Disaster Du Jour #1: Earthquake (1974)
By Bert Ehrmann
July 20, 2012
What's with Disaster Du Jour? One of the most popular types of films decade after decade are disaster movies and it seems like these films are a reflection of the times we're living in, or at least a reflection of what we're frightened of at the time. In Disaster Du Jour, I'd like to explore disaster movies to see how they interrelate with one and other and how they fit into the times they were filmed.
When I think of a stereotypical disaster movie a few things pop to mind; a cast of once bright stars but who's stardom is on the wane, a possible disaster that's top of mind and a certain way of storytelling where strands of seemingly independent stories come together during the disaster.
One of the early disaster films that would make this type of storytelling "stereotypical" is the movie Earthquake (1974).
In Earthquake, Stewart Graff (Charlton Heston), his estranged wife (Ava Gardner), his mistress and her son as well as a police officer Slade (George Kennedy), a stunt-bike rider (Richard Roundtree) and others are living in Los Angeles when "the big one" strikes and levels the city. It's up to Graff and Slade to rescue as many people as they can from the rubble including the wife, the mistress and her son before a dam breaks and floods the wrecked city.
In the 1970s and 1980s there were reports that southern California was due for a massive earthquake that would send Los Angeles sliding off to the sea. And while danger of a massive earthquake like this still exists, during the time of Earthquake and after it was a serious concern.
To be honest, I wasn't expecting much from Earthquake. I'd seen the movie several times on TV and while Earthquake might provide nice filler for a Sunday afternoon, on watching it again I actually found it enjoyable. I wouldn't say Earthquake is a great film, but it's certainly still very watchable nearly 40 years after it was first released.
One of the things I found most impressive about Earthquake were the visual effects. For the most part, the effects were good enough that I couldn't quite tell how they were accomplished, and this is coming from a guy who used to subscribe to an magazine dedicated to special effects. There are scenes shot from within skyscrapers during the quake that looked amazingly real. And there were scenes post-quake too done via the magnificent matte paintings of Albert Whitlock that would hold up against the best ILM has to offer today.
If only everything else were as great as Whitlock's paintings.
I think that what hurts Earthquake most is that much of it was filmed on a studio backlot dressed to look like a wrecked LA, and the movie really looks like it was shot in a backlot rather than a realistic city. No matter how brilliant Whitlock's paintings are in extending the backlots into the distance, much of the last half of the movie suffers from "backlotitis."
The story of Earthquake, as is the usual weak spot of the disaster film, is paper-thin and too much time is spent at the beginning of the movie setting up the characters and hinting at the impending doom of the massive earthquake. The filmmakers tried to build tension with scenes of lots of little earthquakes before the big one and scenes of scientists warning of impending doom but this comes off a bit artificial and doesn't quite work. This part of the movie felt rushed and there were so many major characters introduced that none of them felt fleshed out of that real.
And since they're not fleshed out many of the characters fall into stereotypes - "gruff cop," check, "power-crazed soldier," check… And the performance by Gardner is, to be kind, over-the-top. Also, everyone in the movie other than the main characters has a tendency to panic to the point of comedy. People panic when trying to evacuate a building and lemming each other out of broken windows. People claw at one and other when climbing ladders to be next up even when they're in no immediate danger. Scenes like these have little value other than to give the main characters the ability to constantly shout "Follow me!" and "Calm down!". 2/4 Stars.
Earthquake is available on DVD and hi-def digital download.