NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
Technically, this isn’t a remake of Earthquake (1974) – and it ups the stakes by blowing the whole San Andreas fault, which means successive spectacular devastations of Hoover Dam, Los Angeles and San Francisco rather than tamely confining the carnage to LA – but it does follow the broad strokes of that well-remembered effort, though with a more life-affirming family values message as rescue chopper flier Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson) wins back his nearly-ex wife (Carla Gugino) and resourceful babe daughter (Alexandra Daddario) by being intrepid during the crisis as opposed to the 70s cynicism whereby Charlton Heston lost his wife and mistress and eventually his life in the struggle and the authorities were repped by a power-crazed National Guardsman rather than the sterling goodies deployed here. I assume that Richard (Ioan Gruffud), the sleek gazillionaire architect who abandons the teen heroine to be crushed in an underground garage and later gets squashed on the Golden Gate Bridge is named after Richard Chamberlain, who several times (most notably in The Towering Inferno) played the culpable coward character.
In a direct lift from Earthquake, tech support is provided by a seismologist (Paul Giamatti) who’s just devised a way to predict big quakes and gets to deliver lectures and awful warnings from a CalTech media studio and also add some jittery character stuff to contrast with the hero’s awesome solidity. Johnson, among the most likeable action men of his generation, isn’t that comfortable with his vestigial character depth – his marriage has foundered after the drowning of another daughter and he sometimes knits his brows to express sorrow – but rises to the occasion when battling the odds to get his family back together while driving a chopper, a truck, a small plane or a motorboat into quake-induced peril (including a vertiginous tsunami). A niggle is that in order to save his family – and the two comically-terribly-written-and-acted British brothers (Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson) who latch onto the daughter – Ray has to not turn up for his job as a rescue pilot on a day when presumably his services are in demand. In essence, this film is one big argument for looking out for number one in a crisis, just so long as you’re saving your kin’s skin rather than your own – family values trump the greater good in movieland (see also The Day After Tomorrow) every time.
Disaster movies used always to offer the camp appeal of seeing vintage character actors and oddball guest stars from other fields getting colourfully creamed, but this only stretches to bringing on Kylie Minogue as a nasty snobby bitch (sister to the Gruffudd character) who runs out the wrong door in a skyscraper restaurant when the quake hits LA. Another mystery – how a Samoan and a Hispanic could have as whitebread a daughter as Daddario, an actress so bland I can never recognise even though I’ve looked up her credits in the past week (after seeing her in Burying the Ex). The big-scale CGI effects are astonishing, of course … though we’ve seen these places take their lumps in too many movies recently, with Frisco only totalled by Godzilla last year. This is relatively bloodless – buildings get shattered and whole city blocks collapse but no one we care about dies. Indeed, outside of Gruffudd and Minogue, who get comedy exits, almost all the casualties are pixel-sized CGI creations. The subtext of 70s disaster movies was usually that society or individual hubris was at fault, but this – following Pompeii last year – lays the blame on nature (but not God), with even Giamatti’s boffin not going so far as to suggest that building major conurbations on fault lines is a bad idea. Even the weaselly architect isn’t professionally at fault – the tower he has built does last longer than all the others and provides safe-ish refuge for the kids. Written by Carlton Cuse (of TV stuff: Bates Motel, Lost, The Train, The Returned) from a story by Jeremy Passmore (the Red Dawn remake) and Andre Fabrizio; directed by Brad Peyton, who once made an eccentric gothic short (Evelyn the Cutest Evil Dead Girl) but has become a very mainstream director, with the Cats & Dogs sequel and the Johnson-starring Journey sequels.