Saturday, May 21, 2011

"Earthquake" (film review)

"Earthquake" (movie review)
Saturday, May 21, 2011

In honour of today supposedly being the day of the rapture, it seemed appropriate to talk a little about this old disaster movie that I saw a few days ago: 1974's Earthquake.

It was made in the heyday of 70s catastrophe flicks, like Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, and The Towering Inferno, but if you haven't heard of it, you're not alone. Despite the movie being a hit at the box office, winning Oscars for its effects, and being the first movie to use the short-live Sensurround system (more on that later), and boasting a cast of screen legends (like Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner), even in the early 90s you were hard pressed to find it in any video store or on TV. In fact, the Universal Theme Park ride based on Earthquake is the only attraction there, to my knowledge, to have been renamed because no one knew about the movie that inspired it!

The plot is very simple: in Los Angeles, we follow a football player-turned-engineer (Heston), his estranged wife (Gardner), his actress mistress (Genevive Bujold), his father-in-law and boss (Lorne Green), as well as a disillusioned cop (George Kennedy), a daredevil (Richard Roundtree), his mechanic's sister (Victoria Principal), and an unhinged national guardsman (Marjoe Gortner) as they go about their lives amid strong tremors. However, the tremors -- getting stronger and more frequent all the time -- turn out to be the appetizer for The Big One; a cataclysmic earthquake that reduces L.A. to wreckage, and abandons its citizens to chaos. And things go downhill from there...

There's really not much to artistically say about this movie, but it is reasonably suspenseful and the characters engaging (if dangerously close to soap-opera territory). Marjoe Gortner in particular deserves praise for his psychotic yet believable soldier character. The really big problem with the earlier dramatic scenes is that they literally serve no purpose at all, except to make you care about the characters.

Simply put, this movie is pretty much a visual effects reel with some acting in it -- and oddly, a lot less irritating than the Michael Bay/Roland Emmerich movies that make at least a minimal effort to balance the formula out more. As far as the effects go, they were definitely stunning for the movie's time, but they are a bit dated today. Apparently, model effects weren't quite finessed in the early 70s -- I vividly remember a remake of the Big Quake sequence being created in the early 90s for the Universal Florida ride, and being very convincing even today. Probably the only difference was in camera technology and some materials, but it makes all the difference in the world.

In regards to the Sensurround that I mentioned -- which, by the way, is a feature on some DVD releases of Earthquake -- it's basically a subwoofer on steroids. As a gimmick for the film's theatrical release, Universal had theatres install these large speakers in the floors, and programmed the soundtrack to play sub-sonic vibrations through them, for the quake scenes. They didn't really make any extra noise, but they made you feel like the room was shaking apart.

The problem was, sometimes it really was -- there were numerous reports of theatre walls and ceilings cracking, and businesses next to theatres having their merchandise break when it fell off of shelves. As multiplexes became more common, this system was even more irritating than it seemed to be worth, so only four or five movies altogether were released in Sensurround.

Anyway, if you're interested in pure mayhem and melodrama, I very much recommend checking this movie out... though you may have to hunt for it on YouTube.

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