Don't bother getting all shook up over 'The Big One'


November 09, 1990|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

They don't make mini-series like "The Big One: The Great Los Angeles Earthquake" much any more.

And we are all better off because of it.

NBC has been promoting "The Big One," which starts at 9 p.m. Sunday on WMAR-TV (Channel 2), like it really was a big one -- a blockbuster sweeps TV event. It isn't. It's a small-screen version of the disaster films that were popular at Universal Studios in the '70s, films like 1974's stilted and tinny "Earthquake."

If there's a suprise in the four-hour plot for this son of "Earthquake," I missed it.

The star of "The Big One" is Joanna Kern. She plays Claire Winslow, a dedicated seismologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, whose research leads her to believe that Los Angeles is in for a huge earthquake. But almost nobody wants to hear this, particularly the power elite in Southern California who fear her prediction will devastate the real estate market.

Most of Sunday's two hours is spent meeting all the people in Dr.

Winslow's life -- her colleague (Ed Begley Jr.), her husband (Dan Lauria), her daughter (Holly Fields), a TV reporter who sensationalizes what she has to say (Richard Masur), her mother (Bonnie Bartlett), the political aide who tries to sabotage her effort to warn folks of the big trouble ahead (Joe Spano), her sister ( Lindsay Frost), ad infinitum, as they used to say way back when the first batch of bad disaster films were being made about the impending Fall of Rome.

What we mainly get is lots of ominous music (low-rent versions of the dum-dum that played as the shark approached in "Jaws"), images of the earth cracking up outside Los Angeles, and minor shaking around town -- all while these characters go about their lives not listening to the good Dr. Winslow and not realizing what is in store for them.

The rest of the film, which airs at 9 p.m. Monday, is the earthquake itself, the devastation it wreaks and the aftermath. The special effects are better than most viewers will expect after watching two hours of limited acting.

The most interesting thing about the quake itself may be the neat way justice is meted out. Those who were meanest to Dr. Winslow and mocked her predictions the most suffer the most horrible deaths.

Do such screen versions of natural disasters serve any useful purpose?

There is probably some value in being allowed to see our fears and nightmares acted out on the screen. But in the case of "The Big One," it is surely too little value for four hours of most peoples' time.

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