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  Directed by
  Starring
  Specs
  • Widescreen 2.35:1
  • 16:9 Enhanced
  • Dual Layer (RSDL 42.08)
  Languages
  • English: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  Subtitles
    Czech, Greek, Hungarian, Arabic, English - Hearing Impaired, Turkish, Romanian
  Extras
  • Theatrical trailer

Earthquake

Universal/Universal . R4 . COLOR . 117 mins . PG . PAL

  Feature
Contract

The disaster movie genre is often directly associated with the Hollywood of the early 1970s, though in reality the mounting of big spectacle-laden fiction for movie cameras is as old an idea as movies themselves. But for a while it seemed that every natural threat to peoples’ daily lives was prime fodder for a disaster flick. Fire, killer bees, the perils of the ocean and the air, it didn’t matter what - it was almost guaranteed success as long as you stacked the cast with household-name celebrities, chucked in a gimmick or two and made sure that you blew a lot of stuff up, wreaked havoc upon everyday objects, killed a few sympathetic characters at random and did your best to make the celebrities wet and muddy by the end of proceedings. Then you’d give it a title that was a noun. No, none of this namby-pamby artsy-fartsy title rubbish - this is a disaster movie, and damn it, the disaster is the star, not these washed-up celebrities. Movie’s about a skyscraper on fire? The Towering Inferno. A swarm of killer bees? The Swarm. Death on a rollercoaster? Duh, Rollercoaster. When it came time for producer-director Mark Robson to think of titles for his big-scale disaster flick about an earthquake, then, you can be pretty sure they didn’t waste time mulling over whether it should be called To Richter With Love or Did The Earth Move For You Too? Nope. The movie’s about an earthquake. Let’s move on.

Armed with a one-word title and a plan to destroy Los Angeles and kill off most of its population within two hours of screen time (and don’t think this isn’t still done - look at Volcano, for example) the undoubtedly excited Robson hires a pair of writers to deliver a script that’ll paint some characters we give a vague toss about and then mercilessly sacrifices them to the clutches of the vicious earth. One of the writers is first-timer George Fox (who would never write another screenplay). The other was Mario Puzo, who at the time was riding high on the acclaim he’d scored from The Godfather. And after Earthquake, it’s a miracle Puzo ever worked in that town again. So far beyond the status of “turkey” that it’s not even suitable as cold cuts for the next day’s sandwiches, this screenplay is laden with pithy dialogue that’s so impossibly over the top it sounds for all the world like a parody. But these people are serious.

“Of course I’ll induce vomiting - I know the rules by now,” yells Charlton Heston, shaking a drunken Ava Gardner like a rag doll in a futile attempt to de-drunk her for the hundredth time. Immediately, the earth shakes ominously. Charlton yells at Ava again. The earth rumbles back. Nobody seems to notice that if only Charlton would shut the hell up, Los Angeles would be safe. Meanwhile, over at The Giant Dam (there’s always a giant dam in earthquake movies) the two on-duty engineers notice the earth rumbling menacingly. “That’s a solid concrete dam,” says one of the pair confidently, obviously relieved it’s not one of those new-fangled plastic ones. His companion, who isn’t Cliff Clavin from Cheers despite appearances to the contrary, offers to go check the dam’s structural integrity. He takes a peek over the side, and declares it to be okay. Later, the dam is inspected to a depth of 85 feet by a man wearing only a snorkel. Once again, it is declared to be in perfect condition. Doom for the citizens of LA never seemed so palpable.

But there’s more - after all, this is a big-scale disaster movie, and the audience demands satisfaction! Therefore we get a rear-projection police chase complete with the obligatory Lady Crossing The Road With A Pram Who Just Gets Out Of The Way In Time, a man who drowns in a lift and completely forgets that saving himself was simply a matter of pressing the “up” button, a French starlet who sleeps with Charlton without actually taking her clothes off, a junior scientist who can predict earthquakes with alarming accuracy that nobody will listen to, some mysterious Hare Krishna product placement... and that’s just the first fifteen minutes. Later on, you’ll be greeted with the worst special effect ever in the history of cinema - an elevator full of people crashes to the ground, and their demise is represented by red splotches painted directly onto the film frame, presumably representing blood on the camera lens without anyone having to go digging around for the tomato sauce.

And then of course there’s the quake itself. It’s a full 50 minutes of long, long exposition and “drama” before the “big one” finally hits, and when it does it lasts for a remarkable eight minutes. During that time, while your ears and body parts are pummelled by the wonders of Sensurround (see the audio section below), the visual devastation of a city-destroying earthquake is put on the screen by spending as little money as possible. The cameraman twists his anamorphic lens in its mount to produce lateral distortion of buildings, ‘cos we know well from science that when a big quake hits, buildings go all diagonal and the city turns into the set of a Tim Burton movie. Naturally, that’s not going to sell an earthquake to the audience by itself, big audio or not, so the cameraman also shakes his camera up and down and back and forth while the actors do their best impersonations of trying to stay standing on a Melbourne tram during peak hour. To help them in their quest for realism, the crew drops large foam objects on the cast from above, allowing them to fall over theatrically and hopefully get rescued by an increasingly invisible Charlton Heston, whose performance we’re doomed to remember even if he can’t. Balsa-wood bridges collapse and cardboard buildings fall, people plummet off stairways headlong into hastily-prepared matte paintings, “oh my GAAAAAWD!!” rings out from all directions in true disaster-flick fashion, and finally the whole thing’s wrapped up in style when a man is spotted running out of his house with a freshly-lit cigarette in his mouth. “Turn off the gas!!” screams a bystander to him, and the man runs back into the house to do just that, taking a big long drag on his last cigarette as he promptly blows his entire house up. This, however, stops the quake, which just goes to show that smoking CAN save lives.

