Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Universal is releasing this Earthquake the same week as Fox's The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. All three are inert as quality entertainment, but they were collectively so popular when new that a great many viewers 40 and over remember them as impressive "first time at the movies" experiences. Compared to the other two films Earthquake is a relatively cheapskate affair, with its Big Quake sequence done at the same TV soap opera level as the laughable dramatics of the main story. The film introduced the dubious thrill of "Sensurround," which, in the initial engagements where it was used, at least added a sense of fun to the movie experience.
Los Angeles is headed for a High Noon date with a massive earthquake, but even temblor experts like Dr. Stockle (Barry Sullivan) are slow to heed the warnings. Meanwhile ex- football star and architect Stewart Graff (Charlton Heston) is running out on his hysterical wife Remy (Ava Gardner) to have an affair with Denise Marshall (Geneviève Bujold), the widow of a friend. He becomes upset when his father-in-law and boss Sam Royce (Lorne Greene) tries to buy his fidelity with a promotion. Meanwhile, daredevil motorcycle rider Miles Quade (Richard Roundtree) prepares for a stunt that will get him a big Las Vegas gig, while suspended cop Sgt. Lew Slade (George Kennedy) wonders why he doesn't quit the force. And at the local grocery store, psychotic checker Jody (Marjoe Gortner) lusts after sexy Rosa Amici (Victoria Principal). The Big One hits at lunch hour, and changes all of their lives.
As far as Savant was concerned the early 70s were a depressed time for movies. The supposed renaissance of meaningful filmmaking - Robert Altman, Chinatown etc. amounted to a handful of pictures a year, while the general run of shows got cheaper and looked worse. Theatrical prints were green and grainy. Almost all of my good movie experiences were had with older movies at revival theaters or at UCLA.
Earthquake played like a bad joke, a lot of studio hype with no movie behind it. The Irwin Allen movies at least had the "fun" of watching big stars get killed in their inane story lines. The standard 70s disaster format employed a spectacular threat (a sinking ship, a plane in trouble) as an excuse to launch a sideshow of cheap dramatic vignettes, preferably with heavy moral messages attached. The 1953 Titanic and The High and the Mighty were early entries, but the success of 1970s Airport launched the 70s wave starting with The Poseidon Adventure. The episodic story structure allowed producers to give highly emotional roles to stars having difficulty finding worthwhile parts, like Shelley Winters and Ernest Borgnine.
Earthquake has Charlton Heston, whose stature sagged when Hollywood stopped making the grand epics that best suited him. The Jennings Lang production raids the Screen Actors' Guild for big names past their prime, ex- TV stars, doubtful young hopefuls and Universal contract players. Walter Matthau was currently starring in a Billy Wilder film for Lang, and provides a comic relief cameo.
The George Fox and Mario Puzo script generally lets everybody down; it plays like a tepid episode of Days of Our Shaky Lives. Bloozy Ava screams and cries that Charlton prefers to sample the wares of tiny Geneviève. Richard Roundtree and George Kennedy's problems provide narrative filler as the authorities waffle about a graduate student's prediction that a big earthquake will hit. Before the big shaker these citizens of Los Angeles behave like they're in a bad sitcom. Afterwards, they all get to be heroes for a day.
Lesser players do the work of conveying the necessary dumbbell exposition. From a writing standpoint Earthquake is at least 80% expository dialogue. Characters constantly restate what we see and describe what we don't see: "Look! That's another small landslide on the other side of the reservoir!" It's like a radio show and it never stops. I'm surprised that when Geneviève Bujold is threatened by high power lines in the San Fernando water canal, Richard Roundtree doesn't give us a fast explanation of how electricity works.
The quake itself is a mix of highly variable, Oscar-winning effects. The best work combines Albert Whitlock mattes and Glen Robinson miniatures; when the miniature fire is scaled well, these shots look as good as pre-CGI composites can. Unfortunately there are only about 30 seconds of this material. Much more footage involves large-scale physical-effects scenes of dozens of people trying to stay on their feet while broken glass and tons of concrete rain down on them. It's hard to know who's to blame, but it's some of the worst footage of this kind ever done - the stunt people stand in place like drunks, acting like they're on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. In major earthquakes, people usually freeze up or move very quickly, but they don't all scream and wave their arms in the air -- it's as if someone turned on the "Panic!" light from the movie Airplane! Bad second-unit blocking gives us lame shots where stunt people turn to the camera revealing bad makeup jobs with pieces of glass sticking out of their heads.
Finally, some genius did a shortcut by shooting the reflections of buildings on wavy glass, to express the idea that the earthquake was making them twist. It's awful, insulting stuff, almost as bad as the blot of animated red added to an unconvincing shot of people presumably being squirshed in a falling elevator. Audiences laughed their heads off.
Savant experienced Earthquake in Sensurround with fellow UCLA student Hoyt Yeatman at Grauman's Chinese, first-run. The patented process uses an extra set of powerful subwoofers triggered by a 'control' track read from a magnetic stripe on the film. It generates the same "rumbly-in-the-tumbly" feel that we hear every day when some Rap fan with big bass speakers passes us on the street. In Sensurround, the intensity of the rumbling goes up and down depending on the shot on-screen, which is a nice effect. The drawback is that when Earthquake was shown in multiplexes, theaters to the left and right could hear the Sensurround almost as loudly as its intended audience.
