The Great Los Angeles Earthquake (1990)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Herbert P. Caine is the pseudonym of a frustrated academic and genre movie fan in Pennsylvania. You can read his blog at https://imaginaryuniverseshpc.blogspot.com.

The Great Los Angeles Earthquake is essentially a TV miniseries version of the 1974 disaster movie Earthquake. It makes no attempt to hide this fact, as within the first ten minutes of the movie, we see a clip of the Universal Studios Theme Park ride based off the original movie. Both films use the same sets, according to Wikipedia. The film also starts the same way, with ominous music playing over a helicopter shot of the Los Angeles skyline. The theme music is a weak imitation of John Williams’s original disaster movie score, much as the movie is a weak imitation of the original theatrical release.

The Great Los Angeles Earthquake has the default plot for this genre: an intrepid seismologist, played by Joanna Kerns, has discovered a foolproof method of predicting earthquakes, and all the indications are that Los Angeles is about to be hit with a massive earthquake. However, her attempts to warn the populace are hindered by the machinations of a sleazy real estate developer, played by Robert Ginty from The Exterminator and The Paper Chase, who fears her predictions will cause housing prices to crash. Will she be able to warn the population in time?

One of the main problems facing this disaster film is that it is overloaded with too many supporting characters and subplots and not enough disaster. The earthquake only happens nearly two-thirds of the way through the film. In the meantime, we are treated to a variety of unnecessary and not particularly interesting sub-plots, ranging from the tense relationship between our hero’s sister and her mother to a plot to assassinate a South African trade minister who might become the country’s first black prime minister. The filmmakers would have been better off cutting one or two sub-plots to focus more on the destruction of the city.

However, this issue is mitigated by the quality of the supporting cast. Although Kerns and the other leads are not especially impressive, the supporting players include a number of talented character actors. Robert Ginty is suitably unctuous as the film’s antagonist, playing a more subtle version of Donald Trump. (The film even lampshades this, referring to the character as a wannabe “Donald Trump of the West Coast.”) Richard Herd is also good in a small role as Kerns’s superior at the U.S. Geological Survey, conveying authority and trustworthiness despite having little character development. Ed Begley Jr. does well as Kerns’s subordinate who leaks the story to the press. (Be warned, though: although Begley is prominently featured on the film’s cover, he is only in the film for 10-15 minutes.) Ultimately, the cast stand out is Richard Masur (Clark from The Thing), who plays a sleazy, hard-driving reporter whose efforts to exploit Kern’s warnings for ratings only succeed in making things worse. The reporter goes through a decent character arc as he confronts the destruction wrecked by the earthquake, with Masur conveying his emotional breakdown. Although none of these performers manage to surpass the awesomeness of Marjoe Gortner in Earthquake, they make the film worth watching.

The Great Los Angeles Earthquake also boasts impressive special effects for a TV movie. The film’s practical effects are far more convincing than the cheap CGI that too many televised disaster movies now resort to, with sets that actually shake and collapse and the actors interacting with actual flames. The way the disaster is shot is also effective, conveying the disorientation and chaos such a massive earthquake would actually cause. After the quake, the city looks dark and foreboding as it is engulfed with fire and smoke darkens the sky. Moreover, the last hour of the film is suitably downbeat as people struggle to find their friends and relatives amid the carnage.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the film is how it illustrates the incapacitation of emergency and rescue services in the face of an 8.1 earthquake. Police, fire fighters, and EMS are hindered by the scale of the destruction and the blocking of roads and highways. This unsettles on a far deeper level than any special effect. In a better film, this could be used to show the total breakdown of society in the face of catastrophe, as in the beginning of the original Dawn of the Dead where we see the uselessness of the Emergency Broadcast System in the face of the zombie outbreak. Scenes like this hold real-world resonance, especially in the wake of the pandemic. When I first saw a late-night broadcast of this movie as a kid on the Million Dollar Movie, these elements disturbed me, but now they are arguably the most effective aspects of the film.

The Great Los Angeles Earthquake can be found on YouTube here.

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