If I called San Andreas "a huge disaster." director Brad Peyton would probably take it as a compliment.
It's not a compliment.
Admittedly, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's new vehicle has its moments. The aerial views of huge seismic waves propagating destruction throughout the Los Angeles basin are a fantastic addition to the disaster filmography. The images of the line between "normal day" and "fiery death shake" moving inexorably across a huge city evoke the feeling we get after any sudden, major trauma — the wish that we could freeze time or go back to live forever in the moment before our world blew up. Peyton takes full advantage of the California countryside, simultaneously evoking its beauty for a moment before laying it to waste. There's also a great sequence that follows Emma (Carla Gugino) in a single unbroken (but no doubt digitally stitched together) shot as she tries to escape a disintegrating skyscraper, evoking nightmares of being trapped in the World Trade Center on 9/11.
This is the visceral appeal of the disaster movie. Everyday life can get boring. Big events, like earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis, give ordinary people the opportunity to be heroes while generating lots of spectacular news video. Floating through the streets of post-Katrina New Orleans in a makeshift boat looking for survivors looks cool at a distance, but on-the-scene helicopter news footage always omits the part where you live for months without running water in an increasingly squalid refugee camp. Disaster porn is always more fun than actual disasters.
Or at least it should be. The campy, trashy disaster movies of the 1970s, such as Irwin Allen's The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, hide a wink behind the grim surface tone. San Andreas tries to accomplish something similar, but every time it manages to build up a little disaster action momentum, it ends up crashing against a rock — or rather, The Rock.
Johnson plays Ray, an Afghanistan War veteran turned Los Angeles Fire Department helicopter pilot who has kept his old Army rescue team together now that they're back stateside. We meet him mid-adventure, rescuing a young woman from a car that has been swept by a rock slide into a SoCal canyon. But after this promising start, the film grinds to a halt to explore his relationship with his soon-to-be-ex-wife Emma and daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario). Ray and Emma broke up, and now she's about to move in with rich sleazeball Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd). This makes The Rock sad, but being The Rock, he soldiers on as a contrived series of events leads to Blake and Daniel visiting San Francisco just in time for The Big One, which has been predicted by Caltech siesmologist Lawrence (Paul Giamatti, getting paid to spout exposition).
I've given a lot of thought to the debased state of the American Hero in film since Fury, which portrayed American soldiers as rapists, and American Sniper, which opens with the biggest hero of the Iraq War gunning down women and children. Faced with the biggest natural disaster in history, Ray, war hero turned fireman, promptly abandons his post to rescue his estranged family. Along the way, he passes up literally millions of people in distress, trashes an invaluable rescue helicopter, and loots numerous vehicles. It's not that Johnson is a bad actor — as I left the theater, I heard an English woman say to her partner: "For a wrestling star, he does a pretty good job" — it's that his character is a selfish prick who we're supposed to be rooting for. In the mind of the studio execs, his single-minded quest to save his family and marriage while the world is falling down around him is supposed to make him more "relatable" to an audience. But the firemen who rushed into the burning World Trade Center weren't trying to just save their relatives, and there's no doubt they're relatable heroes. It's this cynical, condescending attitude toward the audience that ultimately shakes apart San Andreas.