Of the big-budget, all-star-cast disaster films of the 1970s, Earthquake probably holds up the worst and is remembered the least. Think of disaster and you think of bands of people forced by circumstance to work together in order to live, right? That’s the basic template of The Towering Inferno, Airport, and The Poseidon Adventure. But Earthquake, well, it’s different.
In the first place, the first 45 minutes of the 122-minute film is spent introducing us to a wide array of characters, all of them oh-so-tenuously connected. The connections can’t possibly matter; they’re just awkward segues from character to character. But we have a drunk pimp played by Walter Matthau, adding comic relief to a movie about the destruction of L.A.; Victoria Principal as a… I’m not sure what she is, but she has a giant ‘fro, as does the grocery store clerk who lends her money, is taunted as a homosexual for pinning bodybuilding photos to his walls by apartment mates, and turns out to be (surprise!) in the National Guard and psychotic. Not that those are mutually exclusive.
And there’s a daredevil rider who disappears pretty quickly in the post-quake cleanup and some seismologists who have nothing to do other than quarrel about how ominous their portents are. Then there’s Ava Gardner’s brittle Remy Royce-Graff (Gardner took the job because she wanted to spend the summer in L.A.), husband Stewart Graff (Charlton Heston), and his vaguely French love interest, Geneviève Bujold. We are supposed to care about these three (probably a bit more for the latter two than poor Remy Royce-Graff), but why? Remy is demanding and needy; Stewart is…well, he’s played by Charlton Heston, so good luck summoning sympathy; and Bujold’s single mom actress is pathetically one-dimensional. Forty-five minutes of achingly slow-paced character exposition cannot accomplish what 10 minutes of seeing how these men and women react in high-stress situations can.
Then…the quake hits. Oh goodness. They filmed the effects of a quake on an office building by filming the building in a mirror, and bending the mirror. And the result looks like exactly what you’d expect a waggling mirror to look like.
Then there is the elevator sequence. You would think that an elevator full of people trying to escape an office building during an earthquake would be ripe for tension, right? You would be wrong. After some screams and some synchronized leaping, the camera cuts very briefly to bodies lying on the elevator floor and then… wait. That can’t be right, can it? Do cartoon blood splatters actually appear over the image? Like a Tarantino joke?
There are just so many different plot threads that never add up to anything substantial. The film would have played better as a series of vignettes, rather than slopping on the melodrama the way it does. That’s the difference between Earthquake and all the rest of the A disaster movies: Earthquake is a melodrama set against the backdrop of a disaster; the rest are disasters that involve melodrama.