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The Movie "Earthquake!"- (1974)
A Geo-logical Movie Review

By Rick Wilson
Engineering Geologist, California Geological Survey

Despite what you might hear: Geologists love movies about geology...even bad movies about geology. Oh, you might hear us groaning at the very idea of a volcano erupting in downtown Los Angeles (which isn't a possibility), but we will put on our hats, sun-glasses, and trench coats and, after paying, sneak in to watch even the most outlandish movies, geologically speaking. Why? Because Hollywood (or New Zealand, based on the recent Oscar score card) has gotten extremely good at making even the impossible look so real!

Sometimes, however, a movie comes along that not only has the special effects to tingle the senses, but also has a strong degree of plausibility to massage the geo-intellect. Such a movie is the 1974 Universal Pictures movie "Earthquake!" starring Charlton Heston.

The movie starts out in typical melodramatic fashion: a day in the life of a dozen or so Los Angeleans whose world will be turned up-side-down by a cataclysmic earthquake (we know this based on the movie's title), and whose lives and survival will ultimately become intertwined in the aftermath. But, enough of the plot...what about the earthquake!

I'd like to make one thing clear: just because a movie's primary event (a huge earthquake in this case) seems to make sense geologically, invariably aspects of the truth will always be "Hollywoodized." As movie goers, we have become used to a presentation of how things should be or should appear rather than how they really are. In other words, having seen so many movies we think we know the truth, but we might not. The movie gives us our expectations of the truth rather than the scientific or practical truth. Cases in point in scenes in "Earthquake!":

  • The graduate assistant Walter Russell at the California Seismological Institute (CSI) predicted the minor, early morning earthquake based on stress measurements, and then predicts the "Big One" based on this same information. The fact is that even in 2004, we CAN'T predict individual earthquakes within the "next 24 hours" as Walter did.

  • Walter's university advisor gets killed in a trench that crosses "the fault" in Fresno. Beyond the fact that no sane geologist would get into an unshored trench like the scientists in the movie, there are no large faults near Fresno; the San Andreas fault (thought to be the realistic source for any "Big One") is more than 60 miles west of Fresno.

  • After a technician drowns in an elevator shaft of a dam, the dam engineer (sorry, I couldn't resist) tells the other technician that there is nothing wrong with the dam. In reality, a situation like that would likely lead to nearly five or six different Federal, State, and local agencies making inquiries and inspections of the dam with the possible evacuation of several hundred-thousand residents downstream of the reservoir.

  • The shaking from the earthquake lasted nearly nine minutes. Though this was likely done to show the effects on all the principals in the story, strong shaking during a real earthquake of a similar magnitude would not likely last more than several minutes.

  • An emergency shelter was established in an "earthquake proof" high-rise building. First, there is no such thing as an "earthquake proof" building. Second, and more important, with the size and destruction associated with the earthquake, an outdoor venue or a single-story structure would have likely been chosen for an emergency shelter.

Though some of these events might seem plausible from a lay-person's standpoint, because they are presented in a potentially realistic movie like "Earthquake!" they are also considered realistic. This can be dangerous because the viewer will not be able to distinguish between science fact and science fiction, and may base their personal safety on elements of movies like this one.

Despite these problems, the movie also does an excellent job of portraying a wide range of factual situations, expected outcomes, and lessons learned that are accurate in the geologic/scientific/emergency preparedness sense:

  • Animals acted strangely before the earthquake. Though this phenomenon has been observed, there is no way to use this as an earthquake predictor because there are too many other variables that can cause the same response in animals.

  •  When people panic in a mob setting, others can get trampled. Others who are calm, like the drunk in the bar (played to a tee by Walter Mathau), tend not to make mistakes (no...I am not advocating drinking alcohol!).

  •  Whether in a building or on a downtown street, things like broken ceiling pieces, bricks, and glass will fall off of buildings and onto people. Finding a strong metal desk to crawl under (like the scientist at the CSI), or a car when outside a building (like Heston does), may help keep big, hard, and bad things off of your head.

  •  Downed electric poles are very dangerous as a young boy and his mother were nearly "shocked" to find out.

  • The bell tower at the mission was one of the first things to fall, indicative of what can happen to old, unreinforced structures during earthquakes.

  • The people that crammed into the elevator during the earthquake found out the hard way that it was the wrong thing to do. Next time, take the stairs!

  • Although you think that things on the ground don't need to be bolted down, the people in the bar found out that an unanchored pool table can be hard to dodge in a confined area.

  • Ground cracks form throughout many streets disrupting and damaging buildings. Cracks like these occur because of surface fault rupture, liquefaction, and landslides. Many movies inaccurately portray cracks opening wide, swallowing people, and then closing...for the most part, this movie did it right.

  • And on a somewhat lighter note: Whatever you do, DON'T run into the house with a lit cigarette to turn off the gas! Turning off gas in buildings after an earthquake was mentioned several times in the movie.

 One last thought. Although a movie like "Earthquake!" that portrays geology related events may be of interest to people in my profession, we are equally horrified by the destruction actual earthquakes cause. The thought of these horrors and our ability to help people better understand, appreciate, and plan for earthquakes makes working in an earthquake-related field very rewarding. Having said that, it is also nice to watch an entertaining movie like "Earthquake!" and escape reality for a while.

 

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