Just another normal day,
Just keeping normal cares at bay,
But then to everyone’s dismay,
The ground begins to shake.
The rocks and hills begin to play,
The soundest structures start to sway,
Entire buildings fall away
Amid the sudden quake.
If you make it through the scare,
You wonder how your loved ones fare.
Do they live and how and where?
You worry more for them.
The worst disasters we must bear
At best encourage us to dare
To save the ones for whom we care,
Whom danger might condemn.
MPAA rating for Earthquake: PG
MPAA rating for San Andreas: PG-13
There’s something strangely entertaining about a disaster. Whether it be the dated survival tales of the 1970s or the modern effects-heavy world-wreckers, it seems clear that it’s not just the Joker who likes to watch the world burn. Of course, this doesn’t apply to real-life disasters. Films like The Impossible and World Trade Center are serious and painful reminders of tragedies, but others like San Andreas are enjoyed as popcorn fun simply because they’re not real. This seems like a puzzling dichotomy, but it’s no less true.
I thought I’d do a comparison of two similar films from different eras that exploit people’s fondness for destruction: 1974’s Earthquake and last year’s San Andreas. Both revolve around earthquakes blind-siding California and people’s struggles to survive. Both include experts who saw the quake coming but didn’t act fast enough, crumbling cityscapes, characters getting trapped in a parking garage, and a dam’s destruction and subsequent deluge (one at the beginning, one at the climax). While a few of the shaking scenes are even similar (both show a glimpse of a cook suffering at the hands of his stove), the two films are on entirely different levels. Earthquake was groundbreaking at the time and even won an uncontested Oscar for Best Visual Effects, but it seems quaint next to the comprehensive devastation of San Andreas, which is ironic since the quake in Earthquake is a 9.9 on the Richter scale while those in San Andreas only reach 9.6. (Yeah, only.)
I was curious to see Earthquake because of its tie-in to an episode of Quantum Leap, in which Sam leaps into a stuntman who features in a famous scene from this movie, complete with a clip showing Lorne Greene. It’s clear now as it surely was then that Earthquake is a gimmick film. Released at the height of the ‘70s disaster craze and the same year as The Towering Inferno, it seemed to be the result of producers saying to themselves, “Let’s see, we know of movies with a plane disaster, a ship disaster, a hurricane disaster, a fire disaster…What’s left? I know! An earthquake!” Plus, the film was accompanied by a new speaker system called Sensurround, which was meant to heighten the feeling of experiencing an earthquake and which was shorter-lived than the early 3-D craze. With so much effort put into accentuating the quake itself, everything else about the movie seems secondary, even though the actual shaking is relatively short.
Like other disaster films of the era, Earthquake is jam-packed with stars: Charlton Heston as a businessman unhappy with his marriage, Ava Gardner as his sullen wife, Genevieve Bujold as his lover, Lorne Greene as his boss, George Kennedy as a policeman, Richard Roundtree as a stuntman, Walter Matthau (under a pseudonym) as a drunk, and Marjoe Gortner as a psychopathic National Guardsman who uses the disaster for his own empowerment. And that’s not even half of the ensemble. It’s clear what the filmmakers were trying to do, focusing on a large swath of the population dealing with a huge disaster in different ways, yet only five or so characters really matter and even the film seems to forget about many secondaries by the end. Certain scenes are impressive for their time, and several are tense as characters try to escape the aftermath of the quake. I just wish that the cast and the narrative overall had been streamlined, perhaps with a less downbeat ending.
San Andreas, on the other hand, is everything a disaster movie should be, with all the unmitigated damage you could want. We see dams bursting, cars crashing, helicopters crashing, buildings toppled or chipped apart, and entire cities reduced to a flooded, smoking ruin, and it’s cool! Of course, it would be horrific if this actually happened (and I suppose it could), but it’s a feast for the eyes boasting an astronomical body count with no actual bodies. While I don’t really buy the causes for disasters like The Day after Tomorrow or 2012, an earthquake is more plausible and thus more alarming, though I was confused by the inclusion of a tsunami. (Seriously, wouldn’t a tsunami go out toward the sea and hit Hawaii instead of doubling back toward the source of the quake?)
Dwayne Johnson (whom everyone still calls the Rock) isn’t what most would consider a consummate actor, but he certainly knows how to play a tough, capable lead such as air rescue pilot Ray Gaines. Returning as his co-star from Race to Witch Mountain, Carla Gugino plays his soon-to-be ex-wife, whom Ray must save from certain death, along with their daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario of the Percy Jackson films). There’s also Paul Giamatti’s worried seismologist and Ioan Gruffudd’s architect/home-wrecker, whose character is tested by stress and easily written off as selfish. While there are still many minor players, Ray’s family is the focus, which proves to be far more entertaining than the scattered attention of Earthquake. Screenwriter Carlton Cuse gives just enough emotional baggage and stress-kindled romance to be relatable, while throwing in a few moments that seemed directly drawn from his experience with Lost.
Neither film is what I’d call great cinema, but as a disaster movie, San Andreas is easily the better movie and one of the more exciting entries in the genre. I enjoyed watching it a second time even more because I got to watch my easily excitable dad jump out of his seat with two dozen “OMG” moments. Watching the two films side-by-side did emphasize one of the differences between the old wave and the new wave of disaster movies. While the likes of The Poseidon Adventure and Earthquake weren’t afraid to kill off main roles and leave the audience sharing some grief with the characters, more recent films are more concerned with keeping the protagonists together and finding a silver lining. It’s hard to say which is a better method, but one thing is for sure: movies like San Andreas and Earthquake are why I will never move to California!
Best line from Earthquake (which ties in to my elevator list): (dam caretaker, when told things seem fine after an elevator incident) “Right. People drown in elevators every damn day of the week!”
Best line from San Andreas: (young Ollie, after getting Blake’s phone number for his older brother) “I can’t wait to be twenty.”
Rank for Earthquake: Honorable Mention
Rank for San Andreas: List Runner-Up
© 2016 S. G. Liput
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