Published May 29, 2015San Andreas plays like an action movie trailer parody that someone had the awful sense to pad out to feature length with cheap sentimentality and melodrama, instead of the cheesy thrills it deserves. As the buildings topple around our characters, and the ground shakes beneath their feet, the film fulfills its promise as a loud and dumb spectacle, but forgets that mindless summer fare like this should also be at least a little bit fun. It wears its heart mawkishly on its sleeve — what it needs is a tongue planted firmly in its cheek.
Ray (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) is a skilled helicopter rescue pilot who saves a young woman dangling precariously from a cliff, in a generically tense opening sequence. Carlton Cuse's script then doesn't hesitate to force-feed us clunky bits of exposition to introduce his family. We know from the divorce papers on his table that he's in the process of separating from his wife Emma (Carla Gugino) but that he still fiercely loves her and their daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario). It's not enough that he sits on a bed looking at old photos of the family in better times, but we also have to hear washed-out sounds of all the fun they had together back then.
When Blake goes on a trip to San Francisco with Emma's wealthy new beau (Ioan Gruffudd, whose character arc should probably be obvious from the first glimpse of him), she meets a cute British guy (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) who's allowed his precocious young brother (Art Parkinson) to tag along to a job interview. Their flirtations are then (temporarily) interrupted by a series of giant earthquakes along the San Andreas fault that intermittently wreak havoc on the city, making it increasingly difficult for Ray and Emma to locate and rescue her.
As if the film believed that audiences would have a difficult time sufficiently emotionally investing in these parents and their desperate attempt to save their child, there's an extraneous back-story about another daughter they lost years ago in a rafting accident to unnecessarily raise the stakes. Then there's poor Paul Giamatti, trapped in a thankless role as a seismology expert who has finally done enough research to now be able to predict when a quake will happen, if only people would just listen to him, dammit! When asked who should be alerted to his ground-breaking discoveries, he takes the kind of dramatic pause the film seems to habitually relish lingering over at the end of scenes before breathlessly declaring, "Everyone."
If the people placed in harm's way are hollow ciphers, then at least the destruction around them is awe-inspiring. Glass shatters, concrete buckles and buildings are reduced to rubble in such alarmingly realistic fashion — enhanced by the 3D — that it nearly feels as if we're in immediate danger along with everyone else. With only nature on hand to serve as a villain, every aftershock jostles the movie to life as if the quake were suddenly angry at not being afforded more screen time. We're always grateful for the sudden intervention too; it's the best character in the film.