Back at UCLA, associate professor Bob Epstein showed us that Sensurround was no miracle by having the projectionist turn up the bass volume for the end of the 1934 Josef Von Sternberg film The Scarlet Empress, the scene where Marlene Dietrich leads a troop of horses up some giant oaken stairs. The rumble feeling in the stomach was identical. If the effect has a psychological component, I'd compare it to the feeling one gets when surrounded by a mob of running people -- the mass vibrations induce sort of a "flight reflex," making us edgy in our seats.
After the main quake, suspense is kept aloft by various rescues and a secondary concern - will the dam break? Some of the topographical details are a little odd. Bujold's little boy apparently rides his bike to school about four miles onto the wrong side of the Hollywood hills, into the San Fernando Valley. He's placed in jeopardy in a concrete storm drain canal when water from the bursting dam hits - although the dam is on the wrong side of the hill. When the dam breaks, it should by all reason wipe out the Hollywood Blvd. area where Marjoe Gortner and his National Guardsmen are patrolling. But it is true that by Wilshire Blvd., L.A.'s excellent storm drain system might swallow up most of the runoff. You know, the underground tunnels where Richard Basehart and the giant ants live. Frankly, the way the landscape lies in Hollywood, if that dam broke it would probably just wipe out a narrow corridor somewhere between, say, La Brea and Gower streets. Hey, that's where Savant lives!
By this time all logic has been suppressed in favor of whatever plays well for the disaster format. The best scene is a rescue in a broken stairwell on the narrow skyscraper at Sunset and Vine. Again, "extras" tend to be sent to anonymous deaths while we invest our concern in the leading players, lost children and even a cute puppy ... Awww. The National Guard show up in about an hour, when they should appear in limited numbers in about two or three days (at least this was the case in L.A.'s 1992 riots). Marjoe Gortner's thieving Hollywood friends are all white-bread bums; there are a few blacks but almost no Latinos in town on the fateful quake day. The Mayor organizes a temp hospital in another tall building (?) even though every structure in L.A. appears to have been reduced to rubble. However, streets are unaccountably passable. Official rescue personnel are repeatedly portrayed as irresponsible, buck-passing cowards and we see few firefighters. That way, our heroes Heston and Kennedy can become take-charge guys and drill into a garage to rescue dozens of people.
The various cast members are assigned fates determined by the authors' temperament. Richard Roundtree is last seen on his motorcycle trying to outrace an urban tidal wave -- a stunt actually filmed on the Universal Studios Tour's hillside flash flood gag. In one of the worst performances of the 70s, psycho Marjoe Gortner provides good target practice for George Kennedy. Sexy airhead Victoria Principal (in the worst wig of the 1970s) squirms at Gortner's icky advances, but dashes to the safety of George Kennedy's manly police uniform. Victoria gets the cute pooch as a further consolation (Awww...). The consolation prize for bored males is the sexist shot of Principal showing off her braless chest, something ya don't see in films much anymore.
Among the smaller roles, Lloyd Nolan delivers some clunker lines; he's one of the few available surgeons among injured thousands, but he ministers exclusively to the star players. A young Donald Moffat (L.A. Confidential has a few good moments as an earthquake technician. The earthquake research headquarters in this film is an office packed with rickety, unsecured bookshelves and racks. They topple onto the staff as soon as the shaker hits, causing major injuries.
Helping to counter the overall silliness are an effective last few moments with Ava Gardner and Charlton Heston. She's just as useless in an emergency as she was in a family crisis, and they're trapped in an underground storm drain that becomes a raging river. Say what you like about Heston but he's perfect when it comes to nonverbal scenes like this one -- he makes a hard choice between life and almost certain death and we believe it 100%. It's practically the only functioning dramatic moment in Earthquake.
Earthquake is still fun to watch, if only to criticize its shortcomings. Savant readily admits that his animosity stems from his general dissatisfaction with Hollywood's "big" movies during the years he was in film school, starving for more of the quality production values and special effects seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey. From the remake of Lost Horizon to the plain awfulness of Logan's Run, we were desperate for the high-tech innovations that finally broke through in Star Wars.
Universal's DVD of the 123-minute theatrical version of Earthquake reflects the film's eventual loss of prestige - there are no extras, no trailer, zilch. The enhanced transfer is an improvement on the print I remember seeing first-run on Hollywood Blvd. A few years later a two-part television version was prepared with twenty more minutes of irrelevant digressions. Viewers might like to see the additional scenes of a silly non-disaster at the L.A. International airport, or more shots of Victoria Principal in her clingy T-shirt. But it's altogether possible that the new material shot for the longer TV cut material only exists flat, making its inclusion in a enhanced letterboxed DVD impossible.
For whatever reason, the studio must feel that the movie doesn't warrant a special edition. As it is, Earthquake has been eclipsed by the new era of CGI computer graphics. Fancy new effects badly designed and executed have really hurt our appreciation for fancy old effects badly designed and executed.
For fans of the film revolted by Savant's unenthusiastic review, Gary Teetzel points out an Enthusiastic Earthquake Page, a veritable online magazine devoted to every sh-sh-sh-shaky detail of this show. Site author "Bill" has extensive details on cut scenes and the contents of the long Television version, the one not on this new DVD. He even has an outline for an un-filmed sequel, Earthquake II!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Good -----
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 10, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson