***1/2 (out of five)
A Los Angeles Fire Department Helicopter Pilot gets the chance to save his marriage when the biggest earthquake in history rips open the San Andreas fault from LA to San Francisco. If that co-mingling of the personal and the devastatingly tragic makes you a little queasy, San Andreas – which, amid hundreds of thousands of deaths, is only concerned with a few actual lives – may not be for you. The astonishing thing is that the film kind of pulls it off.
The performances help. As our little family unit at the centre of a little family drama that just happens to unfold during the total annihilation of California as we know it, Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino and especially Alexandra Daddario give emotionally honest portraits. Daddario plays the (surviving) daughter of what was once a four person household; her sister drowned in an accident some years ago. The threat posed to her life as San Francisco crumbles around her gives her parents the chance to find redemption, and their love back.
I know, it sounds cheesy, and the worst scenes – which see Johnson and Gugino sharing happy memories even as they’re choppering to find their daughter who could very well be dead – are laughable. But Daddario, who easily commands as much screen time as Johnson, is excellent and believable even as she’s thrown into the most physically dangerous situations imaginable, accompanied by Ben and Ollie, a charming Brit and his younger brother, played by Australia’s Hugo Johnstone-Burt and wee Art Parkinson, Rickon Stark in Game of Thrones. Johnstone-Burt is tremendously capable, and his amount of screen time – and close-ups – is quite staggering considering his last feature was the seen-by-three-people Goddess. A huge Hollywood career is now his to lose.
It would be enormously easy to dismiss this film as tasteless, exploitative or stupid. Coming after the Nepal calamity, its premise hardly seems to qualify as fair entertainment, and its many, many depictions of skyscrapers coming down in explosions of glass, concrete and dust are so reminiscent of the actual images of the World Trade Centers’ felling that they border on some sort of history porn. But the film has a massive heart and makes the right choices at the right moments, and manages to skilfully avoid the many inherent pitfalls with this sort of material. There is no actual gore; Johnson’s character does actually help some other folks besides his family; the science behind the quakes seems soundly researched – and Paul Giamatti plays the main scientist! Giamatti’s committed, heartfelt performance sums up what’s right with this film: he, and the creative team, knows how bad it could be, so they’re determined to be careful, and make it good.