A Disaster Movie which is nearly a Disaster
The 70s were a disaster, or at least they were the era of the disaster movie with the likes of "The Poseidon Adventure" and "The Towering Inferno" being a couple of the more notable disaster movies. Unfortunately there were some less notable disaster movies, one of which despite featuring a cast that included Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner and George Kennedy amongst others was the sadly disappointing "Earthquake", a movie which struggled to deliver the drama and tension of its more notable counterparts.
Following a minor tremor a junior seismologist predicts that a major earthquake is about to hit Los Angeles, but his words fall on death ears until it's too late. When the earthquake hits LA becomes a crumbling ruin with bodies strewn amongst the destroyed buildings but architect Stuart Graff (Charlton Heston - The Three Musketeers) manages to survive and along with cantankerous police Sergeant Lew Slade (George Kennedy - Cahill) set about rescuing who ever they can including their nearest and dearest. But with the nearby dam about to break it may be that their rescue missions may end up more dangerous than ever.
One of the first things which is made very clear is that "Earthquake" is a movie which runs through the disaster movie playbook as it spends almost the first half of the movie introducing us to all the pivotal characters whilst also forewarning us of the major disaster which will follow. It's routine stuff when you've watched a few disaster movies and it has to be said that it all feels rather heavy handed, too obvious in setting up the different scenarios and as such struggles to make us warm to those who we are supposed to champion when the disaster happens. It's just not natural and it's one of the major issues which cause "Earthquake" to feel inferior to so many other disaster movies.
What also doesn't help matters is that "Earthquake" is all spread out; we have one group of people here, another there and so on. The knock on effect is that when the disaster strikes it is forced to go all over the place as we pick up on each of the different set ups whilst it tries to link them spuriously together. And that means a key element of a good disaster movie, the danger of being confined in one place is all but lost. It's not until things finally centre on a single location that it really manages to build that sense of tension and danger.
And as you would expect "Earthquake" has various sub plots which keep on reoccurring such as a romance. In fact the romance subplot between Stewart and a young widow called Denise isn't that bad even if it is flimsy, it adds a nice climax where Stewart is forced into making a decision as to who he truly loves. But then you get a sub plot about a shop worker who is a member of the National Guard and basically loses it whilst taking someone hostage and killing others who he dislikes, it's a daft distraction which adds nothing of real importance to the storyline.
The good news is that whilst "Earthquake" is routine and inferior to many other disaster movies it does have some great action sequences. Buildings collapsing, a dam cracking, explosions, falling electricity cables they all add nice scenes of decent drama and director Mark Robson makes the most of these moments to inject some excitement and energy into a movie which at times seems devoid of it. Considering the age, some of the special effects are still quite spectacular although there are some which look incredibly tacky.
But where "Earthquake" really suffers is a mixture of poor acting and poorer characters. It's just impossible to warm to those who are meant to be are heroes and although Charlton Heston, George Kennedy and Lorne Greene do their best it's just not enough thanks to their weak and mixed up characters. The damsels in distress are not much better with Genevieve Bujold being lovely but unbelievable as Denise and Victoria Principal ending up more amusing than anything as Rosa with her skin tight t-shirt and afro, yes Victoria Principal with an afro.
As for Ava Gardner well she ends up just plainly underused as is the case of Richard Roundtree who I hate to say this is the token black man, something which was often the case in these sorts of 70s disaster movies. Amusingly the best performance comes from Walter Matthau who gets less than a couple of minutes of screen time but is great fun as the drunk who is totally oblivious to the earthquake going on.
What this all boils down to is that when you think of great 70s disaster movies "Earthquake" sadly doesn't figure. It suffers from not only being routine but also for not being dramatic enough thanks to it being spread out rather than focused on one location. The weak characters and superfluous sub plots don't help but there are some really nice action sequences, just not enough to make it really memorable.