San Andreas, a by-the-books disaster movie in which Dwayne Johnson fights an earthquake, is exactly the movie you suppose it to be, except in one, absolutely crucial regard: it's weirdly allergic to fun. By which I guess I mean that "by-the-books disaster movie" suggests one particular register of sobriety and anguished emotions, where as "Dwayne Johnson popcorn movie" suggests something infinitely goofier and more charming and dippy, and at all junctures, San Andreas elects to be the former thing and not so much the latter. I wasn't enough of a fool as to actually expect a movie where The Rock punches the San Andreas fault back together, but I was hoping for something that was ever silly in any way. Spectacularly bad science aside, San Andreas isn't that.

Let me re-emphasise, that this is a very by-the-books disaster movie. In a genre that's particularly beholden to formula and common elements, San Andreas still stands out for the purity of its commitment to that formula. We have the couple about to get a divorce thrown together by the terrible events unfolding around them, a daughter readying to go to college when her life is thrown into disarray, a puffy scientist trapped with a designated audience surrogate, a slimy capitalist whose fate is ironically tied to his profession. The opening scene is a mostly stand-alone setpiece designed to show off the hero's particular skill set; the final scene involves an enormous American flag slowly whipping in the wind. It's almost a holy thing, I really mean that. Not since, good Lord, maybe Volcano back in 1997 have I seen a disaster movie so painstakingly eager to be the most prototypical disaster movie it could possibly be. Or at the very least, The Day After Tomorrow in 2004.

This is not at all meant to be a slight against San Andreas, which knows exactly what it is, what it's doing, and why. Disaster movies, like romantic comedies and slasher films, derive much of their pleasure from being predictable, and finding most of their individuality in their execution. And this is the slight against San Andreas, which is many things that aren't terribly complimentary - unbelievable in the extreme for one, unusually indifferent to deaths of human beings beyond its core group of named characters for another - but is worst of all for being preposterously not-fun. Since the all but forgotten days of The Mummy Returns, Johnson's screen persona has fully coalesced into a big meaty goofball, too campy to be a serious action star and too imposing to be a standard-issue comic character actor; isolated counter-examples in the intervening decade and a half like 2013's Snitch only demonstrate his considerable onscreen charisma and movie-star qualities thrives in an atmosphere of jokey flippancy. The screenplay by Carlton Cuse, from a story credited to Andre Fabrizio & Jeremy Passmore (though "writing" the "story" in a film like this is mostly a matter of plucking down plot elements like overripe apples), is absolutely not jokey, nor flippant, even when it seems like that would be the obvious thing to do with it: Johnson gets a grand total of one dumb one-liner.

Instead, we get standard-issue family drama presented with an extraordinary lack of irony: Ray Gaines (Johnson) is a helicopter rescue pilot with the Los Angeles Fire Department, and a wife named Emma (Carla Gugino) who is leaving him, and about to move in with a handsome architect, Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffudd). Ray does his best not to be a jerk about this, even when it falls to Daniel and not himself to bring his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) up to Seattle. For Ray, in the time-tested way of action heroes, spends more time attending to work emergencies than his loved ones. Meanwhile, a pair of Caltech professors, Dr. Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) and Dr. Kim Park (Will Yun Lee), have a perfect opportunity to test out their earthquake-predicting model during a freak event in Nevada. Kim dies rescuing a child from the collapsing Hoover Dam, but in the process, he and Lawrence prove their model works, and Lawrence is able to use the data to discover that the San Andreas fault is about to blow. Like, now. Too soon for there to be any chance of evacuating the tens of millions of people who will be immediately affected by the gigantic quake, but enough time that he can get on the air with CNN reporter Serena Johnson (Archie Panjabi) to explain to the audience what earthquakes are.

The movie doesn't genuinely care about Lawrence, but Giamatti is the second-biggest name in the cast, so it keeps cutting back to him without ever finding a remotely organic or elegant way of tying its two subplots together (the solitary link is that, prior to heading to Caltech, Serena went on a ride-along with Ray's crew in the opening scene, as he fearlessly rescued a young woman from a fissure that foreshadows the quakes to come). This leaves San Andreas moving along only in the lumpiest sort of way, on top of how clumsily it juggles the two plots it's actually committed to: Ray and Emma flying, driving, and otherwise scrambling northward through the devastation of southern California on the way to San Francisco, where Blake has teamed with a pair of English brothers, sexy Ben (Hugo Johnston-Burt) and tween Ollie (Art Parkinson), after Daniel reveals how totally craven and Evil Movie Capitalist he is. For as the most brazen of all its clichΓ©s, San Andreas goes all-in on "architecture is the path to enormous financial success" as its villain's backstory and personality. But anyway, as Lawrence tells everybody to beware the even bigger second quake on the TVs that no longer work, what with the California power grid being gone, the estranged couple reunites on the hard road north, while Blake proves to be her father's daughter and manages to use wits and survivalist know-how to keep herself and the brothers alive through fires and floods and collapsing buildings.

The least we can say about all of this is that the visual effects and especially the sound work are pretty good, though the film suffers from some particularly weightless CGI (almost the first thing that happens in the whole movie is an animated car flipping down a hill like a tin can, and a mere two weeks after the heaving metal of Mad Max: Fury Road, it's even more depressing to watch than it might have been otherwise). It suffers much worse from director Brad Peyton, whose entire list of features preceding this have been worse sequels to bad children's movies (his Journey 2: The Mysterious Island was one of those very same movies where Johnson got to be good and campy and fun), and who comes to this film totally without the skills required to make large-scale destruction looking visually spectacular and exhilarating. There are scattered scenes that work tremendously well: Emma scrambling through a disintegrating skyscraper to jump on Ray's copter in the midst of an explosion of dust could stand with any mid-level tentpole movie in recent memory, and there are some aerial shots that show off the enormity of the destruction with an appropriately epic popcorn movie sensibility. But they are much outweighed by sequences that feel limited in scope and ambition. It's never persuasive that anything bigger than what the heroes can see with their own eyes - nothing here like the last time San Francisco was devastated onscreen in 2014's Godzilla, and the terrible grandeur of the action seemed bigger than human understanding. San Andreas is cramped, without the compensating factor of being more intimate with its characters by virtue of backing away from a broad canvas. It's scared of ambition and too flimsily-written for anything else, and while it's sufficiently noisy and pretty to exist as a big ol' summer picture of no distinction, it's definitely not the kind of thing that anybody will remember a couple of years into the future.