Judge Dennis Prince excitedly proclaims, "Sensurround is back!"
Following the unexpected success of Irwin Allen's The Poseidon Adventure in 1972, major studios scrambled to deliver their various takes on "when bad things happen to aging Hollywood stars." Although Allen's ocean liner odyssey was clearly targeted, plotwise, at kids (as professed by director Ronald Neame), Allen shrewdly cast recognizable stars of yesterday that would draw in adults, too. The result: an "ensemble cast" tasked with enduring harrowing situations and frequently falling to an untimely demise. Interestingly enough, the disaster genre gave birth to a twist on the happy ending: some of your favorite characters are gonna die in this film; can you guess which ones?
Not to be outdone, Universal Pictures quickly dusted off its 1969 drama/disaster one-off, Airport, and launched the unsteady sequel, Airport '75, in October 1974, piloted by an ensemble cast of its own led by Charlton Heston. The very next month, here came Universal—and Heston—again with a new disaster entry, Earthquake, only this time, the audience was enlisted to endure the proceedings, too.
Facts of the Case
When a young seismology intern's prediction of a 7.5 earthquake goes unheeded by his superiors, the citizens of Los Angeles are wholly unprepared when the ultimate disaster strikes. With the city in ruins, top architect Stuart Graff (Charlton Heston, Soylent Green) mounts a search for his insufferable wife, Remy (Ava Gardner, The Sentinel), and the extramarital jewel of his eye, Denise (Genevieve Bujold, Obsession). Graff and his go-anywhere Chevy Blazer are quickly commandeered by cantankerous police sergeant Lew Slade (George Kennedy, Airport) who, despite falling from grace with the LAPD, seeks to help the injured and rescue the titillating Rosa (Victoria Principal, Dallas) from a vengeful National Guard trooper (Marjoe Gortner, Starcrash). Amid the rubble and ruined lives, Graff and Slade attempt a number of harrowing rescues as the city literally crumbles around them.
…and the audience is shaking, too.
Earthquake is disaster fare—a steady and calculated serving of destruction and despair that never deviates from the template it employs. After Irwin Allen got rich delivering high melodrama and mock heroics amid an onslaught of jagged set pieces, imitators were certainly hesitant to deviate from this proven path to profits. Therefore, each subsequent disaster picture (even Allen's own) would unfold as follows: 1) The characters are introduced in their various personal dramas and dilemmas; 2) the characters are assembled in a common location to set the scene for disaster; 3) the disaster strikes; 4) a handful of these characters—usually driven by an alpha leader—set off to survive; 5) one or two or more of the characters will die, sometimes just an arm's length from safety; 6) the lucky few are rescued as the credits roll.
OK. With that said, it would appear there's plenty of disdain on display here for the 70s disaster picture. Actually not. The genre was compelling in its day and has continued to survive in one form or another, year after year. Irwin Allen was quite ingenious with The Poseidon Adventure, thrusting audiences into a rapid-fire succession of adversities that befall the characters. While it was often hackneyed in approach, frequently bereft of logic, and chock full of martyrdom at the hands of Gene Hackman's Reverend Scott, audiences nonetheless lapped it up as escapist adventure, literally. The Towering Inferno, Allen's even bigger disaster epic, firmly established him as the gloating "Master of Disaster." Who would dare challenge his supremacy?
Jennings Lang would.
A leading agent in Hollywood during the 1950's, Lang joined MCA-TV and ultimately ascended to the Board of Directors. During the late 50s and early 60s, Lang proceeded to develop and produce a number of TV series (including Wagon Train and McHale's Navy) as well as many made-for-TV movies. It was his production company, Jennings Lang Presentations, that delivered big-screen features like Play Misty for Me and Pete 'n Tillie. As far back as 1971, Lang had been developing the idea for Earthquake and enlisted the writing talents of Mario Puzo to formulate a first script. Puzo would later get busy working on the Godfather II follow up, causing Lang to employ George Fox to continue on with the project. Fox would ultimately prepare an additional ten drafts before a final shooting script was delivered (with the looming caveat that leading man Charlton Heston would have final approval—and he insisted on a big change to the film's conclusion; can you guess what it was?).
While developing the premise of the story, Lang also envisioned a system that could actually deliver the jarring sensation of being in an earthquake, a move arguably taken from the William Castle playbook. Having been told that rigging hydraulics under moviegoer's seats was out of the question, he turned to audio technology and the result was "Sensurround." Employing a sub-sonic frequency emitted by giant speakers installed at the back of auditoriums, Lang delivered a near-genuine experience that most certainly had Castle glowing green with envy. And, pulling another ploy from Castle's bag of tricks, Earthquake opened with vibrant disclaimer notices posted on theater standees proclaiming the experience could be too taxing for persons with certain medical conditions. Bravo!
