accent would be enough to spark an aftershock in themselves), and Kylie Minogue, as the villain of the piece, and the stage is set for a classic, Irwin Allen-evoking ensemble.
To be fair, screenwriter Carlton Cuse (Lost) has clearly spent time crafting characters we can care about. After a while, one collapsing skyscraper looks kind of the same as the next, but the efforts of Chief Gaines to rescue his estranged family by any means necessary (helicopter, pick-up truck, light aeroplane and speedboat, to name a few) keeps us on the edge of our seat until the final, typically Stars and Stripes-waving reel.
Peyton's CV is hardly inspiring, his most notable works being the Cats & Dogs and Journey to the Centre of the Earth sequels, but he marshals proceedings like a pro, and is as tasteful as possible with the material. With tens of thousands killed or injured by the recent earthquake in Nepal, San Andreas couldn't have been seen to be being too flippant. Sure, Johnson and Giamatti get a few cracking one-liners, but there's the sense a less scrupulous director might have encouraged them to push the cartoonishness further.
As it is, San Andreas strikes an admirable balancing act between a solemn respect for Mother Nature and some Final Destination-like death scenes (one character's grisly end courtesy of a shipping container springs to mind). The catastrophic carnage may largely have been created inside a computer, but it's expertly done and consistently believable.
And with Johnson in the thick of it, the action sequences are, of course, as solid as a rock.