Earthquakes are a fact of life in Southern California. But their infrequent and improbable occurrences will likely not justify, scene for scene, the 1974 version on the screen. Disaster movies were popular then. Judging from Pompeii (2014), it can be assumed, the genre is still very much in vogue. In Earthquake (1974), many effects seem too tame for the morph-weary viewer forty years later, but the movie is a tenable, cohesive whole. It is a landmark film. In its time it won accolades. The earth swallows people, topples buildings, and bludgeons innocent bystanders at random. Simultaneously, relationships and career issues contend for attention. There is no stopping human nature. In reality, will frightened people be lowered down from shattered buildings on office chairs tied to fire hose? Will someone wonder, as does Graff (Charlton Heston), why skyscrapers are mindlessly built on such an unpredictable fault? Will a National Guardsman go crazy and assault a helpless woman separated from loved ones? Who knows? All of the above is a reasonable guess.
Virtual California was never more exciting than in The Towering Inferno (1974). A stellar cast is trapped by flames on the upper floors because of cheap wiring, the result of a sizable kickback. Everyone knows there are big bucks in real estate. Skyscrapers, especially in San Francisco, are huge moneymakers. But not all businessmen and businesswomen deliberately forfeit their souls to make them happen. The attempt to save lives and put out a raging fire is fraught with mixtures of success and failure. Throughout, an interesting assemblage of personalities parade across the screen. Of the many disaster movies to compete for the ticket-buyer’s dollar, The Towering Inferno is definitely not schlock. It is, in fact, quite an elaborate story. One aspect of the narrative has to do with how vulnerable civic leaders, pillars of society, and esteemed celebrities of one kind or another are. Fires amount to a big deal in the West, not just California. They are more frequent than Westerners would like. They are just as terrifying in crowded Eastern cities, but they burn with a vengeance in the dry, windy heat. This particular one is man-made and inexcusable.
In Scorcher (2002), thermonuclear blasts detonated in an evacuated Los Angeles save the world. The premise alone is worth the price of admission. This could never be, right? But as the world plays chicken with nukes, in this case Red China setting off underground explosions, who really knows? Not for the first time, an unlikely development sets off a chain of equally unlikely events. Far from being critical, I feel that this movie-made hoakum is not altogether an exercise in futility. “What if” questions, phrased just so, are relevant to the bleak conditions in which we live. Tectonic plates contribute to our overall fate, as much as gravity, the sun, the atmosphere, and water. There is comfort in the fact that significant tectonic movements usually take millions of years. Enter into the picture a global arms race, however, and all of a sudden nobody is safe. The world does not have to await an actual attack. A mere scientific experiment is sufficient. Scorcher may not be what one might call a major motion picture. But it helps enhance the odd theory that there is something about California that stimulates creative minds to concoct disaster scenarios.
Precursive to California disaster movies is San Francisco (1936), which concentrates, nearly all the way through, on Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald), a songstress with more operatic potential than anyone knows what to do with. California did not just make disaster movies, it was the setting for one of the most notorious natural disasters in U.S. history prior to Hurricane Katrina. The black and white movie effects are impressive, especially for their time, thirty years after the actual catastrophe. The Pacific plate rubs up against the American for over 800 miles underneath California. Accurate predictions of seismic activity, despite constant monitoring, are impossible. But the upshot of the movie has little to do with science or crisis management. Instead, it has everything to do with the triumphant spirit that despite all not only survived but became strengthened. An earthquake happened again in 1989 with much the same result and resolve. The song, San Francisco, written for the film by Bronislau Kaper, is catchy, too.