When a movie is called Earthquake, you might be forgiven for assuming that a considerable proportion of the movie will be spent dealing with either an earthquake and/or its aftermath. But, no, you have to wait fully one whole hour before there’s an earthquake in Earthquake.
When it arrives, it really isn’t worth waiting for. There are about five minutes of shaky camera shots on a par with an episode of Star Trek: The Original Series. Some bit part actors are asked to fall over unconvincingly in front of LAX. A very nicely painted matte picture gets set on fire. Some cardboard miniatures of buildings are seen to fall down. Some more shaky-camera shots of people throwing themselves from side-to-side. There’s a scene featuring blood spatter which is obviously light red paint being thrown at the camera. And you’re watching it, thinking, ‘This film won an Oscar for special effects?’ It did. You just have to wait until about 10mins from the end to see why. Everything that comes before it will underwhelm.
We spend the first hour of the film getting to know the backstory of a bunch of characters about whom it is very hard to care. Engineer Stewart Graff (Heston) is in a loveless marriage with Remy (Gardner), an emotionally manipulative and attention-seeking drunk. He is therefore having an affair with a colleague’s widow (Bujold, who’s 20+ years his junior in real life and looks even younger here). It’s possible that Remy has become an emotionally manipulative, attention-seeking drunk because she knows that Stewart only stays married to her so he can keep his job with her very rich construction mogul father (Greene, who was only 7 years older than Gardner—I hope you’re keeping up).
Bujold’s neighbour is grizzled cop, Lou Slade (Kennedy, who is in almost every 1970s disaster movie), and Lou is responsible for the three blocks of the Universal backlot on which most of the movie is shot (you will recognise it from every other pre-1980s Universal film set in a city). On his rounds, Lou comes across Rosa Amici (Principal, with a mesmerising Jackie Brown hairdo) who’s been sexually harassed by racist, sexist store manager and National Guardsman, Jody (Gortner). There are hints throughout that Lou has designs on Rosa himself (Kennedy was 49 and Principal only 24). Rounding off the main cast is Rosa’s brother, Sal (Gabriel Dell) and his Evel Knieval-style stunt riding partner, Miles (Roundtree). Oh, and Denise has a kid, whom Miles and Sal help rescue at some point.
These are just the main characters. We meet even more people we couldn’t care less about after the earthquake, but at least the second half of the film is considerably more interesting than the first. Confined to two main sets, an underground parking garage and that Universal street you recognise from film and TV, the tone shifts from soapy melodrama to dystopia. Having spent the first hour showing us an extended group of characters going about their regular day, it then shows us what these regular people do when devastation strikes and the norms of society break down. And that’s not pretty at all.
Jody (Gortner) becomes the main antagonist. As a National Guardsman, he takes over the above-ground backlot and begins a campaign of looting, shooting and sexual harassment of Principal’s Rosa. He’s also shown to have posters of male bodybuilders on the walls of his apartment, and it’s unclear whether the film is trying to code him as sexually confused or suffering from Small Man Syndrome. This is illustrative of the film’s main issue, that despite spending a long time with these people, it still feels like we don’t really know them at all.
With similar running times, Airport, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno all did a much better and more efficient job of establishing their huge casts and they managed to give us reasons to pull for them to make it through or want them to be casualties. Apparently, half an hour was cut from Earthquake by studio execs, much of it at the expense of character and plot development, and it shows.
Just as the film is winding down towards its end, the Mulholland Dam gives out, and that’s where the Oscar gets won. It’s incredibly impressive and injects a genuine sense of approaching peril into the proceedings, which had been notably lacking.
As is often the case, Walther Matthau is the best thing about the film, cameoing under an assumed name, Walter Matuschanskayasky, as an outlandishly dressed drunk who sleeps through the whole thing.
Later, there was an additional 40 minutes of footage shot to turn this into a two-night mini-series for US TV with even more new characters, but thankfully they’re not in the film version.