Review: Dwayne Comes to the Rescue, but He Forgot the Script

29 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘San Andreas’ caught between the Rock and a shaky place.

It’s sure been a rough year for Hollywood. When a massive earthquake rocks California, a rescue-helicopter pilot (Dwayne Johnson) makes a dangerous journey from Los Angeles to San Francisco to save his estranged daughter (Alexandra Daddario).Disaster movies, which predate the zeitgeist’s fascination with a world falling apart around us, are always great measures of the state of the Hollywood art of special effects.A movie review of “San Andreas”: This disaster movie, starring Dwayne Johnson, is no masterpiece, but it nicely delivers the computer-generated goods.

The film reunites Johnson and director Brad Peyton, who worked together on 2012’s Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, and also features Carla Gugino, Paul Giamatti and Ioan Gruffudd, with a screenplay written by Lost’s Carlton Cuse. The silver screen has a long history of imagining unimaginable disasters for the Golden State. “Them!” (1954) features giant mutant ants nesting in the Los Angeles sewer system.

Spend a relaxing evening watching as hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of West Coast resident die in a series of horrific natural disasters! The smart stuff is the quaking of the earth along California’s San Andreas fault—whole swarms of colossal shakers summoned up by digital wizardry. In “San Andreas,” you will believe the ground is rippling under Los Angeles, the cracking collapse of the Hoover Dam and a tidal wave that submerges San Francisco. Opening opposite the Cameron Crowe-directed romantic comedy Aloha (and coupled with Tomorrowland’s less-than-stellar opening last weekend), San Andreas is projected to earn the top spot this weekend without too much competition. In “Earthquake” (1974), a magnitude 9.9 shaker triggers shoddy special effects and catastrophic overacting. “Volcano” (1997) is about a lava flow from the La Brea Tar Pits, threatening death and destruction until Tommy Lee Jones orders it to stop.

Everything in “San Andreas,” which stars Dwayne Johnson and his amazing musculature as a powerful-yet-sweet rescue pilot, is obvious, over-the-top, and occasionally laugh-out-loud cheesy. Paul Giamatti, as a Cal Tech seismologist who has just this minute uncovered a way to predict earthquakes, wears the horror of what he sees and what he knows is to come, in his eyes, wide with terror. As rescue pilot Ray, the actor now known as Dwayne Johnson employs not just his massive forearms but an impressive array of purloined transportation encompassing planes, cars, boats and parachutes, all in the service of saving his teenage daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) from a devastating earthquake. The Hollywood Reporter’s Justin Lowe writes, “West-coasters are known for their often nonchalant attitude toward disasters, but Warner Bros.’ third big-budget release of May is far too upbeat in the face of catastrophe to spur any tectonic shift in perspective,” and while the film “won’t exactly tip the Richter scale, it will clearly inject some fresh PG-13 action into theaters and could still resonate with crowds gearing up for summer vacation. …

And the actor nicknamed for a geological feature earns that nickname all over again by being that sturdy force of nature the whole movie is anchored on. Along the way, he reunites with his ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino), saves a random girl from a car dangling vertically from the side of a cliff, and constantly announces, soothingly and against all available evidence, “It’s gonna be OK.” And you believe him, because somewhere along the way over a decade or so of moviemaking, this former wrestler became not quite a nuanced actor, but a relaxed and appealing good-guy screen presence. Summer’s upon us, and you could do worse than watch the undeniably appealing Johnson try to save the day while uttering the silliest dialogue imaginable. Although the geological principals that underlie the plot are fairly solid, the film predictably exaggerates them to apocalytic proportions, as earthquakes split California apart with a zipper-like effect. And all the while, thousands upon thousands of people will fall, or be crushed, or be drowned, screaming and flailing and burning as the movie’s cruel gods fling them to their deaths.

He’s just the right hero to anchor Brad Peyton’s disaster-to-end-all-disasters movie, in which pretty much all of San Francisco and much of California is destroyed in a massive series of earthquakes described as, I think, “seismic swarm activity” by the movie’s resident scientist, Lawrence (Paul Giamatti, collecting what I hope was a very nice paycheck). Plus, if you live far from the West Coast, there’s the juicy schadenfreude factor — though we can count on the inevitable sequel (“San Andreas 2: Eastward,” perhaps?) to fix that. Those particulars may be of little concern to audiences, but some may raise an eyebrow at [Johnson]’s dereliction of duty as an active-duty LAFD pilot who ignores orders and go AWOL on a personal mission with one of the department’s helicopters.” Johnson and Gugino’s relationship as a newly divorced couple thrust into this disastrous situation together “makes for an uneasy fit with the action-adventure scenario, and the movie is at its strongest when it integrates family dynamics into the plot rather than indulging in extreme couples therapy.

