If a science fiction film openly aspires to penetrate the vast mysteries of the unknown, chances are pretty good that it will fail if the ingredients in such an attempt are comprised of such a level of creative banality they barely rise above a standard of juvenilia that one might find featured on Saturday morning television programming. Such depressing limitations of imagination comprises the tenuous glue which holds together the tired collection of cliches that is Disney’s “The Black Hole”. Never a studio to ignore the possibilities of shamelessly revisiting already trod territory with returns that might generously be regarded as exponentially unrewarding, this space opera- optimistically conceived to be the studio’s initial toe dipped into the lucrative SF pool opened by “Star Wars” -combines dumbed down shadows of the studio’s great early live action success “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” with shoe button eyed robots that can’t help but recall the studio’s signatory rodent; not exactly harbingers of profound metaphysical excavation, nor, at least, is there hope for a notable aesthetic evolution in the genre- like “2001” -when the film is hampered with direction, writing and performances that fail to rise above the level of the dreariest of the studio’s earliest 1970’s comedy output (though this isn’t supposed to be a comedy and rather than dreary is intended to be awe inspiring).
The crew of the deep space explorer Palomino encounters a giant black hole resembling an immense neon blue backed-up kitchen drain. Thanks to a bit of elementary school level physics (by way of “The Jetsons” and “Ultraman”) the audience is apprised of the inescapably catastrophic nature of the gravitational pull of this phenomenon yet the crew seem especially keen on piloting their puny ship straight into harm’s way at every opportunity; though this might have something to do with the fact that their featured scientific brain is a floating trash can with cartoon eyes named V.I.N.CENT. (voiced to saccharine effect by an unbilled Roddy McDowall) whose only function seems to be quipping stale homilies as if he were playing Ben Franklin in a roadshow production of “1776”, so the application of far-thinking scientific principles might not be in the offering. The film is, in fact, robot heavy, as if the lesson taken from such previous films as “2001”, “Silent Running” and “Star Wars” is that machines are cute and easily more accessible to the process of low-grade thinking, a characteristic “The Black Hole” has in spades as once the Palimino crew meets with a mysterious vessel perched precariously on the edge of the event horizon, it becomes increasingly apparent that air isn’t the only think absent in space Disney-style, but also ideas, real science, an actual story to tell.
The mysterious vessel is the Cygnus, an American exploratory ship presumed lost twenty years before and manned by the father of Palomino crew member Kate McCrae (Yvette Mimieux)- which places into question the inordinately extended time it takes to identify the ship -is found to contain a sole survivor, obvious madman Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell), who has amassed a proletariat army of robots and hooded “androids” and is given credit for remarkable scientific achievements of which none are readily apparent and so much has to be taken on faith. The Cygnus is an obvious stand-in for the submarine Nautilus as is Reinhardt for Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo, though the association is strictly through narrative similarities rather than defined by a genuine fraternal core of moral cynicism (Nemo being a tragic figure whose genius is blinded by an anarchic pacifism, whereas Reinhardt is simply mightily impressed with himself). The robots are clearly meant to be the stars of the show (perhaps explaining the across the board disaffection of performance in such normally capable players as Schell, Robert Forster and Ernest Borgnine, though nothing can explain the wholly mechanical line readings of Anthony Perkins, unless he is basing his performance on an imitation of a pocket calculator), with attention constantly shifting away from the human cast with endless scenes of video game-level laser battles sprinkled with low humor (a second garbage can robot named B.O.B.- voiced with the unmistakeable drawl of Slim Pickens doesn’t assist in raising the maturity meter one iota) that is probably meant to delight the Pampers crowd but could only result in headache inducing eye rolling from anyone of a more advanced mental development; the black hole of the title is effectively reduced to kitschy background ornamentation- the universe’s biggest lava lamp -in which interest is only revived for the finale when the filmmakers finally realize that something has to happen.
