Just over 40 years ago, California got rocked to the ground in "Earthquake," part of a disaster-film epidemic in 1974 that included "The Towering Inferno" and "Airport 1975." The movies seemed to tap into the decade's economic anxiety and pervasive pessimism, and they tended to close with someone -- often Charlton Heston -- surveying the wreckage and trying to utter something that passed for meaningful.
Not much has changed judging by the new 3-D disaster film "San Andreas." Like its 1970s predecessors, "San Andreas" is basically a prime-time soap set against a cataclysmic event, in this case a series of ever-escalating earthquakes. Named after California's famous fault line, "San Andreas" has a bigger budget and more megabytes than "Earthquake" (which used miniatures and matte paintings), but the payoff remains the same: spectacular scenes of devastation, chaos and death.
Instead of Heston, the film stars Dwayne Johnson, who as Los Angeles rescue worker Ray Gaines speaks entirely in cliches: His very first words are "Just doing my job, ma'am." Ray's wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), is leaving him for wealthy developer Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffudd), a story line that goes exactly where you'd expect. Ray's daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario), is a resourceful type; Hugo Johnstone-Burt plays Ben, the smitten Brit who gets her phone number before all hell breaks loose.
These characters are so humorless and lifeless that we care less about them than about the doomed buildings in the background. Directed by Brad Peyton almost entirely from a helicopter seat, "San Andreas" does a fine job of decimating American landmarks (the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge), but there's no human scale to it at all. Only Paul Giamatti, as a Caltech scientist whose worst predictions come true, can breathe life into overwrought lines like "God be with you."
At least one thing has changed since the 1970s -- the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Ever since, disaster films and even Marvel films (which have an uncanny tendency to take place in distressed skyscrapers) have felt like cathartic re-enactments. "San Andreas" ends with an unfurling American flag and someone uttering a new kind of line that passes for meaningful: "Now, we rebuild."