Doesn’t that sound like fun? “San Andreas” is not only a disaster of a disaster movie — a dreary, dull, formulaic and often willfully stupid exercise in pointless destructive spectacle — it’s a callous and careless attempt to entertain viewers with simulated mass death, just because it looks cool. Johnson believes what he’s seeing — buildings tumbling like dominoes, fires erupting, his chopper crashing, the sea fleeing San Francisco Bay — and we do, too.

It features such clichés as the Heroine Pausing Mid-Disaster to Change Outfits (Ray and Emma make an emergency landing, conveniently, at a gutted-out clothing store), and the Implausible Last-Minute Revival of a Supposedly Dead Person. When he’s not being vulnerable while hashing out his marital issues, he gives the type of heroic alpha-male performance we’ve come to reliably expect, along with the occasional twinkle of characteristic humor.” Altogether, “the scale of the spectacle is often disproportionate to the destruction depicted,” and if the film “eventually emerges as a feel-good disaster movie, it probably just reflects our aspirations for maintaining order in the inevitable chaos of a catastrophic quake.” The New York Times’ A.O.

It is a movie that inadvertently but consistently draws attention to the massive horrors that are the foundation of both its spectacle and its story — in large part because there is nothing else worth remotely paying attention to. Gazing at a plan for his latest skyscraper, he says: “I guess I never had kids because I was too busy raising these.” And that, dear reader, is what we mean by cheesy writing. Ioan Gruffudd’s rich architect quickly proves himself to be exactly the coward his private jet and fancy blue blazer indicate him to be when he leaves another character to die during the first act. Previously a hero in Afghanistan and no less heroic in civilian life—“It’s still my job, ma’am,” he says in a cliffhanger of a preface, “I go where they tell me to go”—Ray is a very busy bee once the earthquakes hit. Thousands may die anonymous painful deaths, but as long as we give a damn-ette about the fates of the central characters, then we can forget about the community at large,” but the film “manages to sustain some interest along its narrative fault lines.” While “the effects are quite good,” the film “has the usual 21st-century disinterest in selectivity or pacing,” though Giamatti “can really holler like a pro when it’s time to encourage extras to take cover under the nearest desk” and Gruffudd “clearly took night classes in petulant villainy wherever Richard Chamberlain in The Towering Inferno received his training.” The Washington Post’s Michael O’Sullivan comments, “The disaster movie of the 1970s hasn’t gotten any better, just better looking.” The film’s dialogue is “lame, its plot both predictable and implausible, and the character development beside the point.

One last thought, which I pondered during the slower parts of the movie: With the recent devastating earthquakes in Nepal, not to mention natural disasters within our own borders, the timing of “San Andreas” as summer-movie entertainment feels a bit discomfiting. The urbanized mayhem, with very few human faces endangered, avoids potentially troubling echoes of last month’s deadly earthquake in Nepal.” It features “destruction for destruction’s sake, with cardboard characters impossible to knock down.” This all a huge shock (pardon the pun) to everyone except one man: a geologist at Cal Tech, Lawrence (Paul Giamatti), who predicts much of the mayhem, but can’t get anyone to listen. And that Hollywood’s best craftsfolk at Digital Domain, House of Moves and other effects houses are getting even better at re-creating those worst-case scenarios we love so much — in our movies, at least. Giamatti brings all his nervous energy, but can’t do much to liven up lines like: “This is NOT good.” He’s accompanied in many scenes by Archie Panjabi as a TV reporter who, if we’re not mistaken, doesn’t remove her stilettoes once, even when taking cover from the Big One.

If you want to get a glimpse of where we’re heading, read Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel, “Dune.” Other potential disasters – the kinds that humans make – lie in the not-too-distant future. Filmmaking technology has clearly come a long way since the extravagant goofiness of the 1974 action thriller “Earthquake,” and plausibility, as “San Andreas” demonstrates, has come a short way. Johnson’s performance is that he manages to deliver the stilted and unintentionally hilarious dialogue — supplied by veteran TV scribe Carlton Cuse — with a straight face. Yes, he really says that. “San Andreas,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America “for intense disaster action and mayhem throughout, and brief strong language. ” Running time: 114 minutes. There is a big gap between the top one percent and the rest of California: The Economic Policy Institute calculates that the state has the nation’s fifth-highest level of inequality.

It truly was instructive—and pleasurable—to experience an action thriller with something like the emotional intensity I knew so well as a little kid. What it’s really about, if I may borrow a phrase from talk radio, is focus on the family—a focus on Ray’s family that trivializes everything else and turns it into tumbling backdrop. And in any event no one is dying—you can see that from the conspicuous absence of corpses—because the predictive power of Professor Hayes’s new system has given people ample warning to go somewhere or other, but not to their graves. Johnson, formerly a superstar of professional wrestling, has the good grace to take himself unseriously. (His first word, as he bursts in on an initial melee, is “Boo!”) “The Scorpion King” was predictably dumber than its predecessors, though that didn’t get in the way of its profitability.

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