The eleventh hour effort to bring the black hole back into prominence creates an entirely new set of problems for the film in that there has been little to no groundwork (except for a fleeting mention of gravitational pull and reference to “a rip in time and space”) laid to explain the phenomenon nor even the slightest hint as to what Reinhardt’s own discoveries have uncovered about the mammoth spiral that makes the prospect of crossing the event horizon anything other than an action mandated by desperate screenwriting rather than a natural extension for search for either knowledge or power (common motivations of the unhinged scientist, and though there is a passing mention of immortality, there is nothing to indicate this is anything more than standard crummy bad movie dialogue of which this movie is unfortunately generously overstuffed), and so when the resultant climax is comprised of pedestrian religious imagery, transforming the SF aspect of the film into ill-conceived Sunday School metaphysics, is an admission of surrendering to the stalest of pseudo-poetic conceits in an attempt to shovel meaning into a thematic vacuum. This is perhaps unsurprising as the continuous theological references from Dante to the Bible telegraph the direction of the film’s lazy eventual reach for profundity- none of which make a bit of sense, absent as the film is with a contextual core -yet this ethereal cop-out is supremely ineffective in making “The Black Hole” neither more explainable nor palatable.
Norman Jewison’s “Rollerball” is one of those silly science fiction films which attempt to push their themes under the weight of far-fetched and illogical sociological reconstructions that presume the entire human race to be homogeneously content to follow a singular path to behavioral mollification, often mistakenly identified as dystopian, but since the modification appears to be entirely beholden to the willingness of the entire populace to subsume its free will for the sake of a trivial distraction, it’s more an overused example of conveniently complacent mass population lethargy. Have these writers ever encountered a diverse group of people? (Diverse in thought, not in useless brownie points attributable to condescending ethnic categorization.) The loss of individual enterprise and motivation may play as a fertile backdrop for mindlessly nihilistic visions of fascistic futuristic constructs, but when dealing with a corporate model of the future as visualized in this 1975 film, the sociological theorem doesn’t fail because it’s tired (though it is that), but because the wafer thin design of that society is unconscionably stupid. “Rollerball” is the simply a more athletic example of the same inert consideration of futuristic futility in which one resistant individual seeks forbidden knowledge to explain the repressive elements of the crushing social order; a quest which inevitable meets with frustrating encounters with knowledgeable individuals who speak in circular riddles until it is clear that either the writer has no original ideas on the subject, or that everyone else in the world seems to be in on the secret except for the clueless cluck with whom the film demands the audience’s sympathies lie: neither prospect being particularly satisfying nor likely to bear stimulating fruit.
In the unlikely year of 2018, corporate states have taken over after the often mentioned but never explained Corporate War, though how this vast upheaval of peoples and nations could be effectively achieved in such a brief period never appears to be a problem for the filmmakers whose characters refer to their own extensive histories without being touched by the discarded past, nor does it answer the question as to why movie makers insist on their futuristic visions having such a brief shelf life when it comes to the time frame between the film and the predicted timeline of its dour predictions? Even a cursory explanation to any of the preceding queries would be far more interesting than anything in “Rollerball”, which depicts as its source of population behavior modifier a most unlikely hybrid of roller derby (never the most popular of sports to begin with) with the addition of motorcycles and a steel ball shot from an air cannon. The game, as designed, is rather uncomplicated and unlikely to generate hypnotic fervor for an entire planet, though even the idea of any athletic forum specifically designed to demonstrate the futility of individual effort seems colossal misunderstanding of the sports world and the psychology of its most fanatical followers and to imagine that such fervent adoration fails to extend to individual players in deference to the idea of the team as a whole is entirely wrongheaded. It is revealed that the game of rollerball has been specifically designed by the ruling corporations to squash the idea of individual initiative though it stands to reason that the presentation of the game to the public would, at least, attempt an anonymity among the players (who are treated, rather contradictorily, as among the privileged, usually reserved for the Corporate Executive Class), making them faceless, nameless cogs in a fixed mechanism meant to destroy the extended career of any participant before achieving celebrity. Instead, the players wear numbers demarcating their individuality and the rules of the game (based on as much clarity as might be gathered from the fuzzy presentation) are the same as most existing sports, designed to emphasize statistical results which, by the sheerest of coincidence, also favor the recording of individual achievement.
