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Film Reviews Not even The Rock emerges from the cinematic rubble of San Andreas unscathed

Driven only by a love for their daughter, the film’s lead characters, played by Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino, confront a series of horrific disasters as if they are merely a test of their willpower.

Jasin Boland/AP

2 out of 4 stars

Written by
Carlton Cuse, Andre Fabrizio, Jeremy Passmore
Directed by
Brad Peyton
Starring
Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario
Classification
PG
Country
USA
Language
English

A necklace with a heart-shaped pendant slowly sinks into deep blue water. An elderly couple clasps each other goodbye, not bothering to scramble for survival. The large propeller of a sinking ship rips around in the wind as the stern bobs in the cold ocean. James Cameron, is that you? No, it's Canadian director Brad Peyton, whose melodramatic San Andreas bizarrely pays brief but recurring homage to the 1997 disaster epic Titanic. (There's even a rich jerk who pushes bystanders out of the way to ensure his own safety – though he's got nothing on Billy Zane.) Despite the visual cues that harken back to Cameron's box office spectacle, there is no doubt that with San Andreas we are in present-day California awaiting a warmer, calmer, watered-down catastrophe.

The title, of course, refers to the San Andreas fault line that runs about 1,300 kilometres long and whose seismic activity has kept Californians and their home-insurance rates on edge for decades. The twist here is that the fault is even vaster than we thought, with an undiscovered segment lying beneath that concrete symbol of Great Depression era perseverance: the Hoover Dam. Yet while Peyton's film consistently lauds the hard work (and workers) that built America, San Andreas lacks backbone. Between its steroidic CGI and emotionally vacant plot line, the movie is all flex, no muscle.

This is especially odd as the film stars Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson, that walking, talking, impossibly charming mound of sinew and bone. The former wrestler plays Ray, a Los Angeles rescue helicopter pilot who, despite his lifelong career as a first responder, just wants to save his family when disaster strikes. Ray's daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) shares his self-reliant streak and evacuation acumen – when the cell towers go out, it is Blake who knows what to do. Luddites will high-five here, while the rest of us may feel like the film is shaking a wrinkled finger at our dependence on iPhones.

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In short, innovative technology won't save you when the sky falls. It is on this pedantic note that San Andreas chastises the arrogance of Silicon Valley's tech boom and San Francisco's skyrocketing real estate market. The hero is a blue-collar man who labours with his hands instead of in abstractions like "design," "brand" and "bitcoin." His prize is not venture capital, but the nuclear family. (Completing Ray's family portrait is Carla Gugino as Emma, the ex-wife-turned-reunited-love-interest.)

Although there have been discussions around the film's marketing and release in light of the recent earthquake in Nepal, the crisis has had seemingly little effect on San Andreas's premiere. Instead, the film's cloying hashtag #WhoWillYouBeWith suggests how we face disaster is a matter of choice. Fortified only by a love of their daughter, Ray and Emma approach a series of record-breaking earthquakes and a tsunami as though surviving them is merely a test of their willpower.

With this fixation on exceptionalism, San Andreas is at odds with itself and slightly anxious. What makes Americans stand apart from the rest of the world has shifted drastically in the past decade. The only nod to the emerging technologies that have shaped the country's new economy is a hacking scheme that is quickly introduced by a Caltech professor (played by Paul Giamatti, because why not?) and just as swiftly dropped.

But there is another moment where the film seems to lap up – instead of sneer at – the glitz and bombast of our contemporary moment. On a hunt to find their daughter amidst the mayhem, Ray and Emma parachute out of a plane and onto the pitcher's mound of the San Francisco Giants' stadium. This time the film does not evoke Titanic, but rather the highly publicized engagement of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, which took place on that exact spot two years ago. It is as though Ray and Emma are attempting to keep up with the Kardashians, and good old-fashioned marriage (not divorce!) is the ticket. The scene perfectly captures the film's warring sense of what makes the United States (and San Andreas) exceptional – it is glossy and ostentatious, but sombre and traditional, too.

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