Disaster 102: The Movie Marathon That Destroyed the World (Part 1)
I’ve been away for some time, but over my extended vacation I had the pleasure of watching a treasure trove of disaster movies, which made me giddy. I want to share these gems with you, but there’s quite a few, so I’m breaking it up into parts. Part 1 and 2 will be earthquake movies, Part 3 will be weather movies and Part 4 will be dedicated to volcanoes. I present to you now, Part 1 of The Movie Marathon That Destroyed the World: Earthquake Season #1.
10.5 – Standing on the shoulders of previous Southern California earthquake movies such as the classic Earthquake with Moses himself (Charlton Heston), and the early 90s scarefest The Great Los Angeles Earthquake (and I call it a scarefest because I saw it as a child and it scared the crap out of me), 10.5 outdoes them all by including the rest of the West Coast in the action. We start the movie in Seattle, with some generic rockin’ music and a visual of some punk kid on a bike acting the fool as the credits roll. I love this movie because they waste no time in getting to the destroying of monuments, as shortly after we’re introduced to unnecessary wheelie kid, a 7.9 earthquake strikes the Great White City and the bike kid has to pedal furiously (and unrealistically) out of the way of the crumbling Space Needle.
The geological authorities in Seattle can’t seem to figure out where the quake originated from. However, the star seismologist in the movie, Dr. Samantha Hill (played aptly by Kim Delaney) has an idea, and, as the trope goes, it’s related to her radical scientific theory that is unproven as yet. She thinks a deep, as yet undetected fault has activated some other faults and that’s why there’s no epicenter. Her main drama is that she’s trying to prove her theory before the U.S. Geological Service comes in to take over the Seattle operation. I can only assume Dr. Hill is part of some kind of weird independent seismological business, or maybe university-related, but you’re never really given that information.
Breaking the cherished trope of there being a black President in times of disaster, our unfortunate head of state, the squishy-yet-determined Beau Bridges, is given the news as he finishes a rousing basketball game with an as-yet-unidentified road dog. This to me is the least believable scene in the movie as I seriously doubt the eldest Bridges would make it through a game of b-ball. But hey, suspension of disbelief, right? After he’s cleaned up, he’s shown footage of the disaster and President Beau gets to be all earnest with lines like “We’re going to do whatever we can to help those people through this tragedy”.
At this point we’re introduced to some minor players to add some human interest to the movie, but I’m not particularly interested in the human side of this disaster so I won’t get into their stories here.
Back in Seattle, it turns out Samantha Hill’s original prediction based on her radical scientific theory was correct. There’s just no quantifiable way to prove it. As Samantha and her supervisor, Dr. Jordan Fisher (David Cubitt) sit with this new information, the focus switches to a California family, particularly an antagonistic teenager and her father, leaving her mother to go on a camping trip. Thank god that scene doesn’t last long, and we switch to California, outside of Redding, where a train is running on some tracks that are falling into a huge crevice forming in the ground behind it during an 8.4 “aftershock” of the Seattle quake. I’m imagining this is supposed to be dramatic, like the train might not fall in! But it totally does, and that’s why I love disaster movies.
Dr. Samantha Hill is now trying to convince her boss that her deep hidden fault theory explains why that aftershock was so much bigger than the original quake (and why it was located in California). As in all disaster movies, this theory is a “stretch” and considered radical. Switch to poor President Bridges, who now has to emote disbelief, determination, strength and empathy, which is really stretching those acting chops. He calls up his b-ball homie at FEMA, Roy Nolan (perennial “hey it’s that one guy” Fred Ward) and dispatches him to deal with the disasters, who calls for certain seismologists and other geological all-stars to come to L.A. and try to figure out what they’re facing. As is necessary for the storyline to continue, Drs. Fisher and Hill are summoned to serve their country.
At FEMA’s L.A. headquarters, Dr. Hill endears herself to her peers by trying to convince them and Nolan that her hidden fault theory explained everything and that the earthquakes were going to keep happening. Dismissing her out of hand, they focus on some other more believable explanation while Hill stews over her colleagues’ lack of realization that she’s the only one who knows what’s really going on. After a city gets swallowed in Northern California, Nolan decides to give Hill the proverbial rope to hang herself with — she gets to go trekking out to where she thinks the hidden fault is and try to prove her theory.
When she gets there she finds dead birds and a whole lot of pockets of poison gas that apparently mean she’s right. Cue the dramatic scene where her and her pal Dr. Fisher run to the car to avoid breathing the gas and Fisher passes out until Samantha can get the mask on him. Lucky for us, we don’t lose such an integral character just yet.
Back in L.A. Samantha “punches in the data” and predicts the next earthquake will occur in San Francisco. She presents Nolan with the prediction and he is, as the trope goes, extremely skeptical and refuses to evacuate SF. I see destroyed landmarks in our future, people!
And sure enough, San Francisco gets hit with a 9.2 earthquake, and that Golden Gate Bridge is swinging and shaking. It finally breaks and we get to watch cars fall into the bay like Hot Wheels. This is what disaster movies are all about, folks. That whole bridge straight up falls into the water. That Nolan guy is feeling pretty stupid right about now, but our dear Samantha is vindicated and now becomes his go-to for what’s going to happen from now on. Yes, it’s the timeline trope.
With her newfound credibility, Dr. Hill makes a dire prediction: the entire West Coast is going to fall into the sea in a matter of days. Their only hope is — wait for it — to stop the chain reaction at the San Andreas by nuking the fault in various places to “fuse” it. This is deliciously trope-a-licious, because as I stated in my previous post, “Be Prepared: Disaster Movie 101“, 9 times out of 10 the solution to any disaster situation is to use nuclear weapons. Nolan informs President Beau that he needs to nuke the San Andreas, which presents him with an important decision to make — use nukes on American soil, or do nothing and have the West Coast fall into the sea. If this happened in real life, I imagine the East Coast mofos directing this crap wouldn’t be too sorry to see us West Coast-ians go. But for our movie’s purposes, they actually care, and President Beau decides to nuke the fault and evacuate the entire West Coast.
They get all the warheads in place and everything is going swimmingly until they get to the last site to nuke. An aftershock shakes the warhead out of place and it doesn’t go deep enough into the earth to do what it needs to do. Tragically, poor Nolan bites it on this one, as he stupidly and therefore heroically goes down into the hole drilled for the nuke to detonate it manually (up until now Dr. Hill has been detonating them remotely). Was the detonation deep enough to seal the fault? We know it wasn’t, because we haven’t yet experienced that 10.5 earthquake the title promises.
Everyone’s all excited because they think everything is okay. But the San Andreas Fault’s activity isn’t decreasing. I smell L.A. plunging into the ocean right about now. “How big do you think this quake will be?” President Beau asks of Dr. Hill. “I believe it will change the geography of California”, she replies. THAT is what I’m talking about. Now they start trying to evacuate everyone in Los Angeles and surrounding areas up to about the Inland Empire. Hey man, I live in Pasadena! You’re telling me THAT’S falling into the sea? I always thought I was far enough inland… I digress, back to the disaster.
The earthquake begins. This is getting good. We see the Hollywood sign fall first, of course, then the downtown L.A. high rises start going. It’s getting into some real geopr0n as we see the L.A. area sequentially collapse into the Pacific like dominos. We’re at 9.8. Lots of screaming and running at the refugee camps set up supposedly eastwardly enough to not be affected by the collapse. The ocean gushes into the gash left by the San Andreas opening up. 10.1. I’m already extremely satisfied by this point, but it continues! The San Gabriel Valley, gone! Pomona, wiped out! This earthquake is lasting like, 10 minutes or something. Not that I’m complaining, the more disaster the better in my opinion. The refugee camp is being split in two as a chasm develops between the Pacific Plate and the North American plate. More rushing water, and here comes the chanting music that always, always plays in movies during large scale tragedies. The shaking continues, as does the screaming and running. We almost lose Dr. Fisher AGAIN, as well as Dr. Hill, but the chasm stops inches from their feet. No more shaking. No more collapsing. Refugees look in awe at the other people across the newly formed sea. Pretty much all the minor players made it, by the way, if you were concerned about the human factor.
It’s finally over, and President Beau is all acted out. He’s barely able to pull off a sigh of relief. The movie closes on him intoning about how we’re all going to make it together and what not, and the camera pulls back to reveal California has a brand new island — and a whole lot less land on the continent.
What have we learned from this? Four hours of disaster goodness takes about 1750 words to recap.
Next up: 10.5: Apocalypse in Part 2 of “The Movie Marathon That Destroyed the World”.