Earthquake opened on November 14, 1974 and was a smash hit. Directed by Mark Robson and heralding the arrival of the newest movie-experience sensation, audiences flocked to theaters and were treated to a truly eventful show. (Note: this reviewer was in tow at the original 1974 opening of the film and the Sensurround effect was quite impressive.) Lang had delivered mightily and had nearly beat Allen at his own game. Earthquake earned $79.7 million domestically (which works out to about $238.8 million at today's prices) and offered audiences yet another white-knuckle experience in drama-soaked disaster. Although a script was in the works for Earthquake II, a sequel never materialized. The Sensurround effect, however, was applied to subsequent Lang-produced pictures Midway and Rollercoaster.
But when you take away the gimmick, is there much to gain from a viewing of Earthquake? Guardedly, yes. That is, as previously mentioned, this picture adheres to the disaster picture recipe so you'll see plenty of personal stories intertwined, uncomfortable romances, dreams unfulfilled, and a new appreciation for life in the final frames. These pictures aren't intended to enlighten; they're intended to entertain. Before the days of CGI-laden effects extravaganzas, this was the "eye candy" of the day and it was (and should continue to be) appreciated as such. The chisel-jawed Heston is a man's man and tosses personal safety aside in deference to rescuing others. George Kennedy's apathetic cop becomes the epitome of compassion and caring when he rescues the embattled Rosa. Additional derring-do is provided by the likes of Lorne Greene (Battlestar Galactica) and Richard Roundtree (Shaft). The usual pontificating stiffs are also on board, portrayed by recognizable names like Barry Sullivan, Lloyd Nolan, and Kip Niven. Perhaps the most compelling of the characters is that of Jody, the National Guardsman played to manic perfection by B-movie legend Marjoe Gortner. Oh, and look for the extended cameo by Walter Matthau as a bar drunk (credited as Walter Matuschanskayasky). Again, the story is cook-book variety in which the lead characters endure obstacle after obstacle and some of your favorites may not survive before the story's over, but that's what disaster pics are all about. Taken lightly, the film works well and can still be considered entertaining some three decades later. Is it a candidate for revisiting, a la 2006's Poseidon? Only time will tell.
Looking to exploit the theatrical release of Wolfgang Petersen's embattled ocean liner redux, Universal has quickly issued this new Earthquake disc. It sports a newly remastered transfer, anamorphically enhanced for 16:9 displays. The quality is definitely superior to the loathsome Goodtimes Video release from years back. The image is quite detailed and makes good use of a very clean source print. There is considerable grain evident, however (more noticeable on HD displays), and that detracts from overall experience to some degree. The colors are faithfully rendered in an intentionally muted palette. The audio is where the real fun begins, though. Fittingly, this issue sports a newly mastered Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix that is well balanced with a reasonable amount of directional effects having been elicited from the original two-channel audio track. Also available is a first-ever release of the original 3.1 Sensurround track that delivers a reasonably faithful recreation of the two-channel mix with the additional LFE track to coax your sub-woofer to scuttle across the floor. The track is nice if a bit constrained in the front channels. The low-end signal will really exercise your sub-woofer, but be sure to turn up the gain to get more of the wall-buzzing effect. (Incidentally, if you prefer a better-balanced mix overall, stick to the 5.1 track that also delivers some booming good fun as well.)
After delighting fans with the Sensurround track, Universal really drops them from the crumbled skyline by offering no extra features whatsoever. No featurettes. No commentaries. Not even an original Sensurround trailer. Here, Universal clearly opted for a bargain-priced offering as opposed to appropriately celebrating one of its better-known 70s extravaganzas. This would be surely disconcerting to the late Jennings Lang as Irwin Allen once again wins out, even post mortem—both The Poseidon Adventure andThe Towering Inferno have been re-released in stellar two-disc special editions, concurrent to this re-release of Earthquake. Sadly, this disc's final judgment numbers are necessarily lessened by the absence of bonus material.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you dislike disaster films and all the contrived events that constitute their makeup, you surely won't like Earthquake. Interestingly enough, the disaster wave of the 70s prompted audiences to study the list of ensemble actors and try to pick out who would die and how they might be dispatched, much like the current trend of slash-and-kill films where today's audiences try to do the same.
Earthquake is a raucous affair that dispenses with subtlety and even sensibility amid the collapse and confusion of a disintegrating L.A. landscape. Enjoy it for what it is and you might find a bit of entertainment for your trouble. This picture is easily a candidate for the current remake trend (depending upon the results of Poseidon) and it's more than conceivable that Sensurround could make a big comeback.
Hang on to your seats, folks!
The cast and crew of Earthquake are to be commended for stepping up to the challenge here, delivering overpowered performances while being overpowered by one of nature's greatest and most unpredictable forces. The team at Universal, however, is hereby charged with looting for releasing this bare-bones disc to a fan base that clearly deserves more.
(Note: Some of the information presented in this review was gleaned from George Fox's 1974 pocketbook, Earthquake: The Story of a Movie. Check your favorite used-book venue for a copy; it's a light and enjoyable read.)
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