‘San Andreas’: Rumble. Tumble. Yawn.

May 27, 2015

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“San Andreas”? I thought we critics drove a stake through this film’s heart when it came out 40 years ago under the title “Earthquake.”

But each generation of special effects creates its own avalanche of disaster films: movies about disasters that are themselves disastrous.

The latest iteration of cutting-edge computer effects means we can watch explicit depictions of Los Angeles and San Francisco crumbling from an unprecedented temblor in more graphic detail than ever, while Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson tries to save his ex-wife (Carla Gugino) and daughter (Alexandra Daddario). It’s like an elaborate first-person video-game that you spend two hours watching someone else play. 

By the way, that’s almost the entire plot of this listless, heaving mess of a film. In essence, this film doesn’t need a director, which is fortunate because it has Brad Peyton.

Based on his work on such films as “Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore” and “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island,” Peyton is less a filmmaker than a mechanic, who is handed what amounts to a multi-million-dollar kit, like a model airplane only much larger. He looks at the label (“action -adventure”), then follows the diagram and hammers it together, before he moves on to the next kit on the assembly line. This isn’t a movie; it’s a manufactured product.

The template remains unchanged, except done with much narrower focus here: Establish a handful of characters for the audience to plug into (and by establish, I mean: give them names). Then add the barest hint of conflict: Johnson plays a helicopter-rescue pilot who discovers that his ex is going to move in with her wealthy new boyfriend.

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You also need a voice of reason, to spread the warning. In this case, it’s Paul Giamatti, as a geologist who perfects earthquake-prediction equipment seemingly moments before the big one hits. He spends most of the film alternately screaming and fretting, so you’re never happy when Peyton’s big wheel o’ characters comes back to him.

“Earthquake” was part of an early 1970s’ wave of big-budget disaster films, triggered by the success of “Airport” and “Poseidon Adventure.” The template was always the same: An all-star cast (generally, two or three slumming A-listers and a phonebook’s worth of B and C-level stars) suffers through a natural disaster. Who will survive? These days, it’s called “The Celebrity Apprentice.”

Films like “Towering Inferno” and “Earthquake” tried to raise the bar on the form with ever-more-elaborate (but not particularly believable) special effects. In “Earthquake,” those included Charlton Heston’s hairpiece and something called SenSurround, which amounted to overloading the bass on the theaters’ audio systems until your ears bled.

When you ask someone who enjoys these films why they do, the answer often has to do with rooting for the hero: to get through, to find his wife, to save his child.

Except this: Here is an entire blockbuster-sized enterprise about the destruction and collapse of two major cities, in which presumably hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people have been killed, injured or otherwise had their lives and livelihoods destroyed. Even as we watch this simulation of disaster, they are still unearthing the dead from an actual earthquake that killed thousands in Tibet.

Yet, except for moments in which nameless fleeing humans are flattened by giant pieces of falling buildings, occasionally for comic effect, there is no obvious human toll here.

And I’m supposed to care whether The Rock saves his pretend daughter from a make-believe disaster? Not in this piece of disaster porn.

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