Jonathan E. (James Caan) is the veteran star of the Houston rollerball team, overseen by the Energy Corporation which is represented by the enigmatic Mr. Batholomew (John Houseman), an owl-like administrator of empty praise and ominous “suggestions” as to Jonathan’s future with the game. The unexpected resistance of Jonathan to the Corporates results in escalating anarchistic relaxing of the few safety regulations built into the game with a resultant spiraling of arena violence and subsequent carnage. The film attempts no hesitation on Jonathan’s part that his actions might be seen as self-absorbed given the severe consequences that appear to be suffered by all around him, including his close teammate Moonpie (John Beck), while he himself escapes relatively unscathed except for, perhaps, a deepening malaise which may simply be reflective of Caan’s inability to bring to significant life any aspect of his role; this personality whose passionate play sets millions of fans hearts and minds racing is almost pathologically inert off of the playing surface: emotionally distant and inexpressive save for the occasional mumbling from between clenched teeth as if he were suffering from a performance inhibiting lockjaw. The frustration in “Rollerball” is that since Jonathan E. is designated as the target of Corporate ire (for reasons too transparent and insignificant to justify even a fraction of the ill-advised countermeasures they put into motion), the audience is compelled to follow his search for the truth, a search which never seems to involve something as fundamental as a follow-up question. (Were this done at any time in the film, the story would end within seconds.) Beyond the granite-like denseness of his thinking, there is the question as to the sincerity of what Jonathan’s goals genuinely are: to discover the hidden history of the Corporate Wars (what he hopes to discover is left a mystery) or to reconnect with his wife Ella (Maud Adams) who was previously spirited away by a Corporate Executive? In either case, the former cause leads to an encounter with a raving lunatic of a librarian (a colorful Ralph Richardson who seems to have transported from an entirely different film) in Geneva where all of the books in the world have been transcribed into computer data and are controlled by the Corporations. This sequence is laced with a strain of satire alien to the rest of the film (the entire Thirteenth Century seems to have been misplaced) and as thus, what might have been a highlight actually turns into a detriment as (bizarrely enough) a genuinely humorously successful episode in an otherwise pedantically depressing film throws the balance of the film askew. Just what are we to take from this aberrative sequence, or was this the intended tone in the first place until the vapidity of the concept led Jewison to desperately turn to adapting his visual aesthetic into one which might suggest portentous meaning in the simplest shape or texture? This would to explain the excessive incidents of the camera lingering on the light playing on a crystal- like many imagined futuristic lifestyles, there is an overabundance of prismatic screens, hangings and decorations embellishing every interior -or an oddly shaped bit of architecture while André Previn’s classical insertions blast through the theater indicating a profound moment, despite the fact that the scene’s content will sensibly claim otherwise.
For a commercial director, Norman Jewison often exhibits an interest in filming an eclectic variety of subjects and if following a director’s natural inclination to exceed the ambition of their previous project, and with his prior film having related no less than the final days of Jesus Christ, he might have felt the need to force a sense of thematic importance into “Rollerball” where it simply does not exist. While the wobbly “dystopian” context of “Rollerball” conveys the weight associated with suffocating Orwellian social paradigms, this type of speculative fiction also carries an assumptive burden that great and important themes are at work; after all, Man’s continuous struggle to achieve and maintain a freedom of thought and action despite the encroachment of an external autonomy is an ancient and universal point of dramatic conflict, but as delineated in William Harrison’s sketchy screenplay, based upon his story Roller Ball Murder, it’s a brief gap in opinion that could just as easily have found fullest expression as a quickly jotted notation on a cocktail napkin. The film fails, in part, by not allowing the audience into the mindset of the Executives; not the surface nonsense of drugged party revelers illustrated far too generously, but even a moment of genuine penetrative immersion into the thought process behind the conception of this utopian model? (It does appear that everyone but Jonathan is quite content, a fact which might contradict any immediacy to Jonathan’s tepidly defined irritability.) How, for example, are the Corporations served by a general tranquilized passivity which, if anything, would seem a prescription for a decrease in productive energies? It is not infrequent for the makers of speculative SF films to impede the fullest potential of their invented universe by the easy distraction of design and action; both of which are in full evidence in “Rollerball”. However, no matter how seamlessly the game sequences are shot and edited (there are some quite spectacular moments which demand large screen presentation), there is always the nagging demon of independent thought percolating behind the visceral distraction: every time Jonathan scores a point, we feel compelled to ask- but what’s the point?
MESSAGE FROM SWAIN COMMAND CENTER TO CODE NAME “READER”: THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS WHICH MAY IMPERIL SUCCESSFUL COMPLETION OF YOUR MISSION TO SUBSEQUENTLY VIEW THE FILM WITHOUT PREJUDICIAL FOREKNOWLEDGE STOP IN THE CASE OF HYSTERICAL HESITANCY AS TO WHETHER SUCH REVELATIONS WILL DAMAGE YOUR ABILITY TO VIEW THE FILM YOU ARE HEREBY INSTRUCTED TO WAIT VIEW THE FILM FIRST SWALLOW YOUR REQUISITE CYANIDE CAPSULE AND ONLY THEN READ THE FOLLOWING ANALYSIS STOP
CMDR. C. SWAIN—-ADMIRALTY OF CRITICAL OPERATIONS/C.S.R.
