Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Movie Review: Earthquake (1974)


A big scale disaster movie, Earthquake has some effective moments of destruction but is an otherwise sloppily constructed and cheese-filled exercise in tolerating aggravating stock characters spouting horrible lines of dialogue.

In Los Angeles, building engineer Stewart Graff (Charlton Heston) is having marital problems with his depressed wife Remy (Ava Gardner). A series of minor tremors create concern at the Mulholland Dam overlooking the city. At the California Seismological Institute a young staffer crunches the numbers and concludes that a major quake will likely strike the city within 48 hours, but his methodology is unproven. Meanwhile Stewart's boss and father-in-law Sam Royce (Lorne Green) promotes Stewart to President of their engineering company, but Stewart is more interested in pursuing young widow Denise Marshall (Geneviève Bujold).

The big quake does hit, effectively destroying Los Angeles. Stewart has to help Sam save employees from their partially destroyed office tower. Remy, Denise and Denise's injured young son Corry are evacuated to the basement of a supposedly quake-proof highrise. Others caught up in the mayhem are wannabe motorcycle daredevil Miles Quade (Richard Roundtree), short-tempered police officer Lou Slade (George Kennedy) and the financially strapped Rosa Amici (Victoria Principal). But just when it appears that the worst is over, there is more shaking to come.

Produced and directed by Mark Robson, Earthquake arrived at the peak of the epic disaster movie cycle of the early 1970s, with The Towering Inferno and Airport '75 released in the same year. Unfortunately gimmickry was already creeping into the genre as productions competed for viewers' attention. Unable to secure any relevant current stars to boost the box office, Earthquake resorted to something called Sensurround, a mammoth sound system designed to literally shake theatre seats with sub-audible "infra bass" sound waves.

Which is just as well, because what is on the screen is pretty awful. Earthquake underwent extensive post-production editing to tighten up the narrative, and the outcome is notably choppy. Other than the few minutes of special effects depicting the earthquake itself, the rest of the movie is two hours of badly-acted television-level drama. Despite a script co-written by Mario Puzo, the dialogue is cringe-worthy, the characters are stiff, and the attempts at drama and conflict border perilously near laughable.

The marital strife between Stewart and Remy plays like a particularly bad daytime soap episode, while Stewart's lusting after Denise is tawdry. Miles Quade disappears entirely from the ending of the movie, after wasting plenty of set-up time with a useless story about his ambition to be the next Evel Knievel. Walter Matthau appears under a pseudonym as an oblivious barfly, while George Kennedy plays a stock angry but good-hearted cop. Victoria Principal wages battle on two fronts: she fights against a frizzy hairdo that occupies half the screen, and fends off a deranged homicidal national guardsman (Marjoe Gortner) who stumbled in from another movie.

The only bits worth watching are the prolonged earthquake strike scenes, and the special effects range from reasonably impressive to amateurish. When an elevator crash ends with cartoon blood drops childishly superimposed on the image of mangled bodies, the splatter is literally on the screen for a genre that had nowhere to go but down.






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