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san andreas funtimes with the rock

No movie starring Dwayne Johnson can be bad, exactly. He’s got that thing that used to be big in Hollywood, this long-forgotten and arcane magic of “star power” and “presence”, a magnetic charisma and innate charm that makes even the most horrid dreck seem at the very least an enjoyable way to pass the time (This used to be a thing that movie stars were asked to have! Can you believe it? How quaint the past was). Essentially, It doesn’t matter whether The Rock is in “good movies”, what matters is that he is good in movies. He’s just a blast to watch, and the window dressing is mostly irrelevant. It would take a bomb of practically unimaginable scale to sink a personality so buoyant, and San Andreas is not that bomb. In fact, San Andreas is mostly enjoyable even. But in some ways, that’s almost more disappointing than a real failure; it will fade from my memory in no time at all until I catch it on TNT (they know drama) one day and zone in and out, the pieces of it lining back up only to be forgotten again a short while later.

But before I damn it too much, let’s talk about the good things. San Andreas is a disaster movie that follows the story of the world’s largest ever earthquake as it occurs along the titular fault, and specifically it zeroes in on Dwayne Johnson, firefighter rescue man (and unspoken superhero), and his fractured family. There’s no memorable details in the plotting of this, as I’m sure you can imagine the film in your head before even seeing it, and there’s few action set pieces that inspire the kind of awe a great disaster movie can. What is inspired, however, is the characterization of Dwayne Johnson’s character. In films like this, the main character, our family man, is supposed to be just like you and me. They’re an everyman, a cipher that the audience can imagine themselves as, which is also why their characterization is usually so weak and boring; I’m sure not even John Cusack remembers anything about his character from 2012. San Andreas realizes the folly of this, and in his very first scene The Rock is performing feats of strength and courage that would make Captain America balk. It’s solving the age old Schwarzenegger problem: how do we believe that this borderline unreal human being is just like you and me? The answer San Andreas finds, and one of its greatest strengths, is a simple answer: we don’t. We’re just along for the ride, and who better to have in the driver’s seat than the human perfection that is Dwayne Johnson?

This leads into the film’s other ace in the hole, which is a casting director that should win an award at whatever award show casting directors win awards at (is that the ESPYs?). Of course, we have The Rock, human miracle, and as his ex-wife we have Carla Gugino, who despite appearing in almost non-stop dreck carries universally positive associations with her. Their daughter is Alexandra Daddario (also known as Leatherface’s cousin), one of the few human beings alive that is gorgeous enough to be believable as the daughter of two impossibly pretty human beings, and Paul Giamatti is on hand to play our beleaguered seismologist (that classic film archetype). Giamatti in particular is a seasoned member of the “best thing in this terrible movie” club, and his scientist (who is really an exposition delivery mechanism whose plotline never intersects with that of Johnson’s family) is endearing, fun, and consistently leaps off the screen despite the writing tying massive weights to his legs. There’s few better insurance plans in film than magnetic, likable actors, and at the very least San Andreas got that right; there’s a limit to how dull a movie stuffed with people who are damn good at their job can be.

Boy howdy though, does San Andreas test that limit, early and repeatedly. There’s the broad strokes of course – the non-distinct plotting, the vague and ill-defined consequences of the disaster, an endless stream of vehicle-ex-machina – but there’s lots of small things that really make the movie’s job of being entertaining harder than it needs to be. One of my biggest problems was an initial subversion of the evil stepfather character (Carla Gugino and Dwayne Johnson are divorced when the movie begins), one that seems to be headed somewhere new and interesting but ends up exactly where I expected it to. There’s also no real emotional connection to the scope of the disaster, so the set pieces don’t ring true as anything more than a crisis a few individuals face; even the most spectacular action scene, one involving a massive tsunami, doesn’t really resonate as the city-destroying event it should be. All the little people, they don’t feel like human lives lost, not even conceptually. The responses are too flat and the scope too myopic to really make much of an impact.

That makes is sound a bit more dire than it actually is though; San Andreas isn’t a pain to watch. For the most part, it’s fast paced and joyfully energetic, and it never really grates or annoys. Dwayne Johnson continues to be the world’s most personable man, and his commitment goes a long way. In general, the positives outweigh the negatives, and although it’s mediocre, there’s a place for mediocrity. Unfortunately for me, seeing it alone in a massive and empty multiplex on my day off during a business trip, that place is not a movie theatre. It’s on cable, at three in the afternoon, with the sun leaking through partly closed blinds and pooling on the sides of your TV while you eat some microwave burritos. Under those parameters, I’d probably like it more, and could give a pass to many of my nitpicks. But forgettable disaster movies are a dime a dozen, and even star power (or the awe-inspiring beauty of Daddario’s unearthly blue eyes) can’t make it a memorable experience. It didn’t…shake me. Right? Earthquakes!

Directed by Brad Peyton; written by Carlton Cuse, Andre Fabrizio, and Jeremy Passmore; starring Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Ion Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, and Paul Giamatti; 114 minutes.

San Andreas is now playing everywhere.