Made almost solely as an excuse to fire up the funky new sound technology that MCA had developed, Earthquake suffers from the same problems that many 3D movies did - namely, it’s a bunch of showcase sequences hastily wrapped up in a token storyline in order to justify its presence in movie theatres rather than at an amusement park. As cinema, it’s absolute crap; as a bit of harmless bad-movie fun it’s probably more useful. It’s nearly 30 years old, and we can safely say they don’t make ‘em like this anymore. Thankfully.

  Video
Contract

Earthquake was released on DVD in region 1 by Universal’s dodgily-named “nostalgia” label Good Times Video a few years ago, and reports about that disc talk of a fairly underwhelming letterboxed 4:3 transfer. So it’s with some surprise that firing up this disc revealed a crystal-clear, scratch-free and decidedly hi-def-looking 2.35:1 16:9 transfer that delivers the Panavision image with terrific definition and richness. Like many contemporary movies from this era, the colour palette is muted, but that’s how the movie’s supposed to look; strong colour, where it does appear, is rendered perfectly. Sharpness is excellent, with no problematic edge enhancement visible, though we’d guess some has been applied.

The main issue here is the MPEG encoding. The movie’s been given an unusually high bitrate and split across a dual-layered disc (the layer change, midway through a scene, is oddly placed but inoffensive) but in common with some other recent discs that WAMO has actually done the video encoding on (most recently, the IMAX discs we reviewed), there’s a clearly discernable encoding error that keeps cropping up, manifesting itself as a kind of “break-up” of the picture, usually on static objects in an otherwise moving scene (for a good example of this, look at the end credit text). It does get very noticeable, and mars what’s otherwise an excellent transfer; this shouldn’t happen at a bitrate this high, and never used to happen on WAMO-authored titles - indeed, we’ve long considered this company to be at the forefront of video encoding quality.

Interestingly, the first layer is encoded at a substantially higher bitrate than the (much longer) second layer, despite almost all of the on-screen action and movement happening in that second part of the film.

  Audio
Contract

The first film to be lavished with audio in MCA’s wondrous-at-the-time Sensurround process, Earthquake scored an Oscar for its sound and another one for the gimmick itself, which at the time was obviously seen as being important. Eventually only used on a handful of films (the second-last of them, Battlestar Galactica, is available on DVD with its Sensurround track included), the process was wonderfully simple. A bank of really, really big subwoofers was mounted at the front of the cinema, and a control box in the projection booth fed those speakers a low-frequency rumble at the required time - which of course, in the case of this movie, is during the quake sequences as well as a rushing-water sequence at the end.

It sounds a bit lame now in this age of Dolby Digital and stomach-punching bass in your lounge room, but believe us, Sensurround worked as advertised; this was serious bass. In Melbourne, the only cinema equipped to screen Sensurround movies was the East End Cinema in Bourke Street (long demolished); even though the theatre itself was underground, the foyer walls shook every time a bass burst hit, accompanied by the expected “ooh” and “ahh” responses and nervous looks between those waiting for the next session. Films in Sensurround were preceded by a mock-serious warning trailer, cautioning the pregnant and those with heart disease; if you were sitting in the front row you were in serious danger of having your atoms rearranged by the sheer force of the sound. It was enormous fun, especially when all the other films were in tinny, scratchy old mono.

Now that everyone’s got the ability to play back giant bass at home, it makes sense when offering old Sensurround movies on DVD to use the LFE channel on the disc for the obvious; Universal did this with Battlestar Galactica, encoding the Sensurround audio in the .1 channel to great effect. With Earthquake, though, region 1 customers had to make do with a two-channel stereo soundtrack. But region 4 viewers, who’ve had to wait longer for this disc, get something much better - a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, with all the full-scale Sensurround rumble neatly stored in the LFE channel where it belongs. Now you too can invite structural engineers over and scare the crap out of them.

Don’t get too excited by the fact that it’s 5.1 - this is an old mono soundtrack that’s been reworked for the modern age, and it still sounds like an old, tinny soundtrack. The music score (by John Williams!) has been flown into the mix in stereo, but 99% of the dialogue and other noise is centre-channel based. The surrounds very quietly reproduce a delayed version of what’s in the left and right mains. And that Sensurround sound? Basically, it’s just a continuous low-frequency hum when it’s called upon, a practical application of what could easily be the mains hum from hell.

There is some very active and very modern 5.1 audio during the Universal logo at the start of the film, incidentally - the studio’s cheated and replaced the original logo with the 3D-animated 90s version.

  Extras
Contract

The sole extra here is a three-minute theatrical trailer, done in typically '70s over-the-top style. It would have been nice to have the old Sensurround warning trailer included on the disc, but that may well be a lost artefact by now.

  Overall  
Contract

What, you expected The English Patient? This is cheese of the highest order, nothing more. And in the world of crap disaster movies, Earthquake is a seriously strong contender for being the crappest of them all, not even able to boast an all-star cast to distract from the fact that nothing much actually happens, and when it does happen it’s usually made of foam.

Universal’s long-overdue region 4 DVD easily outdoes the 1998 US disc in terms of picture, sound and Sensurround, but unfortunately suffers from some video encoding problems that, while they won’t bother most people, do detract from the otherwise excellent technical quality of the disc.


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      And I quote...
    "They don’t make ‘em like this anymore. Thankfully."
    - Anthony Horan
      Review Equipment
    • DVD Player:
          Sony DVP-NS300
    • TV:
          Panasonic - The One
    • Receiver:
          Sony STR-DB870
    • Speakers:
          Klipsch Tangent 500
    • Centre Speaker:
          Panasonic
    • Surrounds:
          Jamo
    • Audio Cables:
          Standard Optical
    • Video Cables:
          Monster s-video
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