There are actors and then there’s Dwayne Johnson, who has basically become a brand. He carries two identities: The Rock, his cartoonish, wrestling persona that became a starting point for his film career; and Dwayne Johnson, the serious actor who evolved out of that pure entertainer. Johnson has tried to find a way to balance these two personalities throughout his film career, and audiences have welcomed both. The name on the marquee now consistently reads “Dwayne Johnson”, but he continues to carry two personas, and we’re left to wonder which one we’ll get.
The level of destruction presented by San Andreas may seem like it necessitates The Rock, a larger than life figure for large-scale devastation. Instead, we get Dwayne Johnson, a “normal” guy (as much as Johnson, with his towering physique, can play normal) who has a straightforward goal and rarely pushes his way through an earthquake by preferring to go around it. Director Brad Peyton has put together an enjoyable disaster flick, although its gleeful destruction does carry a pang of first world guilt as we know what’s a fantasy for us is all too real for other parts of the globe. Nevertheless, if you can push that thought out of your mind, the special effects assault is enough to carry us through a serviceable disaster flick that delivers more firepower than the mild-manner Dwayne Johnson, whose character may be brave, but rarely heroic.
Ray Gaines (Johnson) is an L.A.F.D. Search and Rescue pilot with over 600 saves during his time at home and as a soldier in Afghanistan. However, a family tragedy has brought his marriage to Emma (Carla Gugino) to the brink of divorce. Their daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) is headed up to college in San Francisco, and that’s when disaster strikes as a gigantic earthquake rocks the San Andreas Fault from L.A. to San Fran. Ray and Emma make the trek from L.A. to San Francisco to save Emma, who is busy trying to survive alongside cute-guy Ben (Hugo Johnston-Burt) and his little brother Ollie (Art Parkinson). Meanwhile, Lawrence (Paul Giamatti), a Cal Tech seismologist, serves to inform the audience that things are really, really bad and will get much worse.
Given the recent events in Nepal, San Andreas is a particularly guilty pleasure, more so than other outlandish disaster flicks like Volcano and The Day After Tomorrow. There is no volcano ready to devour Los Angeles. Global Warming is a serious issue, but New York isn’t going to get hit with a second Ice Age over the course of a weekend. While the science behind the earthquake in San Andreas is pretty much bullshit, no one is going for an education is seismology. We’re going to see buildings fall over, people getting squished by debris, and other catastrophic mayhem. The U.S. hasn’t had to deal with a major quake in decades, so we have the luxury of reveling in the CGI destruction. If you can accept this as a cartoon rather than something where lots of people die (Peyton highlights some individual deaths, but doesn’t show scores of bodies), then San Andreas is a lot of fun, and the fun isn’t dependent on Johnson.
Ray is about as close as Johnson can come to an everyman. Johnson has a unique set of talents, and I admire that he doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as a strongman who can only inflict violence on others. I can understand that he wants to be in an action blockbuster that’s a change of pace from the Fast & Furious movies and G.I. Joe: Retaliation. He wants to use his brawn to help rather than destroy, and that would have provided a nice dichotomy to the destruction surrounding the character if Ray wasn’t terrible at being a hero.
On the one hand, everything Ray does is understandable because he’s a father who will do anything to save his daughter, especially following the tragic circumstances that led to his split from Emma. But the film positions him as beyond selfish and myopic in his quest. He practically steals a rescue chopper, and later proceeds to swipe a car, a plane, and a boat. Along the way he helps almost no one other than telling a group of people to get next to a building to weather an aftershock. Ray Gaines does what we expect him to do as a father and nothing more.
But “more” is what we demand from Dwayne Johnson, a man who cannot be contained by only one moniker. He’s charisma is as big as his brawn, and when you cast him opposite an earthquake he needs to strike back with more than theft and some fancy driving/flying skills. Johnson is a special—and in some ways underappreciated—actor, and while San Andreas taps his dramatic chops (he has a moving monologue that Peyton kind of steps on by constantly cutting to Gugino’s reaction), that’s not what the movie needs. It needs a guy who’s big enough and strong enough to save tons of people including his daughter in the span of an afternoon. It needs a guy who treats California falling into the ocean like just another day at the office. San Andreas needs The Rock.