By Preston Wilder
News arrives that Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock (he hasn’t officially been ‘The Rock’ in years, but the name seems to suit him) broke the Guinness World Record for selfies last week, taking 105 in three minutes. This is worrying, because it suggests that the best thing about Mr Johnson – his hilarious fake narcissism – may in fact be real narcissism. When he preens, when he flashes those teeth, when he breaks a cast just by flexing his muscles in Furious 7, when he sets his face and delivers a crowd-pleasing line – in this case: “We’re going to get our daughter!” – Mr J is a cartoon, that’s why he’s funny. It’s alarming to think that he may not be in on the joke, unless of course the selfies are part of the joke.
Southern California collapses in San Andreas, but The Rock is busy saving people. He rescues someone even before the earthquake starts, manoeuvring his chopper into a narrow ravine (“We’re gonna tip the hat!”) to save some random girl – then the San Andreas Fault starts to slip and our focus temporarily shifts to Paul Giamatti, an expert seismologist. Having explained the basics of SoCal tectonics to an audience of oddly clueless CalTech students, Giamatti and his Asian (i.e. expendable) assistant go to the Hoover Dam, hoping to measure tremors – and instead find themselves in the middle of a full-blown earthquake. Giamatti manages to scramble to safety – but the assistant stops to help a trapped little girl, a delay that proves fatal. Sorry, pal: only The Rock is allowed to save people in this movie.
Actually no, I tell a lie: the British brothers are allowed to save people too, just as long as the person they’re saving is Dwayne’s daughter (Alexandra Daddario). One British brother is the nominal love interest, albeit so dorky and un-threatening he can barely stammer out his own name (bumbling inarticulacy is clearly the new manly, see also Benjy in Pitch Perfect 2); the other British brother is around 12 years old, very polite, and carries a guide to San Francisco everywhere he goes which is ‘obviously’ adorable (the guidebook turns out to be useful when technology breaks down, just as mobile phones give way to old-fashioned land lines). They add a smidgen of attempted human interest to a film that’s mainly a case of CGI buildings falling down, San Francisco bearing the brunt of the damage.
One slight problem with earthquake movies is that an earthquake doesn’t last very long, leaving us mostly with trapped survivors and rubble being shifted – the clearing-up, as opposed to the party. San Andreas tries to keep the action going with a second, bigger earthquake after the first one, plus a tsunami which Dwayne and wife Carla Gugino try to navigate in a small boat (“We’ve got to get over it before it crests!”), but there’s only so much wanton destruction we can watch before eyes start to glaze. An early casualty of the quake is the Hollywood sign in LA, its letters crumbling as the earth starts to shake – and wags may see it as a symbol, reflecting the collapse of Hollywood itself which now spends more energy on computer graphics than three-dimensional characters.
Maybe so; yet there is a character – or potential character – in San Andreas, and of course he’s played by Dwayne Johnson. I suspect he was slightly different in the original script. It may even have been a script about a man with a saviour complex – a man who compulsively puts himself in harm’s way, trying to make up for his failure to save his daughter. Dwayne and Carla, it turns out, had another daughter; that girl drowned on a rafting trip, and we even get flashbacks to her death which seems awfully tasteless – yet might also explain why our hero behaves so absurdly, at least if the film admitted to being absurd.
Think about it: Alex calls him up, so he knows she survived the earthquake – but Dwayne still storms in, by car, plane and boat, to do… what, exactly? Even if he finds her, he can’t get her out any faster than the authorities could. The best possible version of San Andreas would admit that this is psychotic behaviour, and become a study of a tormented dad; the second-best version would admit that Dwayne is ridiculous, like the bulging muscles of his cartoon persona. This version tries to be serious – but doesn’t dare delve into psychology (it might clash with the CGI destruction), so our hero just ends up being heroic. ‘How do you protect yourself during an earthquake?’ comes the question at one point; “You just have to find something sturdy,” replies The Rock – and Carla looks at him with love in her eyes, because of course he is her ‘something sturdy’. We end with the family reunited – and they take a celebratory selfie, with the smouldering ruins of San Francisco behind them. No, not really.
DIRECTED BY Brad Peyton
STARRING Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Paul Giamatti
US 2015 114 mins