My fascination with the seventies disaster film continues: Earthquake (1974) is yet another in a long line of big, dumb survival adventures that throws styrofoam bricks at an all-star cast, in service to thin plots and mildly cautionary themes. Is it weird I find this genre strangely comforting? Somehow these old disaster flicks feel refreshingly quaint, an entertaining break from the imminent existential crises afflicting us today. (Ah, cheerful thoughts for a weekend afternoon…)
Hollywood’s craggiest hero, Charlton Heston, is Stewart Graff, an ex-football player who now makes his living as an architect in Los Angeles. Stewart’s rocky marriage to Remy (Ava Gardner) is on its last legs, complicated by the fact that he works for Remy’s father Sam (Lorne Greene) and is fighting an inappropriate attraction to Denise (Geneviève Bujold), the young widow of a former colleague. As it happens, the collapse of Stewart’s marriage is about to to coincide with the collapse of LA itself—an apocalypse-in-stages that begins with minor temblors before escalating to a major earthquake and a number of serious aftershocks that leave the city in ruins.
Like most of these affairs, Earthquake is best viewed in ironic hindsight, full of silly moments, disposable (literally) characters, and at least one comically bad special effect. (Wait until you see that elevator crash.) It does possess legitimate assets: namely, impressive destruction setpieces and visual effects which gradually transform sunny SoCal into a demolished hellscape. Come for the spectacle, stay for the…problematic subtexts? As Stefan might say, this one has it all: sexism, misogyny, homophobia, age-inappropriate adultery, even a cringey subplot involving sexual assault. Just when you think it can’t be more seventies, the cherry on top is an Evil Knievel-like motorcycle stuntman named Miles Quade (Richard Roundtree) whose presence fails the “promise of the premise” test by rushing through his setpiece adventure when the Mulholland Dam finally breaks. No, there isn’t much surprise to Earthquake, from the obligatory George Kennedy appearance to its inevitable ending, which hammers home the tragic pointlessness of its catastrophe. All in all, Earthquake is an objectively bad film I couldn’t, for some mysterious reason, take my eyes off. Perhaps I simply enjoy seeing the seventies—the grubby, ugly decade into which I was born—get systematically demolished onscreen, along with all the toxicity that came with it.