“Ice Station Zebra” (1968)
There’s an interesting passage which opens Alistair MacLean’s novel Ice Station Zebra in which the British agent Dr. Carpenter considers the physical appearance of the captain of the nuclear submarine Dolphin Commander James Swanson, who is described as both “short” and “plump”, though throughout the book, he is repeatedly lauded in the highest degree as an exemplary example of leadership, intelligence and character. It is characteristic of Hollywood versions of almost any property by which a certain cosmetic level of expected physical representation (by way of years of studio artifice) that the same character (whose name has been inexplicably changed to Ferraday, as if that is more masculine- unless the producers were afraid that the reason for the book captain’s heft had something to do with an excess consumption of Swanson pot pies) be cinematically represented by the tall and lean Rock Hudson, confirming that true character in American movies is measured by a masculine physical template under which the most imperative quality of leadership, honor and courage is measured in matinee idol tooth gleam.
This same general attitude toward manufactured elements of thrills and suspense are creakily in evidence throughout John Sturges’ film of “Ice Station Zebra” which retains a bare minimum of the novel’s narrative elements (a voyage to save trapped arctic scientists, a rescued satellite camera) while entirely abandoning the substance of every character and rewriting the plot with the elimination of all but two central incidents and jettisoning the twisting signatory MacLean plot maze which , in this case, is actually a whodunnit enlivened with Cold War undercurrents and extremely menacing locations of a uniquely unsettling isolation: again, the Polar Cap and a submarine traveling underneath it. Instead of the circuitous narrative filled with double-cross duplicity, suspect alliances, personal motives intermingled with those of national security and a ratcheting up of suspense through several episodes of sabotage which become almost catastrophic, screenwriter Douglas Heyes and an uncredited W.R. Burnett (unaccountably assisted by a screen story by Harry Julian Fink; never a good sign when the film is promoted as being based on an already existing published work) substitutes unnecessarily obscure directives for plot and disciplined procedure for behavior. Endlessly are we privy to the simplest orders being repeated down the chain of command which may be accurate in the functioning of a nuclear submarine, but it only bogs down an already deadly pacing of a story in which the greatest highlight of the first third of the film is the repetition of the diving process, complete with exterior submersion shots and Michel Legrand’s eager-to-be-full-of-testosterone score crashing over the audience more heavily than North Atlantic waves, desperately attempting to disguise that, so far, very little- if anything -has occurred.
Submarine commander James Ferraday (Rock Hudson) secretly meets- after greeting every barkeep in Holy Loch, Scotland -with his superior, Admiral Garvey (Lloyd Nolan) who hands him a mission to rescue the crew of Arctic Drift Ice Station Zebra which has been subject to a cataclysmic accident of unknown origin. (“How much do you know about Ice Station Zebra?” asks the Admiral with the kind of flatly disinterested expository dialogue that suggests the writers have never seen an espionage film.) It’s an opening encased in the most patently phoney atmosphere of skullduggery imaginable, complete with trenchcoats and foggy streets, which has no place in a mission in which the appearance of normalcy is all important. (MacLean’s novel emphasized the artificiality of popular conceptions of certain events, including the submersion of a submarine which he describes-within the confines of the control room -which he describes as unassuming and rather uneventful- without the cacophonous blaring of Klaxon horns with which the film takes great pride.)
The arrival of a mysterious civilian passenger “Mr. Jones” (Patrick McGoohan, in a role based on the novel’s narrator, Dr. Carpenter) creates a schism within the mission’s ultimate authority (standard fare in a MacLean novel) which in the novel is used to build a secondary level of suspense, generating a satisfying atmosphere of cooperative suspicion between the sub’s commander and Dr. Carpenter, allowing for the reader to follow the investigative path of the character while simultaneously affording the narrative a reasonable opportunity to equally withhold vital information from the reader until the confrontational finale. (The reader is skillfully kept guessing as to the full story, but is never subject to an unfair author’s cheat as the narrator always clues the reader in when he is being overtly deceptive- though the specificity of the deception is held at bay until the end -to other characters in the story.) In the film “Mr. Jones” is freely expressive about his role as a spy, an occupation to which the novel’s permutation of the character wisely conceals from all until far deeper into the story. Without a cover story, there is little for “Jones” to do (except to make impish barbs) on the boat (it certainly abolishes the need for all of that pesky character interaction with which novelists find the need to clutter up their works) but wait until his inevitable arrival at Zebra where he might reawaken a purpose to his presence. Has there ever been as passive a spy film as this?
