Movie Review: Dwayne Johnson can save the world but he can’t save ‘San Andreas’

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This photo provided by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Dwayne Johnson, left, as Ray, and Carla Gugino as Emma, in a scene from the action thriller, “San Andreas.”

Dwayne Johnson arrives at the premiere of "San Andreas" at the TCL Chinese Theatre on Tuesday, May 26, 2015, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

While watching “San Andreas,” it was sometimes difficult to tell if it was supposed to be a Roland Emmerich inspired disaster movie or a dark comedy in the hopelessly bleak mold of last year’s “Force Majuere.” Ostensibly, Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino and Alexandra Daddario are heroes of “San Andreas” but they’re depicted as self-involved and willfully blind to the suffering of those who fall outside their immediate family.

Even though he’s a rescue-chopper pilot, Johnson callously ignores the mountainous pile of victims littering L.A. and San Francisco as he bickers with his recently divorced wife (Gugino). Daddario loots a firetruck without knowing if it’s abandoned or still in service. There’s a casual disregard for the well-being of others rarely seen outside of an episode of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and yet less than subtle clues hint that we aren’t supposed to be laughing at “San Andreas.” Prolonged shots of American flags proudly billowing in the wind and lingering close-ups on the weepy faces of the elderly suggest we shouldn’t just be moved by “San Andreas,” but inspired. But it’s hard to be moved or inspired by a movie in which Kylie Minogue falls out of a building shortly after criticizing a young woman for drowning. “San Andreas” is dumb but not in the fun way.

“San Andreas” opens with a shot of a car tumbling into a canyon. That in and of itself isn’t particularly notable but in this case the accident is shot in a loving, nearly fetishistic manner. The footage is slowed down and enhanced to ensure we really see the terror on the driver’s face and just appreciate all of the damage the car is taking in. It’s less a movie and more of something a character in a J.G. Ballard novel would masturbate to on YouTube.

This is “San Andreas” in a nutshell, it fetishizes destruction until it’s reduced to a slick, special effects showreel entirely populated by Sims. Story wise, “San Andreas” is somehow less engaging. The film follows Johnson as he gradually makes his way across L.A. to San Francisco in order to save his daughter (Daddario) — a daughter of which he’s only vaguely aware of where she might be — from the ravages of a gigantic earthquake. It’s a dumbed-down disaster movie boilerplate with generic Shurfine-quality plotting and characterization (courtesy of former “Lost” scribe Carlton Cuse). If, for example, you couldn’t figure out that an earthquake would cause Johnson and Gugino’s characters to be less divorced or turn Gugino’s current boyfriend (Ioan Gruffudd) into a cowardly murderer you probably have never seen a movie before. And if you’ve never seen a movie before, you probably shouldn’t start with “San Andreas.” Watch “Bullitt” instead. It has very fast cars.

“San Andreas’s” one saving grace is something that it mostly wastes. Blessed with a cast of overqualified character actors, the film takes the usually fun and engaging likes of Johnson and Gugino and turns them into blubbering automatons blankly reacting to the endless series of ones and zeros that surround them on screen. Even more disappointing is the way “San Andreas” uses Paul Giamatti. Did he really deserve to be locked in a bunker with Archie Panjabi whose character seems to be the human embodiment of dry exposition? Much as he did in his equally dreary “Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore”, director Brad Peyton reduces his cast to the level of animated props. They’re only there to justify the existence of the computer generated mayhem.

Yet the most chilling aspect behind “San Andreas” isn’t that it’s disposable or instantly forgettable, it’s that Roland Emmerich’s terminally mediocre filmography is now inspiring legions of young, middling filmmakers. If Emmerich is the stupid man’s Steven Spielberg, where does that leave Peyton?