Pure junk that nonetheless provides abundant guilty pleasure, Earthquake was a pinnacle of sorts for the disaster-movie genre. Executive producer Jennings Lang was recruited by Universal Pictures to copy the formula that Poseidon Adventure mastermind Irwin Allen had perfected at rival studio 20th-Century Fox, so Lang commissioned a thrill-a-minute script (co-written by Mario Puzo) and hired a large ensemble of mid-level actors. The resulting movie, as produced and directed by fading studio-era helmer Mark Robson, is a cheesefest replete with bad acting, horrible clothes, and ridiculous storylines. However, since those are exactly the kitschy qualities that fans of the disaster genre dig, Earthquake became a major hit, earning nearly $80 million despite costing only $7 million. Therefore, Earthquake represents the disaster genre in full bloom.
While there’s not much point in discussing the actual plot—there’s a giant earthquake in L.A., in case you haven’t guessed—listing a few of the characters should give the flavor of the piece. Leading man Charlton Heston plays Stewart Graff, a businessman whose rich father-in-law, Sam Royce (Lorne Greene), offers him a company presidency in exchange for staying married to shrewish Remy Royce-Graff (Ava Gardner); meanwhile, Stewart is screwing around with a younger woman, Denise Marshall (Geneviève Bujold). Bullish police offer Lou Slade (George Kennedy, of course) spends most of the movie watching out for Rosa (Victoria Principal), a busty young woman who wears her hair in some sort of Latina Afro, because she’s mixed up with a motorcycle-riding daredevil (Richard Roundtree) and a psychotic stalker (Marjoe Gortner). Oh, and Walter Matthau plays a bizarre cameo as a drunk dressed in head-to-toe polyester, complete with a flaming-red pimp hat.
Virtually every melodramatic cliché from ’70s cinema is represented somewhere in Earthquake, which treats seismic activity as a cosmic metaphor for the uncertainty of life. And by “metaphor,” I really mean “narrative contrivance,” because the script for Earthquake exists far below the level of literary aspiration; this movie’s idea of storytelling is stirring up trite conflict before adding tremors that kill people in exciting ways. However, some of the big-budget effects scenes are enjoyable in a tacky sort of way, and the histrionic nature of Heston’s and Kennedy’s acting keeps their scenes jacked up to an appropriately goofy level of intensity. Plus, during its most outrageous scenes—picture Roundtree performing Evel Knievel-style motorcycle stunts as Principal cheers him while wearing an undersized T-shirt that displays his logo across her ample bosom—Earthquake embraces its low nature by providing shameless distraction.