Movie Earthquakes just aren't as compelling as real ones

John Cairns

Let me tell you this: having an arm in a cast is no fun.

Having said that, it wasn't all bad. Among other things, I was able to watch a lot of movies on TV to get my mind off the fact that my arm was in a cast.

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One particular Sunday afternoon, in the early days following my arm injury, I was flipping through the channels looking for something to watch -- sports, movies, whatever -- and found what looked like a disaster movie. A really old disaster movie.

That movie turned out to be Earthquake. I kid you not.

Earthquake was one of a long line of disaster movies that characterized early-Seventies cinema. There was The Poseidon Adventure, which had a ship capsizing in the ocean. Then there was The Towering Inferno, which had a tall skyscraper on fire. There was Airport - and Airport '75 and Airport '77 and Airport '79, which featured various airliners getting in trouble while in flight.

The one thing these flicks had in common was that they could be counted on to round up all the biggest stars in Hollywood, all these legendary actors and actresses, and put them in the same movie. Earthquake probably had fewer big names in the cast than the other movies, but the people involved were no less legendary. The two biggest stars in the movie were Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner.

Also in the cast was Hollywood veteran George Kennedy, which I mention because it seemed like he was in every big "disaster" movie imaginable. Actually, he was only in all the Airport movies. Whether it was a plane going down or a city reduced to rubble, you could count on Kennedy being there.

What struck me in watching the movie was how unrealistic it looked to my eyes. Back in 1974 the scenes of devastation shown in Earthquake would have been awesome stuff, but to my eyes it was so obvious that many of the scenes were either shot using miniature buildings or done on some phony movie set. In fact I could have sworn I had seen the buildings in the movie before. It turned out that indeed I had - live. This movie was shot at Universal Studios in Hollywood, and I had seen all the phony buildings on the Universal Studios tour years ago. These "buildings" were all fake, a façade set up in their backlot.

In any event, there was too much of the 1974 movie Earthquake that just struck me as fake. In fact, this whole movie just struck me as being of a different era. If they remade "Earthquake" for the audiences of today, you can bet it would probably be in 3D and have a lot of CGI in it, and instead of a cast of "Hollywood legends" they'd probably hire younger actors such as Seth Rogen or Megan Fox. No doubt about it.

Actually, I'm kind of surprised Charlton Heston agreed to be in this hokey movie, this flick was so beneath him. This was not on the same level as parting the Red Sea or any of that. Tthis was was just a big, glorified B movie for those folks who like that sort of thing.

Anyway, that was my impressions of the 1974 movie Earthquake.

A few days later, I woke up in the middle of the night as I tended to do in those early days, trying to sleep with my arm in a cast. So I decided to turn on the radio, and here was CKOM having interrupted their programming for live continuing coverage from CNN of what sounded like a terrible situation in Japan.

Japan had just been hit by a magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami.

Seeing the scenes of devastation from Japan was heartbreaking and downright scary. In fact, the real-life tragedy there was of such a scale that if Hollywood had tried to write the script, it would have been rejected for being unrealistic. Not only were entire communities wiped off the map by the tsunami, but the Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown was just getting started.

It was Earthquake meets The China Syndrome. Except this was not a movie.

No doubt there will soon be many movies made about the situation that Japan found itself gripped in this year. Some of the real-life stories are already well-known - such as those of the famous "Fukushima 50" who risked their lives at the crippled nuclear facility to try and get the situation under control at the plant.

For me, it goes to show that real-life drama really is much more compelling than the best that the movies can come up with. I think this may be why you don't see too many "disaster" movies anymore like the ones in the Seventies. We've seen enough real "Earthquakes" (Japan), enough real "Towering Infernos" and airline disasters (9/11) - not to mention real China Syndromes (Fukushima, Chernobyl).

Once you've experienced a real-life disaster, it's pretty hard for any motion picture to live up to it and deliver the same sort of impact. You can tell it's all special effects and not real. At the end of the day, a disaster movie is only a movie.

Quite frankly, though, after the real-life mayhem of the last decade I wouldn't blame folks for wishing that the only disasters they witnessed in the future were ones shown on the big screen. This real-life stuff is just too dangerous for peoples' liking.

© Copyright Battlefords News Optimist


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