Earthquake (1974)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2019-06-05 15:27

Earthquake (1974)
Studio: Shout Factory
Release date: May 21st 2019

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

The movie:

Warring aesthetic sensibilities provide the rumbling fault lines in Earthquake, a film most obviously inspired by the rash of big-budget disaster films that crowded theaters throughout the 70s. All the familiar elements are in place: an enormous (and enormously overqualified) cast of Hollywood stars, plenty of drama, hot shot novelist turned Hollywood screenwriter du jour Mario Puzo, a large effects budget, and even a gimmick in the form of “Sensurround” audio to mimic the rumbling of an actual earthquake. However, it also boasts a grimy little mean streak that was more typical of Hollywood’s seedier underbelly during this time period. While the drive-in/grindhouse circuit often provided more tasteless, disreputable thrills than the likes found in Earthquake, the effect is quite jarring when this scummy stuff latches itself to an otherwise harmless, often silly blockbuster production. The only problem is that Earthquake isn’t jarring enough in this respect.

To be fair, it lets you know what you’re in for immediately, when it introduces what passes as its main characters, Stewart and Remy Graff (Charlton Heston & Ava Gardner), a middle-age couple that hates each other’s guts. The opening five minutes or so more or less amount to Heston and Gardner’s half-assed rendition of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?, as the star couple savages each other. Remy is rightfully concerned about all the time and attention her husband has recently devoted to a deceased co-worker’s widow (Genevičve Bujold) and her son (Tiger Williams). He insists it’s a simple courtesy; she insists it’s an affair. It is, in fact, an affair, which further complicates matters at work, where Remy is the boss’s daughter (Lorne Greene), a fact that may or may not have helped Stewart climb the corporate ladder in the first place—or whatever.

Sprawling around this main thread are an assortment of colorful supporting characters: George Kennedy is a boozing cop who’s had it with his shit job; Victoria Principal is a girl just struggling to pay her grocery bill; Marjoe Gortner is the kindly store manager that bails her out and moonlights as a national guardsman; and, last but not least, Richard Roundtree is a motorcycle stuntman with a fast-talking business partner (Gabriel Dell). Earthquake invests a lot in these characters, at least in terms of screen time, which is admirable enough. Plus, if you’ve got these actors, you could do worse than to turn them loose and chew some scenery before the disaster takes care of the rest.

Only some of them are really willing to oblige, though: Heston seems terminally bored throughout the entire thing and does little to disavow you of the notion that this isn’t beneath him. To his credit, his character is kind of shitty: an adulterous former football star desperately clinging to former glory who spends the entire movie trying to decide if he’s going to ditch his shrew wife for a younger woman. His supporting cast fares much better though, especially Kennedy, whose alcohol-soaked misanthropy practically wafts off of the screen and sets him up for a nice little redemption arc when he rescues survivors.

Roundtree, too, is a bright spot, flashing the megaton of charisma that convinced Universal to add his character after filming had already begun, thus confirming the theory that if your movie can feature Richard Roundtree, then it should feature Richard Roundtree. His chemistry with Principal and Dell provides the spark Earthquake so often lacks when these characters aren’t around; indeed, some of the best parts of the film involve some combination of these three, whether it’s Roundtree’s daredevil insisting that Principal is a perfect model for his t-shirts, actually wishing death on Evel Knieval, or nearly killing himself doing a stunt. A good rule of thumb here: if Roundtree is on screen, it’s worth watching. I wish the filmmakers had realized this, too.

