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What disaster highlight reel "San Andreas" lacks in wit or originality, it makes up for in scale. You could have made an entire action flick that climaxes with the Hoover Dam getting smashed up and washed away — that's a legit catastrophe-spectacle. Instead, in "San Andreas," that all-world disaster is just the amuse-bouche. A couple of seismologists from Los Angeles rush over when little earthquakes start shaking the area. One of them is played by Paul Giamatti, and the other one doesn't make it when the baby quakes give way and a 7-point-something blows the dam to smithereens, sending Lake Mead blasting through the concrete chasm. It looks great. Then so much other stuff gets toppled, pulverized, exploded, burned, tsunamied, earth-swallowed and generally God-smote that a puny dam here and there seems like small beer by the time the credits arrive to relieve you.
The indulgence is staggering. Los Angeles gets the treatment next, and thus enters Dwayne Johnson, a helicopter rescue pilot whose wife (Carla Gugino) is about to become his ex. Their daughter (Alexandra Daddario) heads off to San Francisco just as the big ones rock the fault line and split California wide open like a punched lip. If only we'd listened to Professor Paul Giamatti earlier! Although that wasn't really an option; he only just figured out how to warn people of impending quakes, and oddly, the movie never connects its two biggest stars' storylines, other than to have the same reporter character interview them both.
In a way, you have to admire the straightforward honesty of "San Andreas." The former pro wrestler with the neck-sized forearms is going to pilot his helicopter (and a stolen truck, and a borrowed plane, and a stolen boat) to find his daughter, while the nerds at CalTech explain just enough of these biblical events to lend a vague air of menace/plausibility to the movie. What else were you hoping they would contrive here? Are you not entertained?
Directing here is Brad Peyton, veteran of one previous Dwayne Johnson vehicle and "Cats and Dogs 2: Kitty Galore," and we can say this much for him: He doesn't let proper good action-chaos get bogged down by a lot of character development. The hero family is the sort that talks to one another respectfully and tries to consider one another's point of view. Then, when everything is going to hell, they try really hard to help each other. A thing happened years earlier that often makes them sad, and they talk about that, with some coaxing. All in all they seem pretty well adjusted, even when they have to crash a helicopter into a shopping mall or crash a boat into a skyscraper or almost crash a pickup into a chasm or crash a plane into the ocean or talk about difficult feelings.
But the digital effects crew is on point. Los Angeles gets trashed like a sand castle on a trampoline. Millions must've died, and although most of them are Angelinos, that's still a human tragedy. Buildings practically melt around people, chunks disappearing at random, skyscrapers crinkling and then slumping over. San Francisco, the prettier city by far, gets shaken out like a rug, then flooded by a wave straight from the ocean planet on "Interstellar." (A perfectly reasonable alternative title would have been "Just Like Godzilla, But Invisible.") And just when you think you've had enough, something else will catch fire and explode, and some lizard-Beavis corner of your brain will whisper, "Do it again."
It would be tempting to call this mindless fun, and perhaps it is. But if "San Andreas" can save just one life, perhaps only by preventing someone from moving to San Francisco and being miserable, then all of its madcap hyperbole has to be considered worthwhile. When the whole state breaks off and floats toward Hilo, we'll know we should have listened to "San Andreas" when we had the chance.