Entertainment » Movies


by Sam Cohen
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday May 21, 2019

To give some context as to why "Earthquake" was such a massive success at the box office and with audiences, we'll have to look back to the late '60s and early '70s. The disaster film was a new way to leave viewers in shock and awe with these huge special effects-infused undertakings. "Airport," which was released in 1970, proved that there was a market for films that centered around putting a group of people in mortal danger and watching their worst impulses fly. As much as both of the films above have cheesy and hardboiled main storylines, they signify a technical change in Hollywood filmmaking that can still be felt today.

"Earthquake" is a fictionalized depiction of the San Fernando earthquake from February 1971, which left upwards of 50 people dead and caused more than $500 million in property damage. As is Hollywood's wont, this was an opportunity to use new sound mixing techniques and a large physical effects budget to give viewers a thrill-ride unlike anything else they've seen.

When you sat in a properly equipped theater to watch "Earthquake" in 1974, you were subjected to a new audio presentation gimmick called Sensurround. The gimmick employed large, low-frequency speakers to envelop viewers in what an actual earthquake may sound and feel like. Low-frequency bass notes produced by actual earthquakes weren't able to be put onto a normal optical audio track on a film print. Instead, Sensurround was the act of printing control notes onto film prints that commanded amplifiers and subwoofers to let out sound pressures of 100 to 120 decibels. That kind of innovation was enough to inspire people to flock to theaters.

But as innovations can misalign expectations for how the film may be from a thematic standpoint, "Earthquake" had more than few fault lines in its narrative. Charlton Heston plays a former USC football player who was having a hard time staying faithful to his pill-popping wife. Heston, who was cast in more than a few disaster films for his skill for making bombast and boilerplate dialogue entertaining, gets to be a hero with a very matter-of-fact view of life-saving. The story is constantly vacillating between showing physical triumphs as exactly that and trying to be matter of fact about those selfless acts.

Then again, there's so much genuine innovation and artistry here that you care less about who lives and who dies. The matte paintings, in particular, are incredible at the way they blend with actual locations and action. The new 2K restoration of "Earthquake" on this Blu-ray from Shout! Factory is accompanied by a bevy of special features that anyone interested in the technical aspects of filmmaking should seek out posthaste. The extended television version, although compromised by the aspect ratio to fit for TVs at in the '70s, looks as wonderful as the theatrical version on this new release. If you're wondering if you can feel the titular earthquake the same way that audiences did in 1974, this reviewer watched the film with a surround sound audio system and the vibrations can be clearly felt.

Other special features include:
•"Sounds of Disaster: Ben Burtt Talks About Sensurround"
•"Scoring Disaster: The Music of "Earthquake"
•"Painting Disaster: The Matte Art of Albert Whitlock"
•Original Theatrical Trailer
•Original TV Spot


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