Unfortunately, he can only do so much, and the script practically forgets about him when the earthquake actually happens. Nearly a solid hour passes by before director Mark Robson finally begins to lay waste to Los Angeles with an effects showcase that was remarkable enough to win a special achievement at the Academy Awards, though it seems pretty tame now. Most of it falls flat simply because the film still seems so small; there’s a handful of set-pieces to capture the mayhem, but this backlot carnage is tame. With better-developed characters, it might at least seem harrowing, as several cast members find themselves in suspenseful predicaments: clinging atop a crumbling high-rise, stranded on anarchic streets, trapped in the lower levels of a crumbling building. But since it’s difficult to care, you’re just left to take in some pretty strange destruction that doesn’t even offer much grisliness for the audience to gape at. The closest it comes is a scene where an elevator crushes some people to death, but even then, literal cartoon blood splashes onto the screen, all but guaranteeing that you can’t take any of this seriously.

Which makes it really weird when Earthquake makes a brief, hard-left detour into genuine nastiness with Marjoe Gortner’s character. Introduced giving Principal a break in the checkout lane when she’s short a few dollars, he’s further built up as a sympathetic character when he drops everything at the store to assume his duties with the guard once the earthquake strikes. His decency only earns some undeserved heckling from a bunch of assholes who spit homophobic slurs at him, perhaps leading you to believe Earthquake might be a surprisingly progressive portrait of 70s gay panic.

Earthquake is not that, and it goes out of its way to obliterate the notion when Gortner goes absolutely apeshit in the aftermath of the disaster, terrorizing the streets by detaining looters at gunpoint, mowing down anyone who dares to cross him, and attempting to rape a girl in his custody. Maybe it’s just a power trip; maybe it’s just the actions of a man who snaps after enduring abuse. Either way, it feels like you’ve been dropped into the middle of some nutso exploitation movie, right down to the stunt casting of former child preacher Marjoe Gortner as a deranged soldier losing his mind in the middle of a crisis. I would watch that movie; when it’s smuggled into Earthquake like some loud, clanging, discordant note in an otherwise mannered symphony, it’s simply a reminder that hardly anything surrounding it is nearly as interesting. Just when you think Earthquake is content to be harmless nonsense, it springs this uncomfortably violent, scummy sidebar on you, and nothing else can keep up afterwards.

Again, maybe the rest of Earthquake is white knuckle stuff if you care about the characters; if you don’t, you’re just gawking at faux disaster footage or rubber-necking at some of the messy personal drama. That’s right: in a movie featuring a city-wide mass destruction, most of the “intrigue” centers on whether Charlton Heston will completely leave Ava Gardner in the dust for Genevičve Bujold. If nothing else, the answer to that question is surprisingly nihilistic; however, it also reminds you of the wasted potential on display here. If Earthquake had been more committed to its mean streak, it may have been more indelible; unfortunately, it's happy to remain a B-movie with an A-movie budget and all the harmlessness that entails.

The disc:

Even though Universal released Earthquake on Blu-ray back in 2013, Shout Factory decided that wasn’t enough, as it’s issued its own 2-disc edition as part of its Shout Selects line. The first disc features a new 2K scan of the original theatrical release cut, which is available with a 5.1 DTS-MA remix and the original 2.1 “Sensurround” track. All of the vintage supplements appear here as well, including a trailer, TV ads, radio spots, production stills, and audio interviews with Heston, Greene, and Roundtree.

Disc two, however, is the main attraction for Earthquake enthusiasts. For the first time on home video, the film’s extended television cut is made available here, giving fans a chance to watch a version of the movie that presumably hasn’t been seen since it used to air on AMC back when the channel was known as “American Movie Classics.” Featuring new footage shot specifically for its 2-night network premiere, this cut clocks in at 160 minutes. If you’ve seen Earthquake, you know that this is a lot of Earthquake. If you haven’t seen it, let me assure you this is a lot of Earthquake.

The mildly curious also have the option to simply watch the TV footage separately, plus there are a couple of more scenes that didn’t make it into the extended cut. This disc also features three newly produced supplements dedicated to Ben Burtt’s sound design, John Williams’s score, and Albert Whitlock’s matte artwork. As is often the case, Shout has produced the definitive release for this title, and it certainly renders the previous disc obsolete in terms of both supplements and presentation.

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