Quintessential Disaster Movie from the outbreak of that genre in the 70s, alongside Airport, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. Directed by Mark Robson, and starring Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, George Kennedy, Lorne Greene, Geneviève Bujold, Richard Roundtree, Marjoe Gortner, Barry Sullivan, Lloyd Nolan, Victoria Principal, Monica Lewis and Walter Matthau.
Stewart Graff (Heston) is a construction engineer stuck in a forlorn marriage to Remy Royce-Graff (Gardner). Denise Marshall (Bujold) is the widow of a friend of Stewart's whom he has an affair with. Sgt. Lew Slade (Kennedy) is a disgruntled cop. Miles Quade (Roundtree) is a motorcycle stuntman who is preparing for the biggest stunt of his life with his partner Sal Amici (Gabriel Dell). Rosa Amici (Principal) is Sal's sister. Jody Joad (Gortner) is a National Guardsman with a day job as a store clerk who is on the verge of a psychotic breakdown. Amidst all these characters and all this drama, however, the California Seismological Institute has calculated that Los Angeles is going to be hit by a massive earthquake, the worst ever recorded, in the next day or two. Walter Russell (Kip Niven), the amateur staffer of the Institute who discerned this, proposes that the city be evacuated, but his superior insists that the cost of evacuation could be even greater than that of the earthquake itself. Can you guess where this is all heading?
The film was originally written by Mario Puzo, of The Godfather fame. He dropped out from production due to contractual obligations to work on The Godfather: Part II. The script collected dust for a time until Universal Studios thought they could make a buck off of it due to the success of Airport and The Poseidon Adventure. In order to draw audiences in, screenings of the film used a technique called "Sensurround", in which loud speakers simulated an earthquake within the cinema. Despite lukewarm reviews at best, Universal Studios's predictions were correct and the film was a rollicking financial success, grossing $79 million whereas its budget had been a mere $7 million.
The success of the movie ended up inspiring a scene on the Studio Tour at Universal Studios Hollywood, that simulates an earthquake hitting a subway tunnel. This in turn inspired a now-defunct attraction at Universal Studios Florida, known as Earthquake: The Big One.
This film provides examples of:
- AB Negative: A first responder can be heard pleading for a shipment of this by radio at an aid station.
- All Part of the Show: At least one real earthquake was not noticed in a theatre showing the film because the audience thought the (actual) earthquake was part of the movie.
- Ambiguously Bi: Jody Joad. His dresser has several pinned pictures of semi-naked men (although due to his interest in Rosa, it may have just been aids for his exercising—it is never clearly said). The other tenants of his building (a whole lot of Jerkasses) have no problem assuming that he's gay and riff him out over it—which means he's got quite a good reason to blow them all away when they meet again and he's packing a rifle and orders to keep the peace by any means necessary...
- Artistic License Geology:
- You don't get 9.9 on the Richter Scale, because rock lacks the capability to build up that much pressure before it gives to the quake. The greatest quake recorded in history was 9.5 in Chile, 1960. The Strike-Slip plates around LA can only hold about an 8.0 (which is 'only' 1000 atom bombs). The Richter Scale is being directly associated with damage.
- With the limits to the faults in mind, the duration of the quake in the film is also questionable. The quake clocks at around 4 to 5 minutes, which for a quake greater than magnitude 9.0 is technically correct despite duration and magnitude having no concrete link. In a real-life scenario, however, the duration of the "Big One" would likely be much shorter as the faults aren't capable of producing that kind of magnitude (Case in point, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake hit a magnitude 7.8 and lasted around a mere minute, foreshocks included). The longest earthquake ever recorded was the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, which lasted around 8-10 minutes and hit 9.1-9.3 on the scale. This isn't to say that the potential damage to Los Angeles should be downplayed, however, as the 1994 Northridge earthquake showed.
- Ax-Crazy: Jody Joad.
- Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Jody Joad. Underneath the guise of the friendly grocery store manager, is a ruthless psychopathic Sociopathic Soldier.
- Bullying a Dragon: Jody's housemates bullies him to a point he took his revenge by gunning them down after catching them looting.
- Camera Abuse: Holy crap, the cameras took a whole lot of shaking during the earthquake sequence.
- Cool Car: Graff's 1970s monster of an jeep, which had its transmission custom-built completely from scratch.
- Contrived Coincidence: Of course the secret of predicting Earthquakes is figured out right in time to know a huge Earthquake is due NOW. This wasn't the last time this has been done, either - 41 years later San Andreas (2015) did the same thing.
- Cowboy Cop: George Kennedy's character Lew Slade. His Establishing Character Moment is flying into a rage after Da Chief gives him a talk because he wrecked a hedge while chasing a man through Beverly Hills... a chase he was doing because the man did a hit-and-run on a young woman that Slade describes "splattered her blood all over the sidewalk like a fresh coat of paint".
- Decoy Protagonist: Charlton Heston's character Stewart Graff, who dies trying to rescue his wife played by Ava Gardner, leaving Kennedy's character becoming the sole lead character in the film's All-Star Cast at the end of the film.
- Developing Doomed Characters: For 49 minutes. And then the earthquake comes.
- Disaster Movie: Ladies and gentlemen, behold "the Big One"
- Elevator Failure: "Yeah, people drown in elevators every damn day of the week!"
- Exactly What It Says on the Tin: It involves a vision of the biggest and most destructive earthquake California has suffered so far.
- Extremely Short Timespan: The whole movie takes place in one day.
- Faux Affably Evil: Jody continues to woo for Rosa's affections, despite her witnessing his Ax-Crazy side after he murdered his old housemates out of revenge.
- Fight to Survive: As usual in disaster movies, the characters are left struggling to stay alive after disaster strikes.
- Going Postal: Jody.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Remy falls off a ladder trying to escape a flood in the sewer, and Stewart, instead of climbing the ladder to safety (and the waiting arms of his girlfriend Denise), jumps off in a futile effort to save Remy. Both of them are swept away by the rushing torrent.
- Loads and Loads of Characters: And many of them drop like flies from the halfway mark onwards.
- The Neidermeyer: Jody, especially when his men tries to look for an officer to have him face court martial out of fear.
- Scenery Gorn: The ending shot.
- Sociopathic Soldier: Jody Joad.
- Stepford Smiler: Jody, when he was a grocery store manager and acts friendly towards his regular customer (and target of lust) Rosa and continues to act friendly towards her even after she witnesses him killing his boorish housemates.
- Too Dumb to Live: Several people during the big earthquake, including people who crowd into an elevator before it falls, and a man running into a house with a broken gas line with a lit cigarette in his mouth.
- Truth in Television: There's a reason Southern California is the preferred location for earthquake disaster movies - it's due 'The Big One' any day now.
- Villainous Breakdown: Jody's reaction to his object of lust Rosa for rejecting him out of fear of his Ax-Crazy side can count, which prompts him to commit an Attempted Rape, in turn leading George Kennedy to pull a Big Damn Heroes moment in time and saving Rosa from the madman.