Forty years ago, “Earthquake” hit theaters with its new gimmick called Sensurround, which were just huge speakers placed strategically in the movie houses to boom out the rumbling of a massive temblor. This accompanied scenes of what obviously were models of buildings collapsing and roads buckling and crumbling. In addition, there were silly side stories about the characters who then had to set aside personal issues and get down to the business of basic survival as Los Angeles came tumbling down.
Thankfully, special effects have come a long way since then, and because of advancements in CGI, panoramic views of death and destruction on a massive scale can be choreographed in spectacular ways, as have been seen in recent end-of-the-world movies like “The Day After Tomorrow” in 2004 and “2012” in 2009.
With that kind of technology at hand, why not revisit the earthquake theme, but not have it confined just to the L.A. or San Francisco area? Let’s include the whole state. So we are presented with “San Andreas,” named for the long fault line that cuts through California and is one all the experts say is capable of, and likely to unleash a massive quake registering 8-plus on the Richter scale.
Since the earthquake itself is the backbone of “San Andreas,” there is no need to spend extensive time developing the main characters. The script by Carlton Cuse, who has penned some episodes of “Bates Motel,” does have some groan-inducing lame dialog, but otherwise it jumps right into the action, featuring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Ray, a member of an L.A. fire department helicopter rescue unit.
In the opening minutes, Ray and his team conduct an adrenaline-rush rescue of a young woman from her car after an accident that puts her in a potentially fatal situation.
Then the movie segues over to the scientific part of the story. Paul Giamatti plays Lawrence, a professor at Cal Tech, who with colleague Kim Park (Will Yun Lee) believe they have discovered a way to accurately predict quakes. They go to Hoover Dam in Nevada, where some activity might indicate a pending temblor. The quake does occur but with drastically more intensity than they expected.
There is a pause in the action for obligatory exploration of Ray, the flawed hero, and here, Cuse employs familiar character backgrounds. The hero is forced into part-time parenthood via a broken marriage or too much dedication to work (such as Tommy Lee Jones’ Mike Roarke in “Volcano,” Dennis Quaid’s Jack Hall in “The Day After Tomorrow,” and more notably Liam Neeson’s Bryan Mills in the “Taken” series). Ray is estranged from his wife Emma (Carla Gugino), and like Jo Harding (Helen Hunt) in “Twister,” Mills in “Taken” and David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) in “Independence Day,” he has not yet emotionally processed the idea that his ex has moved on to another relationship.
The call of duty forces Ray to cancel plans to drive his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) up to San Francisco, where she is about to start college. She instead hitches a ride with her mother’s new boyfriend Daniel Riddick (Iaon Gruffud), the kind of guy who looks like he’ll wither when to going gets tough.
Meanwhile, a shaken Lawrence returns to Cal Tech and learns that the same data that were a precursor to the Hoover Dam shaker are now popping up on sensors all the way along the San Andreas fault line. He soon deduces that an event of never before experienced magnitude is about to occur in California.
In a nice piece of timing one can only see in movies, Ray is talking on his cell to Emma when the first big jolt hits in L.A., and she is on the top floor of a high rise in the downtown area. Ray dispenses with his professional duty and zips over in his chopper to rescue Emma.
Soon, the shaking has made its way up to San Francisco. Blake, who meets a young man from England, Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his kid brother Ollie (Art Parkinson) while Daniel is conducting some business, finds herself with these two people in the aftermath of the quake in the northern part of the state. She manages to call Ray and let him know what happened and they set up a rendezvous point in the Bay area.
The story now bounces between the efforts of Ray and Emma to get up north, to Blake and her two friends as they encounter more hazards in Frisco, and to Lawrence and his colleagues at Cal Tech, who are now getting more readings to indicate the worst is yet to come and need to devise ways to get the word out even as the power grid collapses.
The script is excellent in presenting numerous ways people can face life-threatening situations and seemingly overwhelming odds even after the temblors end.
Director Brad Peyton (“Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore”) keeps the action lively, with a few pauses here and there, mostly as Ray and Emma engage in some marriage counseling in between cheating death.
While Johnson is, well, The Rock, stoic and almost indestructible, both Gugino and Daddario portray Emma and Blake as tough, resourceful ladies, determined to survive.
“San Andreas” is what one would expect for a summer popcorn movie. The visuals are stunning and scary. And for those of us living in California, “San Andreas” carries special foreboding, because, unlike Godzilla, earthquakes are real.