‘San Andreas’ Movie review by Kenneth Turan

29 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘San Andreas’ movie review: Formulaic disaster pic features lots of earthquaking, little ground-breaking.

One of the smartest things about “San Andreas,” the lumbering new disaster movie quaking its way into theaters this weekend, is that it sets out to do very little other than flatten most of California and go toe-to-toe with any disaster movie of the past. After those disappointing Memorial Day numbers, this weekend should be at least a little more exciting thanks to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s San Andreas.Dwayne Johnson and his muscles come to the aid of Los Angeles and San Francisco when the two towns start to shake, rattle and roll, courtesy of humongous earthquakes erupting along the San Andreas Fault.We all love movies that get us uncomfortable, shaking or hiding our faces when something happens, especially to the lead character that we usually identify with.State-of-the-art digital mayhem mingles with disaster flick drama that couldn’t be more quaint in “San Andreas,” Hollywood’s latest bit of morbidly sensational speculation about its worst earthquake nightmares come true.

The film features Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock, as Ray Gaines, an Afghanistan War veteran who has become an absolute stud of an L.A. fire-rescue guy, but its real star is its earthquakes, which are epic and intense, creating mass devastation despite the lack of giant monsters or aliens. Like Johnson said in his recent Saturday Night Live monologue: He’s the person to call “if you want to make sure the box office is thumpin’.’” That’s evident from Johnson’s other 2015 blockbuster, too: Furious 7 just reached a worldwide total of $1.5 billion, making it only the fourth film to do so.

But the cringeworthy dialogue and unmoving earnestness are the biggest disasters in this mostly forgettable action flick (* * out of four; rated PG-13; opens Friday nationwide). This weekend you are as good as sorted as Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson goes on a mission to save his family and everyone else in the 2015 adventure thriller San Andreas. Screenwriter Carlton Cuse, best known for his work on “Lost,” keeps things simple by keeping the cast small and manageable, leaving to die countless multitudes of faceless extras, focusing on the survivors we care about, and telegraphing early on who doesn’t deserve to make it through all this. It’s slowly creeping up on The Avengers’ global total of $1.519 billion, which is especially impressive considering that Furious 7 has “only” made $348.1 million in North America—a stark contrast to The Avengers’ $623.4 million domestic total.

Ray (Johnson) is an L.A. rescue helicopter pilot unafraid of jumping out midair to save damsels in distress, even when their car is hanging off a cliff. Still, for all the unabashed cliches and straight-faced silliness delivered by Johnson, Paul Giamatti, and their generally capable castmates, they’re doing something right. It has a little of everything that once was a staple of the ’70s: earthquakes, of course, plus collapsing buildings, crashing helicopters, an impressive tsunami, a hint of “Poseidon Adventure,” and even a precocious British boy. Things are arguably more hazardous on the homefront, where he has a rocky relationship with his soon-to-be ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino); he worries about losing his daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario), to her mom’s new rich boyfriend (Ioan Gruffudd at his smarmiest). The film boasts of powerful stars such as The Good Wife’s Archie Punjabi, Game Of Thrones’ Art Parkinson, Todd Williams and Australian pop star Kylie Minogue.

All that needs to be tabled when quakes annihilate the Hoover Dam and then move to California, where skyscrapers fall and bridges tumble dramatically. Apparently recognizing that even the Rock probably can’t body-slam tectonic plates into submission, the movie establishes Johnson’s Ray Gaines as an ace helicopter pilot handling dicey rescues for the Los Angeles fire department. 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. Blake gets lost in the streets of San Fran with a pair of English kids — one of whom (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) takes a shine to the girl, even with broken stone pillars screaming down upon them — and her parents reunite in order to bring her home safely. (It helps that Ray can drive pretty much anything with an engine.) Paul Giamatti co-stars as Lawrence, a noted Cal Tech seismologist and the movie’s resident science guy that no one listens to about the impending doom. Here’s how this weekend’s box office race might play out: The reviews for Brad Peyton’s CGI-heavy disaster movie have only been fair, but most are still expecting San Andreas to land somewhere around the $40 million mark.

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. That’s a much better forecast than other recent disaster porn movies – including 2014’s Into The Storm, another Warner Bros. release, which only debuted to $17.3 million – likely due to Johnson’s current star power. Director Brad Peyton (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) spends much of San Andreas’ running time on massive city destruction, but it’s often a helicopter’s eye view looking down, where humans are like ants simply falling to their fate. It’s one that turns infinitely scarier when a Hoover Dam tremor that Giamatti’s Caltech wonk had predicted spikes into a record quake he could barely have imagined. “Everybody off the dam!,” indeed.

The most visceral scenes are when the camera is pointed up, with chunks of building tumbling or a huge boat coming over the crest of a tsunami, giving the audience a real sense of danger. As LA’s office towers begin to fall, Ray detours his chopper to grab shellshocked Emma from a collapsing rooftop, then sets off with her for San Francisco, where Blake is in serious jeopardy, too.

Disney kept most of the plot details under wraps ahead of time, but now that the movie’s out, it may benefit from some word-of-mouth – especially because it’s the only big PG-rated film in theaters. In a town that’s short on macho action heroes these days, Johnson is probably the only man in Hollywood who looks like he could take on an earthquake and win.

The action is all about the Bay Area from here, as we alternate between the fast-reconciling parents’ desperate trek and Blake’s perilous meanderings alongside a courageous, hunky Brit (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his equally likable pubescent brother (Art Parkinson). In fact, it destroyed his marriage to Emma (Carla Gugino), who, as we meet her, is about to move in with her new fiancé, a smarmy real estate developer named Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd, in a truly thankless role). There are a few instances of the signature cinematic bravado he’s shown in the Fast & Furious films and other projects — a cocked eyebrow here, a lighthearted one-liner there — but it’s sorely lacking overall. 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. Many of the lines are met with a thud, and the worst of them induce groans and laughs: When Lawrence discusses history’s biggest quakes in class, one student chirps, “Do you think something like that can happen here?”

Business as usual for Johnson, but Daddario also does a pretty good job of shifting into plucky good-girl mode for someone who was so convincingly down-and-dirty on HBO’s “True Detective.” Meanwhile, that unbilled megastar — simulated destruction — is immersive enough to stifle any snarking that Roland Emmerich must have been busy for Peyton to have landed the job. As ever with this genre, being able to compartmentalize concerns about questionable taste is an audience prerequisite. (Wonder how those who were permanently affected by the Loma Prieta earthquake feel about seeing their fears played for entertainment that’s not, you know, “Godzilla”?) But there’s no denying the images are darkly spectacular: the Golden Gate violently bisected like we’ve never witnessed onscreen. Now, you could say that the movie rests on the mighty shoulders of Johnson, who, quite honestly, has had more success as a supporting player than a leading man. 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. Still, the preliminary reviews have been, well, not great, and the project’s been dogged by controversy after the Media Action Network for Asian Americans and multiple Hawaiian activists criticized the film for depicting a white-washed version of the islands.

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. Sure, the CGI and the VFX are impressive, but the characters aren’t, and rather than trying to break any sort of new ground, the movie simply churns it up. But back to Ray, because, while this movie is prepared to kill off thousands of people in seconds, it cares deeply, as does Ray, about those close to Ray.

Still, it’s more muscular and streamlined than Roland Emmerich’s spate of devastation films, which means that “San Andreas,” while a disaster picture, isn’t actually a disaster. Whatever happens, Age of Ultron is still in great shape: Last weekend, it brought its worldwide total up to $1.28 billion, surpassing Frozen to become the sixth highest grossing film of all time. What works: The visual effects are nothing if not big — just what many want from a summer movie — and the considerable charisma of Dwayne Johnson in the lead role goes a long way.

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