A young girl weaves along a mountain road, taking calls, rummaging around her handbag and generally doing everything but wearing a sign that says 'future trauma victim: give generously' to let us know she's going to be a damsel in distress within the film's opening minutes. Fortunately rescue-chopper pilot Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson) and his team are taking a film-crew around the area to show them their daily routine and before you can raise an eyebrow, he's edging the helicopter into an impossibly tight cliff-face and managing to save both the girl and his crew. All in a day's work, miss.
However his personal life is a little less organised. He's estranged from his wife Emma (Carla Gugino) who's just served him divorce papers and due to his heavty-workload it means that her new boyfriend Daniel (Iaon Gruffudd) will get to spend the weekend bonding with Ray's daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) instead of him.
That will prove the least of his problems when that heavy workload is linked to unusually tectonic plate activity further up the coast. CalTech Scientist Paul Giamatti thinks he may have finally worked out a way to predict the natural phenomena, but it comes too late as the Hoover Dam takes a direct 'hit'. His readings indicate this isn't the main problem - it's the sign of an escalting series of ground-movements and within hours both LA and San Francisco are also feeling the earth move.
With Emma and Blake trapped in separate cities, Ray and his disconnected family must each find a way to not only survive the various chaos and carnage being thrown at them, but also a way to reunite...
San Andreas may already be on target to beat Johnson's recent Hercules endeavour in opening box-office but it's a strange mix of an effective 'disaster-porn' tentpole and a by-the-numbers endeavour, with those numbers dutifully being counted out on the Richter Scale somewhere between 7 and 10 and achieving a similar rating depending on your mood. In many ways it's good fun, the kind of film that you relaise will never win an Oscar and for which a script is largely a bonus... two hours of mindless fun and that's not always a bad thing.
Dwayne Johnson is... well, The Rock. That's meant to be neither damning nor high praise. Johnson, a very capable actor given good material, has been far better than he is here, but recently he's fallen back on the familiar but highly profitable ground he covered in his early career where he essentially has to frown, pump a few muscles and save the day by applying testosterone noogies to the laws of physics. In that respect, this is walk in the park and he handles himself perfectly well, knowing that his 'Ray' is an archetype in a movie that's been blueprinted rather than written.
Gugino as the almost-ex, Emma, is not quite the eternal damsel in distress - managing to suitably provide her own moments of bravery - but is all too often simply deferring to Johnson's Ray and providing the 'feels' about the death of their other daughter that caused a suitably tectonic shift in the foundations of their marriage. Truth be told, though, there's a few thankless supporting roles largely populated by well-established, familiar actors reduced to day-player status via under-written roles and the feeling that they feel like ballast more than necessity. Ioan Gruffud as Daniel Riddick, Gugino's rebound richer-than-God boyfriend, might as well have had 'Inferior-to-the-Rock-in-every-way' tattooed across his disposable forehead... and for a full-on disaster movie, it's likely that Archie Panjabi's tv reporter 'Serena' saw more green-screen action in the season finale of The Good Wife than she does in the whole of San Andreas - her scenes largely consisting of throwing a series of scientific questions and exposition to equally wasted expert Paul Giamatti before continiously diving under one of many tables.
However the prize for set decoration largely goes to Kylie Minogue in a role so pointlessly brief - one that can be literally measured in seconds - that you may not only wonder why she turned up but be unsure who her character was anyway (actually, Dirty Dan's even more callous sibling).
The Brad Peyton-directed film stubbornly follows the template of every mid-1980s action-fest to arrive in cinemas since - particularly the Roland Emmerich 'end-of-days' titles: essentially going with the rule of divide (your characters) and conquer (obstacles to reuniting them). Like those so-called aftershocks, such obstacles increase exponentially, becoming more and more likely in their ability to kill our main cast, but failing.
The visual-effects, as one should now expect, are technically fantastic, depicting the destruction of California with so much glee and excellently-pitched pixels that Republicans are likely to be feeling confident their overdue Rapture has finally arrived on target. But, equally, there's not a single shot in the film we haven't seen before in countless other outings. Armageddons have become interchangable and we've now got disaster fatigue from umpteen cinematic buildings crumbling to the ground... and even an obligatory tsunami has lost its 'wow' power since technology gave us waves to die-for in the far more harrowing The Perfect Storm way back in 2000.
San Andreas really shouldn't work... its foundations are as uneven and unreliable as the shifting earth and by the time it's all done it collapses under sheer force of gravity. And yet if you go with the flow and simply take it as an over-the-top, end-of-the-world, chew-the-scenery tribute-band to the apocalyptic overtures of the past, then you'll likely overlook its mant faultlines and simply enjoy it as a SyFy Movie-of-the-Week with added star-power and a higher budget. And there are certainly worse things to be.
San Andreas is released by Warner Bros. across the UK from today...