Easily the worst disaster in this film is Paul Giamatti’s performance. Playing a Cal Tech professor with bad timing, he stumbles upon a theoretical model that can predict earthquakes moments before the biggest of big ones busts out the Hoover Dam. Now, let’s be plain: The script keeps throwing him bummers, but Giamatti reached deep into his bad-acting-decision bag and came up with an oily-voiced academic who melodramatically mumbles “This isn’t good” given any opportunity. He then falls victim to the horribly deforming actor’s disease known as Charlton Hestonitis, a swelling of the eyeballs and vocal cords that mutates very good actors into goofballs trying for camp but managing sententious warning tones, enunciated like they dripped butter. “It’s not if, but when,” he says, a voice purring in the wilderness.
Actually, outside of Giamatti, the film isn’t terrible. Obviously a cheesy exploitation of popular fears: A Big One will tear the Golden State into nuggets. (We used to fear sliding into the ocean.) And that’s our movie, folks. Luckily, the other actors play this material with something like cardboard dignity, namely Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as an experienced helicopter rescuer and Carla (The Queen of B Movies) Gugino as his estranged wife. Not only must the Rock save his comely soon-to-be-former wife, but he’s also called into rescue their feckless daughter (Alexandra Daddario), while shaming the wife’s rich new boyfriend. Can he do it while bridges, buildings, and big-budget films blow up? Just say yo.
Director Brad Peyton seems to be paying homage to Roland (Independence Day, 2012) Emmerich, a man who has destroyed the planet more times than all other directors put together and never missed a chance to show Old Glory flapping near the debris. Peyton loves flags, too. Big indomitable spirits battle a bevy of CGI wonders — hostile Earth repaying human hubris with swallowing fissures and engulfing seas. But the people in the movie are lucky. They don’t have to watch Giamatti turn from subtle art-house star into flaming catastrophe.