One of the interesting features of MacLean’s novel is that it is essentially a drawing room murder mystery in action-adventure Cold War attire; the pursuit of the counter agent(s) made manifest by the fact that someone has killed several people at Zebra and that same someone is now aboard the submerged submarine. The plotting of the novel effectively chugs away with considerations as to who might be behind the fatalities (ingeniously made to look accidental), the traditional process of elimination of suspects and the suspense generated by the real danger presented by such a person being on the loose in the dangerously confined quarters. The highlight of the novel- an extended fire in the engine room which instigates a torturous depletion of the Dolphin’s breathing air -is absent from the film, though it is this incident which provides the conclusive evidence to snare the guilty party; an omission which calls for a radical rethinking of the deductive process to ensure that all of the pieces of the mystery conclude with the expected explanatory logic. How unfortunate that in the case of “Ice Station Zebra”, the film makers have chosen to tackle the problem of narrative cohesion by simply eliminating the narrative and cobbling together an alternative story line that is intended to fit within the retained skeletal remains of MacLean’s original conception. Such haphazard editorial butchery necessitates a complete reworking of the mystery’s complex structure into which any single derivation would be as ill-fitting as an incorrect jigsaw puzzle piece, though of the resultant compensatory narrative and the equally resultant additions of characters, none positively contribute to an improved sense of narrative, suspense, logic or illumination of character. “Jones” is given a companion in the form of Russian defector Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine), who in turn is accompanied by the stern disciplinarian Captain Anders (Jim Brown) who is to lead the band of green Marines led by the overly sympathetic Lt. Walker (Tony Bill).
All of the aforementioned personnel are inventions of the screenwriter, substituting for the richly characterized sub crew of the novel, who are now namelessly reduced to staring at sonar screens or announcing “Thick ice” at regular intervals. (In one of the retained action sequences, a torpedo man is suddenly killed and there is no sense of loss as he has been reduced to vaporous anonymity by the altered priorities of the film’s story.) Worse yet, all of the new characters are introduced as red herrings, occupying space merely to introduce a field of suspects complicit in the murderous skullduggery despite the fact that none have an organic connection to the original premise, and since the writers have failed to adequately adapt the proceedings into a logically designed conspiracy commensurate with the impeccable but brittle construction of the novel, the movie fails to rise to an acceptable level of intrigue or basic plausibility. (So damaging are the half-hearted alterations, they not only fail to convince of the identity of the “villain”- it’s obvious after about five minutes since certain aspersions of accusation are fuzzy at best -but several of the major characters are ultimately meaningless to the film (their absence wouldn’t make a difference in the story) and are disposed of without purpose or without fanfare. However, the most critical injury to the narrative is the effect the structural changes have imposed on the character of Dr. Carpenter: the central character of the novel becomes obsolete to the film adaptation; contributing nothing to the final multinational confrontation drearily invented to little effect, as if no one informed the producers that the designation Cold War doesn’t have to have a literal translation to armed warfare. Nor do the counterespionage faculties of “Mr. Jones” bear prominent inspection as he turns out to be the greatest dupe of all. That the principle spy in a spy drama has negligible effect on the story is not a result to which most film makers would commonly aspire.
