U.S.A. | 1974
Directed by Mark Robson
Charlton Heston
Ava Gardner
George Kennedy
| 123 Minutes | PG
Format: DVD (R1 - NTSC)
Universal Home Video
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Review by
Brian Lindsey
    4   10 = Highest Rating  
Back when Gerald Ford was president, Charlton Heston ruled the box-office.
    The autumn of '74 saw the release of Airport 1975 and Earthquake within a month of each other, both produced at Universal and both headlined by Heston. Hollywood was in the grip of "Disaster" mania, as the spectacular success of Irwin Allen's The Poseidon Adventure (1972) opened the floodgates for copycats. Universal producer Jennings Lang surfed this wave with expert timing. Airport 1975 proved a hit; Earthquake, with its elaborate (for the day) special visual effects and the added gimmick of "Sensurround", became a mega-blockbuster, earning what in today's dollars would be almost $300 Million.
    Watching Earthquake is to see the '70s Disaster movie formula played out to the letter, note for note. Now there's nothing wrong with "formula" per se... Heck, I absolutely love old pulp novels and James Bond flicks, and you can't get more formulaic than that. But the formula for Disaster films a disparate group of people are caught up in a catastrophe (either natural or man-made), some of whom will not survive almost always wears out its welcome long before the disaster even strikes. It's the setup that bogs these pics down, mired in the routine soap opera dramatics of generic, cardboard characters who, for the most part, you just wanna see die.
    The lives of various Los Angeles residents intersect on the day the city is struck by a quake of unprecedented magnitude. These include construction engineer/ex-N.F.L. star Stuart Graff (Heston) and his shrewish, manipulative wife (Ava Gardner); Graff's younger mistress (Geneviève Bujold), a single mother and aspiring actress; Graff's boss and father-in-law (Bonanza's Lorne Greene); a veteran beat cop named Slade (the great character actor George Kennedy, "Joe Patroni" in all those Airport films); a motorcycle daredevil (Richard Roundtree) and his entourage (Gabriel Dell, the young 'n' busty Victoria Principal); a psychotic grocery store clerk who's a weekend warrior with the National Guard (Marjoe Gortner of The Food of the Gods, in a manic performance); and a hammered, flamboyantly dressed barfly (Walter Matthau, billed as "Walter Matuschanskayasky"). Meanwhile, a team of university seismologists headed by Barry Sullivan (Planet of the Vampires) ponders potentially ominous warning signs, as do the maintenance men at the L.A. dam.
    It isn't until 52 very long minutes into the film that the monster quake occurs. The scenes of destruction and mayhem hold up generally well compared to today's digital stuff, employing some great miniatures and matte paintings. (A few of the death scenes are laughably cheesy, however, as when an otherwise effectively scary moment showing an elevator car full of people plunging to their deaths is capped by spraying the screen with cartoon blood.) This first major effects set-piece lasts exactly 8 minutes and 28 seconds. Then we're back to the stale soap opera (until the big aftershock and watery climax). Eventually the various storylines converge for the final act, when Graff and Slade team up to lead a dangerous rescue mission... 70 people are trapped in the basement of a heavily damaged aid center; at any moment what's left of the building could collapse. Among those trapped below are both Graff's wife and mistress. (Naturally.) And, oh yeah the dam is about to burst in the San Fernando hills above.
    Not aided by Mark Robson's thoroughly pedestrian direction, Earthquake's contrived characters and script can't help but ring false. Significant as these elements are, however, they aren't the only things that fail to pass the smell test. Greene is supposed to be Gardner's father but looks young enough to be her (slightly) older brother. (I guess Henry Fonda wasn't available.) And when compared to recent real-life calamities around the globe, the rapidity with which the authorities spring into action with relief/rescue operations in this film comes off as total fantasy. Within mere hours of the first major quake which leaves Los Angeles utterly devastated, looking as if hit by an atomic bomb city officials have orderly, efficient emergency centers set up, treating the injured and supplying hot coffee and sandwiches, while National Guard troops roll into the streets. (FEMA should've reassembled the Earthquake production team to handle the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.)
    The TV soap-quality characters and dialog (some of it unintentionally funny) do more damage to this movie as a viable drama than the fictional "Big One" it depicts does to southern California.* The film would've been much better, I think, had Kennedy's cop been the tent-pole character instead of Heston's engineer. As played by Kennedy, Officer Slade is the most likable "everyman" in the cast, and with the added responsibility of being a "first-responder" not just surviving his is the most interesting plot thread.
    Charlton Heston may be heading what is ostensibly an ensemble drama but he naturally dominates the proceedings. He even gets to tool around in a prototype SUV, a badass Chevy Blazer with 11 gears, 8 forward and 3 reverse. (Cruising L.A. with his aviator shades on, I almost expected him to pull over to the curb, whip out a machine gun and start blasting black-robed mutants.) A larger-than-life figure who in his heyday could swagger while sitting down, Heston may be in the cockpit here but does a lot of the flying on autopilot, merely going through the motions. He's seemingly quite aware of what a dog the script is even though he had final approval and maybe a bit chagrined that he's not the real star of the show... the special effects are. (Once he did Midway and Two-Minute Warning Heston's days as an A-List leading man were effectively over; he'd spanned the three major phases of his career biblical/historical epics, dystopian sci-fi, and Disaster pics in less than than 20 years.) Never fear, though; Heston does get the opportunity to use his signature "Oh... my... God" line. Nobody can invoke the Almighty with stress-wracked gravitas like the Chuckster.
* Trivia Note: Additional footage was later shot for a two-part TV broadcast in the late '70s, which expanded the Gortner-Principal subplot and added even more extraneous characters (in a jetliner trying to land at LAX). This version fortunately not included on the DVD is even more of a chore to sit through.

The Universal disc (released this past May) offers a somewhat grainy but otherwise sterling 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that's significantly superior to the long-out of print GoodTimes DVD. Given that this new edition presents Earthquake in its proper aspect ratio and is virtually pristine, it's safe to conclude that the film hasn't looked this good since its theatrical debut some 32 years ago. As for sound, you can go with either a terrific new 5.1 mix (recommended) or original Sensurround, which will require you to adjust your subwoofer to get the optimum low frequency effect.
    So the disc looks and sounds great, and at $13 or so online (a buck or two cheaper at some retail stores) is decently priced... Why, then, my DVD rating of "4"? No extras, that why not even a trailer. Earthquake was one of the biggest hits in the history of Universal Studios and they didn't bother to supply the barest minimum of extras. (The disc even lacks a chapter menu.) Ridiculous!