1974’s disaster film Earthquake certainly quaked theaters when it was released, perhaps not because of the plot itself so much as the smattering of popular actors who made appearances as well as the spectacular new Sensurround technology that literally shook viewers in their seats. Post-1974, the film made even more headlines by getting a 2-night television special with additional, director-unapproved footage to pad out the running time. Mark Robson’s film takes viewers on a dramatic ride through pre-and-post earthquake Los Angeles, which features a variety of different characters embroiled in their own lives who come together during the cataclysm; somewhat well-esteemed even now as part of the big disaster films of the era (this, The Towering Inferno, The Hindenburg), Earthquake‘s success can somewhat be chalked up to gimmick and nostalgia.
The film follows a number of different people, including a prominent engineer (Charlton Heston), his love affair (Genevieve Bujold), a suspended cop (George Kennedy), a motorcycle stuntman (Richard Roundtree), a grody grocery story manager (Marjoe Gortner), and more as they live out their tenuously connected lives in LA directly before the mother of all earthquakes hits, as predicted by an interning geologist (Kip Niven, RIP). Following those massive rumbles and seismic shifts, all of them either come together and create havoc trying to save the community from impending doom.
One thing that immediately stands out about Earthquake is John Williams’ score, which is sort of the saving grace of the film in its bumbling first hour – often poignant and suspenseful, he manages to give some depth to a plodding plot. Robson has so many actors and actresses to work with that the script immediately becomes unwieldy, devolving into a soap opera dissecting each character’s life like a 1000-page Stephen King novel. But Earthquake only has 2 hours to get through the detritus of its character arcs, and ultimately it can only focus on so many people in-depth while others seem to languish with no real point being a main player. (The TV version, which extends the running time to an egregious 2.5 hours, is even worse, adding a completely unnecessary plane scene with two more characters.)
Once the earthquake actually occurs, things pick up speed a little bit. The bass rumbles and the excellent matte artwork from Albert Whitlock add a lot of tension to these moments; those matte effects make the cityscape look decimated with realistic visual elements, probably the second most defining part of the movie. Still, Robson has a tendency to slow down after these scenes take place with mundane shifts, like a bunch of time spent watching people get lowered down with pantyhose in an office building stairwell or drilling through cement into a parking garage. What is meant to instill paranoia is really just extremely slowly paced, an unfortunate missed opportunity for the film since it has strong actors, a great crew, and the extremely visceral Sensurround effects (at least for theater-goers at the time).
I suspect a lot of the love for Earthquake comes from actually experiencing the thing either in cinemas or on television, because it certainly does not hold up to scrutiny as a great film. Still, as an important moment in film history, it’s worth at least one viewing (the theatrical film, not the bloated TV cut).
Earthquake makes an appearance in the Shout Select line of Blu-rays with a 2-disc set, with new 2k scan of the “original film elements” for both features. On the first disc is the theatrical cut, which is presented in original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with an excellent scan. This one really pops, with great contrast, texture and detail, and light-to-medium grain scale. Overall, this is an impressive transfer that seems to improve on past releases of the film. The second disc features the TV cut running half an hour longer and featuring the end credits of the first night as well as the recap feature played during the beginning of the second night. This 2k scan looks a lot more suspect, especially with its 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and whatever element this was taken from appears to have been in rough shape. Skin tones run more towards the pink side, contrast is not great; softness is prevalent in many scenes and appears inconsistent throughout. Damage is quite apparent including lines and flecks of damage. The theatrical cut is superior in every way, from quality to just plain being the better version of the film; while fans will likely be impressed Shout included both, I would expect most viewers to watch the theatrical cut only.
Audio differs between the two cuts as well. For the theatrical, Shout has included three different audio tracks. There’s the normal DTS-HD MA 2.0 track as well as a robust DTS-HD MA 5.1; attempting to mimic the Sensurround output is a DTS-HD MA 2.1 track as well. While it’s nice to have all three, the 5.1 seems to offer up the best in terms of overall sensory experience that theatergoers would have had with the Sensurround bass. I don’t think the 2.1 effectively translates that. English subtitles are also included. On the TV cut disc, Shout includes a DTS-HD MA mono track which, again, has its issues including some muffling, occasional dialogue volume drops, and far less intense rumbling effects. English subtitles for this one as well.
Extras are incredibly robust, with both discs containing bonus features. The theatrical cut mainly has old features including audio interviews with Heston, Greene, and Roundtree, a very poor theatrical trailer that has been stretched, TV spot, radio spots, still galleries including posters, lobby card, behind-the-scene photos, and deleted scene pictures. On the TV cut, Shout stores all of the new features. There’s a 16 minute featurette on scoring the film discussing John Williams’ work on the film including the decision not to score the earthquake scenes. A look at Albert Whitlock’s art gives some fascinating insight into matte paintings for the film, showing exactly how the matte was applied to the camera. Ben Burtt also discusses the Sensurround gimmick including info on how it was accomplished along with pictures of the speakers at various theaters where the film was shown.
The TV cut disc also contains a featurette of just the additional TV scenes if you only want to see those instead of watching the full film in 4:3, as well as a couple of deleted scenes that were in too poor of shape to include in the film.
A still from the film is on the other side of the Blu-ray artwork.
Earthquake is not the best disaster film of its time despite its storied history. But Shout! Factory has given the film impressive treatment on this set, with loads of extras and two different cuts of the film. While the TV cut is certainly rough and most people probably won’t even attempt to watch it, it’s nice to have that available. For fans of the film, and those interested in checking it out, this release hits high on the Richter scale.