Forsaking any attempt for the film to be seen through the perspective of “Jones” (through Dr. Carpenter, the novel is related through a first-person narrative), the audience is distanced from any identification with this most important character, especially with addition of the additional gallery of “suspects” who neither convincingly elevate the mystery nor lead to meaningful sympathetic contributions, leaving only national loyalty as a standard under which the viewer might employ their empathetic leanings. The exception to this dilemma is the enjoyably eccentric color McGoohan brings to the role of “Jones”- he’s all sardonic quips, but such is the skill of the actor that even the most wearisome lines emerge sounding like glittering bullets -though a mystery of any variety which relies almost exclusively on a single performance to carry the weight of the entire convolution of its material is in a dangerously opprobrious level of jeopardy. For a complex tale of Cold War espionage and intrigue, there is precious little plot development save for the occasional side meeting of characters in which notes are compared as to who might be the most likely source of treasonous action. It is in the compilation of the roster of such suspects where the film truly veers off course in a way impossible to recover. MacLean’s essential characters were limited to either submarine crew members, survivors of the fire at Ice Station Zebra and Dr. Carpenter, and suspects- significantly -limited to the members of the Zebra survivors. In essence, all of the Zebra team are rendered invisible and insignificant by the film’s radical reconfigurations; the same inattention to the importance of the building blocks of mystery and suspense as is evident in the disappointing and sleepy direction of the once formidable John Sturges who is either distractingly enamored by the glittering prestige of his nuclear toy, or- more likely -finds himself hopelessly lost in the miasma of dead end threads which comprise a woeful substitution for MacLean’s labyrinthine clockwork mechanism.
Rock Hudson is physically imposing but rather stiff as Commander Ferraday, while Ernest Borgnine plays Vaslov is a carnival funhouse equipped with a Russian accent straight from a burlesque sketch. However, for sheer frigidity, not even the miniature pressure ridges can hold a candle to the alarming lethargy of Jim Brown whose portrayal of Captain Anders is that of a proverbial wet blanket: his stiff backed, one-note annoyance is a pale substitute for the sneaky and explosive energy he usually holds in amused check underneath his seemingly placid surface. In “Ice Station Zebra”, he seems less frozen by the patently artificial arctic settings clearly rendered in all of the painted splendor a Hollywood sound stage can muster (these scenes come across as so blatantly phoney, they disappoint even the most undiscriminating suspension of disbelief), than just plain bored.
In “Earthquake”, the special effects boys at Universal get to flatten the city in which they work and play and must have gotten a chuckle out of the task, a sight more amusement than the audience gets from this tepid, fractured television film passing as major motion picture drama, as the effects team halted their destructive efforts before similarly eliminating the amateurish script by George Fox and Mario Puzo. Mark Robson is at a loss to find an actor or incident on which to develop any dramatic flow and his direction is noticeably anemic: the film has the perfunctory feel of episodic 1970’s TV only armed with a larger budget and a barely more noteworthy cast. There really isn’t anything for the audience to do except to sit back and wait until the buildings start to collapse, hoping that the destructively tectonic shifts will enliven the proceedings considerably as the impressively weak narrative threads which make up the script are not the stuff of memorable cinema.
Even for an “all-star” (someone must buy the marketing departments a dictionary to avoid these promissory misunderstandings) disaster film, there is little plot, no sympathetic characters, no incidents of individual heroism in which to alleviate the mindlessly random carnage (the simple ugly fact of disaster film is that they require the creation of cataclysmic situations in which a number of random people will die in colorful and novels ways in order to ensure the circumstances for the the heroes to prove their mettle on the unspoken backs of the many who expire), no wit (the level of humor is no deeper than a guy drooling over Victoria Principal’s bosom in a tight tee shirt) and, worst of all, no narrative direction. Once the quake occurs, there is nothing for the scattered assemblage of characters to do except to keep tripping over debris until an almost Rube Goldberg series of events occur which accelerates the picking off of several more highly-billed actors, a result of screenwriting which ignores certain fundamentals of advancing a story, such as actually having writing a plot to begin with.
Unlike several other prominent big-budget disaster films (namely the Irwin Allen productions, “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno”), “Earthquake” lacks a focal point where the characters might be naturally connected to explain and intensify their later shared peril. The interaction of such characters also leads to revealing facets of their personalities, the stuff of which will hopefully lead the audience to an empathetic attraction, yet in “Earthquake”, the fate of the characters is merely of the spin the wheel variety, with characters dispatched for no particular reason except to maintain a quota of death per reel ratio (it’s amazing to recall after the film concludes just how many characters disappear without a mention). The film is particularly cold-blooded in moving the main characters around like chess pieces on a decimated urban game board in which no attention is paid to the bloodied and dying multitudes, though the strictest interest is given to the melodramatic inanities of pseudo-adulterous longings. Why is it that disaster films are always populated by character “types”, the kind which are often lined up on the promotional posters as if people were items on a grocery list: The Architect, The Fire Chief, The Cop, The Wife? (One major character is particularly loathsome in conception, combining two of “enlightened” 1970’s Hollywood’s favorite targets of ridicule: the military- who is almost always portrayed as unrelievedly psychotic -and the homosexual, who is similarly portrayed as unbalanced even if a mere whiff of repressed sexuality is hinted.) This is a primitive method of screenwriting which rejects the development of rich characterization in favor of meaningless episodes of characters searching for one another when (a) there is no cathartic payoff if and when they do reunite as they have been given no emotional substance to begin with, and (b) most of the characters would be far safer to stay where they are in the first place but are compelled to hop about the wasted locations in a pathetic attempt to give film the illusion of forward momentum. The extensive time spent with scientists in the first half of the film [pre-quake], presumably to give the upcoming “event” some basis in actual cautionary science, is rendered irrelevant by the simple fact that after the quake none of these individuals are ever heard from again, though this should have been predictable as one of the most prominent is played by the reliable though unlucky Kip Niven, a highly visible supporting performer of the day, whose roles always seemed to have as lengthy a life expectancy as the unfortunate red-shirted random member of any landing party on TV’s “Star Trek”.
