This earthquake disaster movie is no great shakes

November 09, 1990|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Evening Sun Staff

IN HORSE RACING terms, "The Big One: The Great Los Angeles Earthquake" is by Arthur Hailey out of "Jaws." Its lineage includes the Irwin Allen disaster oeuvre, "The Day After" and a host of made-in-Japan sci-fi flicks about monsters and aliens.

Stylistically a throwback to TV films of more than a decade ago, "The Big One" is a well-made mess of a melodrama, hitting every one of its predictable notes with force and clarity, adding the bombastic percussion of nearly-spectacular special effects to an appropriately responsible cautionary message.

This four-hour production which attempts to dramatize what happens when the long-predicted major earthquake strikes L.A. will run in two parts on NBC, beginning Sunday night at 9 o'clock on Channel 2 (WMAR) and continuing Monday at the same time.

As with Hailey's novels, most notably "Airport," "The Big One" takes you into the inner-workings of a large institution, interweaving professional and personal stories as its spins out its expansive yarn.

As with "Jaws," there is something menacing lurking below that the scientists want to warn the people about, but the businessmen want to keep secret.

The crossroads at the center of "The Big One" is Dr. Claire Winslow, a seismologist working for the U.S. Geological Survey in southern California, played with appropriate concern Joanna Kerns of "Growing Pains" fame.

Aided by her impatient assistant, played by Ed Begley Jr. -- as in the "Airport" movies, this sprawling cast is peppered with familiar faces -- Winslow notes the pattern of a series of small quakes and other evidence, such as reduced pressure in oil wells, and thinks that the odds are growing for a major temblor.

But when she tries to get the word out -- Richard Masur's tabloid-style TV reporter would love to get the scoop -- she's stifled by a state bureaucrat, played by Joe Spano of "Hill Street Blues," who is taking his marching orders from a big developer (Robert Ginty) who fears a decline in property values.

Meanwhile, back at home, Claire's husband, a landscape architect played by Dan Lauria of "The Wonder Years," is in line to get a big job from that big developer if his wife will just keep her mouth shut. Is life complicated or what?

Also at the Winslow residence, the Hispanic hired help (Silvana Gallardo) is introduced so that the story can find its way into the poorer neighborhoods when the ground starts shaking.

Then there's Claire's autocratic mom (Bonnie Bartlett of "St. Elsewhere"), who's having trouble coming to terms with the fact that Claire's sister is dating a policeman, giving us a way into the force during the quake, where we are treated to the absurdity of a security detail protecting a visiting South African dignitary from an assassin's attack as the shaking starts.

And making Claire's father a doctor gives the camera a familia face in a hospital. The fact that Claire's parents live on the 17th floor of a high rise inevitably adds to the drama.

All of this is set up with dogged competence rather than genuine cleverness. There's no real suspense in that you know the earthquake Claire is predicting is going to happen. Then again, you knew the shark was going to strike in "Jaws," but under Steven Speilberg's direction, it still managed to scare the bejesus out of you. There's no such brilliance evident in "The Big One."

The actual quake -- which comes about a third of the way into Monday night's part two -- is filmed from all angles in order to document the fates of our large cast, reminiscent of the way Irwin Allen used to stage the seemingly never-ending disasters in his films of that genre.

But the special effects are good and -- particularly in its documentation of the extent of the destruction and the continuing danger from major aftershocks -- the occasionally rises to the level of poignancy of a movie like the "The Day After," which chronicled the aftermath of a nuclear exchange.

It is in trying to unravel the complexities of its plot that "The Big One" comes apart and at times becomes as unintentionally laughable as those old Japanese monster flicks which also usually featured scientists battling a fearsome enemy.

The fates that are saved for the two villains of "The Big One," those who tried to keep the earthquake warning under wraps, are genuinely hilarious.

This was made by people who live in Los Angeles. It is filled with local references, and one of those might be the particular cruelty of the fate saved for our heroine Claire. After the quake she does something unheard of in this city -- she puts on a backpack and starts to walk home!

When they see the beautiful, successful Claire actually walking in this city of cars, that's when Los Angelenos will know that they better start preparing for the worst.

"The Big One: The Great Los Angeles Earthquake"

** A seismologist desperately tries to get people to listen to her prediction that a large earthquake is coming as a variety of stories are melodramatically wrapped around the disaster.

CAST: Joanna Kerns, Dan Lauria, Ed Begley Jr.

TIME: Sunday and Monday at 9 o'clock


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