“But I keep cruising
Can’t stop, won’t stop grooving
It’s like I got this music
In my mind
Saying, ‘It’s gonna be alright.'”
— Taylor Swift, “Shake It Off”
“Shit, her cell service just went out.” You can only imagine the anguish Ray (Dwayne Johnson) feels at the moment he loses contact with his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario). Really, you can only imagine; this because the situation offered up by San Andreas is preposterous, and then some.
You might buy that Ray, a Los Angeles Fire Department helicopter pilot, might be flying over California as a monster earthquake strikes San Francisco. And, all right, he’s got his estranged wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), on the seat beside him, having just rescued her from the top of an exploding skyscraper. You might even accept that Blake, stranded on the ground, is calling her dad to let him know where to pick her up. But even as the streets are breaking up, the skies are full of smoke and fire, buildings and bridges are collapsing, the most preposterous thing may be this: Ray takes a moment to elucidate what’s happened to that cell phone service.
So okay, the line is of a piece with San Andreas‘ abiding of foolishness, much of which might be understood as disaster movie shtick. You grant that this movie is paying homage to the widest rides conjured by Irwin Allen, Michael Bay, and Roland Emmerich, even if you allow that maybe it’s not cynical but instead sincere, that it’s also, and most emphatically, paying homage to James Cameron, whose every movie is a marriage story. In this universe, the lost cell phone service is key, for from this moment on, the movie is about Ray and Emma, as he puts it repeatedly, “going to get our daughter.”
Of course, they have backstory; it can’t be enough that the earthquake is killing everyone around them, that the 3D CGI creates massive chaos, panicking crowds, and crushing tsunamis, again and again, or that this ongoing turmoil is explained (also again and again) by a helpfully all-knowing scientist (Paul Giamatti), whose instruments at Cal Tech never ever stop working. No. San Andreas sets up the seismic events in order that Ray and Emma can sort out their relationship, torn up by the loss of Blake’s sister in a drowning and — surprise — Ray’s inability to cope, that is, his set jaw and silence.
“I should have let you in,” Ray tells Emma while they’re still on their way to “get our daughter”, adding, “I just didn’t know how.” Thank god for the earthquake. Otherwise, he’d still be distracting himself with his job, which is, you know, saving people, which he mostly neglects when Emma and then Blake are in danger (he does save them, of course). Otherwise, Emma would be moving in with her new boyfriend, the wholly and instantly despicable and oh yes super-wealthy architect Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd). True, he has a chance to reveal why he doesn’t have a family when Blake asks him early in the film (he’s been so busy with his other “kids,” the buildings he’s been “raising” for billions of dollars). But this chance doesn’t begin to undo the bad impression that Daniel makes so visibly on Ray, who’s hurt, furious, and childish during a brief encounter. It’s not a little curious that Emma is such a terrible judge of character, but suffice it to say that she must be so that Ray can be right, even when he apologizes for being wrong.
Ray’s always-rightness propels the plot, even to the point that he’s asked to explain the most obvious plot point about the cell phone. No matter where he goes, or more precisely, where he brings Emma along so she can observe and admire his prowess, Ray is dazzlingy correct. An Afghanistan war veteran, he can drive any vehicle and does, including a chopper, a 4×4, a plane, and a boat, piloting the last into and over a tsunami wave in a move that makes you think he might have been helpful in The Perfect Storm or maybe The Impossible. Not only that, but he can tandem-parachute and hold his breath forever and knock down walls, all useful skills that he uses in sequence, every crisis another occasion for him to be right again.
Everyone knows that the Rock can make every situation work, and the more preposterous, the better. Think back on his most memorable performance to date, his lip-synced “Shake It Off”, where the striking, thoroughly entertaining contrast between his massive body and Taylor Swift’s vocals ends up seeming secondary to what he does with that body. His shoulders shrugging, heart patting, and eyes widening: all lovely, weird, and winning. It’s harder for him to set himself in entertaining opposition to himself in San Andreas, a movie that takes his bulk far too seriously. Here he’s set against the earth crumbling and flooding and shaking, and so his muscle appears required for survival.
Yes, Gugino and Daddario, much slighter than Johnson in every conceivable physical sense, also survive and even sometimes triumph over the roiling world, but they’re hardly presented as convincing, but rather as only obligatory. The Rock-as-Ray, though, he’s another story. He’s a hero. And that’s too bad, for what Johnson does best, probably better than anyone else right now, is to draw attention to the absurdity, even the impossibility of himself. In a movie so invested on making him seem possible, that performance, so endearing and so smart, gets lost.