This is the kind of movie where Kylie Minogue shows up for a little while and falls out of a building. No, you're not reading a review for Leos Carax's Holy Motors, although that same exact thing happens in that movie, too. In San Andreas, earthquakes happen and destroy a lot of stuff. It's no one's fault, so it's not an environmentalist film. If anything, it's a "listen to the scientists more" movie. But it's also a "Kylie dies a swift death" movie, so know that going in.
Dwayne Johnson is Ray, a pilot and member of the Los Angeles Fire Department rescue squad. We see him save a young woman at the beginning of the movie in a daring, helicopter-in-a-ravine rescue, so we know he's not only a reliable man, but he's overall a solid dude, and not just because he's played by the Rock himself. He's estranged from his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), with whom he has a daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario). They had another, but she drowned in a rafting outing, something for which Ray blames himself since it was his idea to go on the trip. All of this is broadly sketched, but given to us in brief-enough doses and with sufficient conviction by the actors that we care about them when the buildings start falling and the extras start perishing.
And boy howdy, do a lot of anonymous people die, until the movie arbitrarily decides they won't, usually because they screamed loud enough for Ray to hear so he can save them. This being a disaster movie, this sort of indiscriminate human extermination is a guarantee, and comes with the territory of the genre (see Man of Steel for examples of irresponsible, mass loss-of-life). Director Brad Peyton paces the film well, giving us time to breath between the bouts of very realistic and very stressful destruction. He wisely keeps the camera pulled back from the action much of the time, and even goes so far as to include a lengthy take in which a luxurious, top-floor restaurant falls victim to a tremor with Emma inside of it: the camera follows her around and she dashes back and forth, disoriented, reminding me of admittedly far better moments in films like Saving Private Ryan or even Children of Men. Moments like this are not common in San Andreas, but they are confidently delivered and welcome when they do occur.
The best news that can be delivered about San Andreas is that it is serviceable. This is not groundbreaking filmmaking by any stretch: the story hits all of its beats as you'd expect it to, and pulls emotional punches when it could have truly hit home. The script is not embarrassing, but is filled with innocuous cliches to the point that I could predict, verbatim, what the actors would say next simply by virtue of the pace of the scene or the looks on their faces. There are no surprises to be had with this film, and so it ironically feels safer than even the least transgressive movie outside of Hollywood, and that's with millions of dollars of CGI mayhem on the screen.
Perhaps the weakest and clunkiest aspect of the film is the presence of Lawrence (Paul Giamatti), a professor of seismology who has discovered a way to predict the arrival of the devastating earthquakes that rock California. He serves the purpose of doling out contextual information to the audience surrogate, a reporter played by the wonderful Archie Panjabi, who has nothing to do except ask questions of Lawrence of varying import and obviousness. Lawrence's story never intersects with that of Ray's family, which threatens to expose the film's focus on them as being completely arbitrary. We never get a strong sense of why Ray's story needs to be told, other than because he is likely one of the few survivors of this film given his expertise. And if you think it's a spoiler for me to say that, suffice it to say that the stakes of this movie stay about as low as they can be: we're never really worried about the safety of any of the characters.
There is a cast of ancillary characters, one of whom is Daniel (Ioan Gruffud), an unbelievably self-centered, rich goon of a man whose deep personality flaws automatically make him more interesting than the all-American, 100% good family in the lead roles. I wanted to follow him as he cut a swath through San Francisco, pushing whomever he needs into the path of overwhelming building debris or tsunami water in order to survive. Fortunately, the sheer scale of the action set pieces of this film compensate for any lack of characterization that one could oh-so-easily lob at this movie.
As I've said elsewhere, you can do a lot worse than San Andreas. It's a classic Roland Emmerich film made by a filmmaker with a much thinner resume and lack of self-righteous liberalism that bogs down Emmerich's films. I was impressed by how frequently excited, if not exhilarated, by San Andreas I was. It is the definition of a movie that gets the job done without muss or fuss, a mostly forgettable, middle-of-the-road experience that hits hard at the time, but blows right back through the other side of your brain and into the ether afterward, never to be recalled again.