The cast, headed by heroism stalwart Charlton Heston, who in his thankless role of Stewart Graff (thanklessly identified with one of those generic, mechanical sounding character names abundant in his Universal films of the decade, as in Matt Garth from “Midway”) is called to uphold a granite-like fortitude which becomes a parody of his status as Hollywood’s go-to man of historically bent heroic action (Heston has been ignorantly mocked for his image as an epochal cinema hero of Biblical proportions, though his skill at successfully rendering historic figures from Moses and The Cid to Michelangelo and Charles Gordon, is an ability both rare and underappreciated in contemporary cinema, where the physical sight of one of today’s actors wearing toga or lorica gives the impression of male models playing Halloween dress up as opposed to portraying men who might mold the destinies of civilizations as was Heston’s peculiar but satisfying forté) and thus makes his last-minute futile gesture seem like a tawdry cheat: nowhere in the character of Stewart Graff has there been exhibited a propensity to ennobled self-sacrifice, and certainly not an act morally vague virtual suicide. And if Graff is portrayed as the film’s most knowledgeable survivor, whose skills might continue to help countless numbers of the trapped and wounded, isn’t his useless sacrifice actually an act of dumb self-martyrdom? Ava Gardner is both too obnoxiously blowsy to command a moment’s sympathy (Was Elizabeth Taylor unavailable for the role?) nor of the appropriate vintage to convince anyone she is supposed to be the daughter of Lorne Greene. The talented Geneviève Bujold is wasted in a colorless, generic role usually thrust on an unlucky studio contract player like Susan Clark, though George Kennedy’s appearance as a cop is almost half-expected as he was Universal’s go to guy in the 1970’s; the increasing prominence of his Joe Patroni role in the studio’s lucrative “Airport” franchise assures a certain familiar continuity with the actor’s increasingly reliable persona (he is actually the only character in the film who seems both intelligent and selfless which throws the dynamic of the film’s stock heroics formula off-kilter, similar to the results in that year’s other Heston–Kennedy dip into the disaster pool: “Airport 1975”).
However, even the “stars” are secondary to the visual effects which have the same problem of being far more impressive in long shots, where the crumbling of recognizable Los Angeles landmarks is both convincing and energizing (especially to those residents of states to whom Californians are always comparatively mocking with the superiority of their climate); if someone is going to raze a city at least it’s done effectively. Problems do occur when the focus of destruction is more localized. For all of the impressive panoramic Albert Whitlock matte shots, there are dozens more of civilians getting hit by the removable flying debris of the art department- storefront signs, bricks, falling glass -which fails to match the destructive force of whole sides of buildings collapsing as seen in the wider shots. (The same disconnect between close-up live action and distant model shots was apparent in the Pearl Harbor attack sequence in “Tora! Tora! Tora!” where Japanese planes were seen flying about like a swarm of gnats, while in longer shots of the battleships there is nary an aircraft in view.) Oddly, in the world of disaster films, the highest degree of interest seems to be in the death of property rather than that of people.
However, in the case of “Earthquake”, the real draw (since the studio was obviously sufficiently callous to think that mass urban apocalypse alone was of insufficient interest to attract a healthy box-office) of the film is the novelty Sensurround, a system of in-theater speakers which saturates the audience with amplified bass sound waves that replicate the sensation of seismic tremors. Switched on during appropriate moments in the film, Sensurround is a high-tech version of William Castle’s Percepto!, making “Earthquake” the world’s most expensive joy buzzer.