‘San Andreas’
Director:
Brad Peyton
Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

For a neo-disaster movie, “San Andreas” is pretty stripped down. Compared to Roland Emmerich behemoths it’s downright minimalist. That’s not a compliment. It’s essentially a remake/ripoff of the 1974 disaster movie nadir “Earthquake,” only there’s only a handful of characters, not the usual three or four dozen. Chief among them is a fire department rescue god (Dwayne Johnson), who’s out to save his about-to-be-ex (Carla Gugino) and their college-age spawn (Alexandra Daddario). There’s only a tiny handful of supporting characters, and they’re not even particularly broad types: there’s Cowardly Rich Guy (Ioan Gruffudd) and Super Nervous Britisher (Hugo Johnstone-Burt), plus his brother, Precocious British Boy (Art Parkinson). And, of course, there’s Helpful but Overqualified Geologist/Real Actor (Paul Giamatti).

Of course, the lack of characters only means there’s more disposable bodies to perish amidst unspeakable, PG-13 mega-destruction. And the lack of hyper-vulgarity is not necessarily a good thing, especially since “San Andreas” doesn’t replace the empty space left by the lack of ethnic stereotypes and endless subplots with anything noble. This isn’t “The Impossible,” the drama, not spectacle, about 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. It’s an effects piece crossed with a modest b-movie rescue mission, with all its money spent on effects and its star. Indeed, most of the cast are complete nobodies, rented out on the cheap. Giamatti is so detached from the main plot — he spends most of his screentime in an office building that’s not crumbling — that he appears to have been spliced-in after the fact, to give it the illusion of gravitas.

The lack of ambition in anything that’s not city-destroying can be hindering. The characters are actually thinner than they would be if they were stereotypes. Even for a movie where Johnson — who can be a charming, even articulate star — is playing a he-man of few words, the dialogue is noticeably lacking, purely functional, in need of a ghost writer punch-up. When mom and dad talk about their other, dead daughter, they say things like, “Do you ever think what our life would be like if we didn’t lose Mallory?” Who talks that bluntly and clunkily, even in a dumb movie? 

Of course, they’re doing that cliche, made fun of all the way back in 1977’s “Kentucky Fried Movie,” involving talking about heavy, personal stuff in between set pieces where two separate cities buckle under the pressure of repeated, massive earthquakes. It’s all sanitized cataclysms, of course, because watching thousands, perhaps millions, perishing amidst unimaginable destruction would be profoundly unpleasant. But movies about mass genocide like this — or “2012,” or any movie that levels cities but does so without bloodshed — are a surreal kind of questionable. We don’t see bodies being destroyed; we just see buildings. Even the one character the movie wants you to want to see is taken out modestly, blink-and-you-miss-it. No other character is in any real danger, so there’s no need to get too worried when you see entire buildings torn apart like movie tickets then tumbling upon running pedestrians below.

Then again, it only lets us know about seven characters, and most of them we can be assured will survive. That’s what happens when The Rock is a film’s savior — except that The Rock only has eyes on two characters: his separated wife and daughter. “San Andreas” is retro in another way: It’s reminiscent of those late ’80s, early ’90s films where the hard bodied superman that emerged in the Reagan era — Stallone, Schwarzenegger — had to both reassert (or just assert) their masculinity and get in touch with their feminine side. Here, Johnson’s dad/husband has to risk life and limb to pull wife and daughter from certain death, all while learning to be less emotionally remote. His goal is not to save humanity but to save his family, and any nice supporting characters they may have picked up along the way. He doesn’t care about anyone else, just as the film itself doesn’t think anything of having one of the highest body counts in movie history, and at a PG-13. That’s entertainment.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge