10.5 Part 1 (2004)

Note: I apologize that the following, predictably tortuous and poorly composed review is unalleviated by pictures. However, I was working off a crappy tape, and getting even poor quality still captures would have required more time and effort than I was willing to expend.


For those readers for whom this NBC mini-series passed without notice, let me explain a few things. First, 10.5 is not, as one would naturally expect, the story of a women who’s slightly hotter than Bo Derek. It’s about earthquakes. Second, as is typical of this sort of thing, the narrative tends to rapidly cut back and forth between a large roster of characters and locations. I could attempt to pedantically reflect this in the following review, but it would be pretty obnoxious. Therefore if several events are being covered at one time, I’ll generally follow each arc in succession.

We open early one morning in Seattle. A rather broadly presented Extreme Sports enthusiast, swathed in Spandex, is romping around town on his BMX bicycle. This continues for several minutes, during which the credits roll. As we know from Rad, one can never watch too much BMX biking. Eventually, though, Our Temporary Protagonist comes to a sudden stop, an amazed look on his face. The camera pans to reveal the object of his gaze: It’s a woman who’s slightly hotter than Bo Derek…

Sorry. That’s what logically should have happened. Instead, an earthquake begins to shake the surrounding area. As the ground ruptures and display windows explode around him and other such stuff, he wheels his bike around expertly. Always a bare foot ahead of death or dismemberment, he survives falling pallets of bricks, crashing cars, fireballs and so on. This continues for a good long while (partly because his travails are intercut with various other scenes), before he finally believes he’s reached safe ground and comes to a halt.

However, the foundation of the edifice he rests beside almost immediately begins to splinter. Said building proves to be the Space Needle. What else would it be? Movie disasters, after all, always seek out well-known landmarks. Since this scene is taking place in Seattle, that meant the Space Needle, Kurt Cobain’s old house, a flannel shirt outlet or a Starbucks.

In a sequence that might well seem spectacular, were it not for the nagging suspicion that it was intended to inspire a Universal Studios theme park ride, the biker performs various and sundry amazing feats as he tries to outrace the toppling tower. I suppose I could be nitpicky and suggest that he would have been better served by merely riding in some direction other that in which the tower was falling. However, since he ends up getting mashed into paste just before reaching safety, such carping might seem a bit caviler.

From an, er, artistic standpoint, the prologue acknowledges its ’70s cinematic forebears by being shot in a manner indicative of that decade. To wit, a bogus impression of cinema verite is created via the employment of a jittery handheld camera, while various snapshots of the action are often presented in multiple small boxes set against a black background. These interior boxes, moreover, often scoot around and change size and suchlike. Anyone who’s seen Ang Lee’s The Hulk will know what I’m talking about. In any case, at first this acknowledgement of the film’s cinematic forebears seems at least slightly witty. Until, that is, we realize to our horror that these intrusive directorial flourishes will be employed throughout the feature’s entire three-hour running time*.

[*Three hours being a rough guestimate of the cumulative four hour slot minus commercials, credits, etc.]

Moreover, in an overly cute attempt to tie into the film’s central device—by which I mean things shaking—the camera will continuously move in small increments towards and then back away again from whatever is the current object of its attention. As anyone conversant with the genre would fully expect, the film features quite a lot of talking head footage. This means that whenever a character is shot in close-up, the frame will refuse to remain static. Instead, it will constantly zoom in and out and bob back and forth. It’s like they hired a cameraman with severe ADD, and the effect is predictably obnoxious.

Back to our story. Somewhere else in town, foxy–and I swear I’m not making this up–Samantha “Sam” Hill (Kim Delaney, late of NYPD Blue and, more briefly, CSI: Miami, as well as a 2002 show called Philly that I can’t for the life of me remember) is wakened by the quake and seeks shelter within a nearby doorway. Concurrently, alarms are going off at some Seattle-based Seismology Institute. Crap falls off shelves and light fixtures explode in showers of sparks and so on. In a scene that will not be quickly forgotten by anyone who witnesses it, a couple of extras and head seismologist Dr. Jordan Fisher (David Cubitt, a veteran of seven [!] short lived TV series) take turns yelling out ever-climbing Richter Scale numbers as they are updated on their networked desk computers.

With the opening set piece—the collapse of the Space Needle—concluded, the quake quickly comes to a halt. Samantha hears her phone ringing and digs it out from underneath a pile of her toppled possessions. It’s here, as the camera pointlessly continued to jump forward and back, that we realize this technique will be employed even during the non-quake scenes.

After a brief conversation Sam prepares to leave. Here the camera helpfully zooms in towards a copy of the wittily titled Hidden Faults Lines, a tome featuring Our Heroine’s picture on its back cover. This is the rather clumsy mechanism used to establish her as Dr. Samantha Hill, cutting-edge and curly-haired seismologist.

Samantha quickly arrives at the Institute, which they don’t (and as far as I could tell, never do) bother to name. Meanwhile, a TV reporter in a picture-in-picture box is providing details of Seattle’s near total destruction. Sadly, we don’t get to actually see any of this, due, no doubt, to budget constraints. As Sam strides down the hall in that ‘Out Of My Way, I’m A Fully Self-Sufficient and Autonomous Womyn And I Don’t Take No Crap From Nobody’ fashion, the building experiences further shaking from an aftershock, as indicated by yet more camera jiggling and additional showers of sparks cascading down from the lighting fixtures.

I don’t want to shock the hell out of everyone, but when Samantha finally marches into Jordan’s office, we learn the following*:

They used to work together at this very same Unnamed Institute.
We get the feeling that they were once romantically involved, or at least attracted to one another.
Sam casually asserts theories about the quake that contradict those arrived at by the large, highly trained staff and elaborate computers of the Institute. This annoys the skeptical Jordan no end, but Sam is quickly proven correct in every detail.
Sam left the Institute when Science starting taking a back seat to Politics. In other words, The Man didn’t take heed of some highly intuitive theorizing she did on (three guesses) hidden fault lines, using as a lame excuse the fact that she had zero concrete evidence to support her radical suppositions.
Sam scorns Jordan’s staying behind, instead of proving his Scienmatifical Purity by following her lead and quitting, too.
Sam no sooner enters the Control Room than she begins ordering the staff around, whereupon everyone, sensing that they are in the presence of a Natural Leader, immediately hops to obey. Jordan, however, like all men, is threatened by a Strong Womyn. He pathetically attempts to assert his corrupted authority—i.e., he’s officially the ‘boss’—at every opportunity. “This is my operation,” he manspeaks, “and you don’t just come in here and take over.” What a troglodyte!
The scene concludes with the tired old gag where Sam issues an order, and Jordan lectures her on how he’s the one in charge, after which then he turns around and issues the exact same order she just did. Ha Hah!
[*Future Ken: Actually, I cheated. Not everything stipulated above was actually confirmed at this point. I was just assuming it all. Like Sam being proven right about the nature of the quakes, or her and Jordan once having been romantically involved, or that she disdained him for placing politics, and job security, above Science. However, and here’s the amazing part, everything I’d written here eventually turns out to be accurate. Look at me; I’m the new Kriswell!]

We cut to two middle-aged men playing a fiercely contested game of one-on-one basketball. In a few minute we’ll learn that one of them is Paul Hollister, the President of the United States (Beau Bridges). However, since the omnipresent commercials for the miniseries’ initial run clearly identified Bridges as playing the President, I doubt if this revelation was, in fact, much of a surprise to most of the show’s original viewership.

In the meantime, we see that great camaraderie exists between Hollister and his opponent, Roy Nolan (Fred Ward – yay!). Nolan proves to be—three guesses—Hollister’s former college roommate and long-time best friend. Needless to say, their relationship is established in strokes that may charitably be described as broad and obvious. For instance, we learn of their backstory when Nolan starts a sentence by saying, “Just because I’m your old college roommate…” Man, that’s some sly screenwriting, there. That the scene works better than it should is entirely due to Bridges and Ward, two canny veterans who (at least here) generally manage to rise about the script.

The sum of Nolan’s *cough, cough* character is hamfistedly established by the following bits of dialogue:

Hollister: “Playing for all the marbles today, Roy?”
Nolan, cheerfully but manfully: “Is there any other way to play?”


Hollister: “You always go for the long shot when you get desperate!”

In other words, Roy Nolan is a risk-taker. Now, I’m no Nostradamus or anything. Even so, I’m ready to bet that Nolan will bite it by the end of the film. After all, the Tragic Death of a major character is all but required in these things. Somehow I seriously doubt they’re going to whack the President of the United States, much less Sam the Heroic Hot Lady Scientist or Jordan, her obviously Love Interest In Waiting. (Although the latter isn’t outside the bounds of possibility. I just don’t think the makers of this particular flick would go that far out on a limb.)

Risk Taker Roy seems an obvious candidate for four-hanky martyrdom. He’ll no doubt go doing something immensely heroic, probably while talking to Hollister on a radio or something. His last line will be something like, “C’mon, Paul, you know I always go for the long shot when things get desperate.”

Whoever cast this movie deserved a raise, by the way. If anyone could make this hoary crap work—assuming things turn out the way I predict—it’s Fred Ward. He’s among that small set of actors who can walk through the worst movie and emerge entirely unscathed. Admittedly, I’ve loved the guy since I first saw The Right Stuff back in ’84. However, I’ve never met anyone who knew who Ward was and didn’t like his work.

Meanwhile, and I’ll try not to beat this aspect to death, but Hollister and Nolan are featured here via a series of severe close-ups on their sweaty mugs. This provides another showcase for the horrendously aggravating habit of the camera to continuously zoom in and out on their faces.

There follows several minutes of exposition and ‘character’ establishment. After these necessities have been attended to, John, a presidential aide, enters and informs Hollister about the quake. John, we can tell, is a weasly jerk. He’s all uptight and fussy and wears glasses and a dark suit and is generally smug and officious and all that stuff.

And on we go, to meet our next set of characters. Clark (John Schneider, of Dukes of Hazzard and Smallville) is at the home of Carla, his ex—or perhaps just estranged—wife. He’s there to pick up Amanda, their textbook Mildly Rebellious Teenage Daughter, so the two can go camping together. As you might expect, assuming you are yourself a hack writer, all Amanda does is sulk and annoy her father by loudly playing gangster rap music.

Needless to say, Clark hasn’t always been a Very Good Father. As a result, Amanda’s all, you know, like, distant and stuff. If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because Clark and Amanda’s father / daughter relationship is pretty much identical to that of Tommy Lee Jones and Gaby Hoffman in Volcano. Still, I’m sure after they face death together a number of times they’ll learn that family is all that matters, blah blah blah. After that, I figure the odds are five to three that Clark and Carla will remember why they loved each other and get back together and all that junk.

Their character traits are established in so obvious a fashion that they might as well have had the actors step forward, face the camera and quickly limn their characters for us. “Hi. I’m John Schneider, and I’m going to be playing Clark, ex-husband of…” Here’s a taste of what I mean:

Clark is crabby because Amanda is dithering around rather than being ready to leave. [Clark can be cranky, Amanda can be a pain in the ass.] Clark and Carla are a bit testy with each other. [Clark and Carla are estranged.] Carla notes, “This is the first camping trip you’ve taken Amanda on in four years.” [Clark hasn’t always been the father he should be.] Amanda mewls, “Stop fighting, pleee-ase.” [Clark and Carla are estranged, and it affects their daughter.] Amanda is wearing inappropriate clothes for a camping trip, and hasn’t bothered to pack any gear. [Amanda is a complete and utter twit.] Amanda loudly plays rap music in the SUV, much to Clark’s annoyance. [Clark doesn’t understand his own daughter, while Amanda is being purposely annoying to get back at his long-standing negligence.] The two drive off, allowing for the scene’s punch line. Carla, still standing around outside in her pajamas and robe, answers her cell phone. Through this we learn that she’s the Governor of California. Gee, Carla is the Governor, and her state is presumably going to be rocked by earthquakes some time soon, and her ex-husband—Could she possibly still have feelings for him? Could she?!—and daughter are going to be up in the woods during all this. Wow, I can’t see what the script will do with a scenario like that.

On to the Oval Office, where Hollister is watching the news with his advisors. I could see him having it on in the background, so as to get the tone of the coverage. However, I’d also like to think he’d have some alternate method for getting up-to-the-minute information. What with him being, you know, the President of the United States and all. There’s a very sub-West Wing type roundtable discussion of the event and its ramifications. However, the scene is pretty much filler, here to allow Hollister a chance to give a big speech about Helping Everyone Whatever It Takes and Dammit, I Care!! Needless to say, inspirational music swells up on the soundtrack during this.

In case we’ve failed to understand that Hollister is an Inspiring, Caring and Take Charge Leader, there follows this conversation:

Weasly Aide John (as soon as he opens his mouth, you know he’s going to prove that he doesn’t ‘get’ it): “Mr. President, you have a meeting scheduled with the German ambassador.”
Hollister, authoritatively: “Reschedule.”
Weasly Aide John, not ‘getting’ it: “Sir, he’s not going to be pleased. You’ve rescheduled twice already.”
Hollister, manfully: “And I’m rescheduling it again! My people come first.”

Cripes, that’s lame, and that “Amerikins before For’ners!” stuff is simplistically jingoistic even by my standards. C’mon, now. What ambassador could possibly expect to meet with a national leader after an event of this magnitude? And what presidential aide would be stupid enough to be more concerned with such a meeting than with a homeland crisis? And even if he were totally venal and unfeeling towards his victimized countrymen, no aide would urge an elected official to meet with a foreign emissary after such a catastrophe. I mean, imagine the press coverage if he did!

Bad movies nearly always give good guy authority figures these sorts of flunkies. The idea, of course, is to demonstrate, by contrast, the Inspirational Leader’s impeccable humanity and forthrightness and probity and whatnot. However, they never seem to figure out that the audience is reacting not by nodding their heads and thinking, “What a guy!”, but by wondering, “Man, why’s that dude got just a complete putz in his inner circle?”

Back to Jordan and Sam. The startling revelations fly fast and thick, as we learn that *gasp* the two had once been romantically involved, and that Sam carries a grudge against him because he had earlier put Politics above Science. (Author! Author!) To wit, he had recommended somebody else for a promotion Sam wanted, even though she was easily more brilliant than her competitor.

Since this is a TV movie, and everything has to be set out in utterly stark terms, it turns out that the guy Jordan recommended wasn’t just less intelligent than Sam, he hadn’t even been published in the field. Apparently, it came down to the Abrasive Strong Woman Genius and the Dopey, Unqualified Man. You’d think maybe there would have been more candidates than that to choose from, but I guess not.

In any case, Jordan stipulates that all this is true, but notes that Sam doesn’t work well with others. She’s so damn smart and sure of herself that she scares and intimidates everyone. “You’re not a team player,” he cogently explains. Wow! Not a team player! I hope the guys who wrote this win an Emmy, because these insights into the Human Condition are dynamite!

The annoying thing is that the job was apparently administrative in nature, and that nobody wanted to work under Sam because she’s so obnoxious. This is all glossed over, of course, as the film predictably takes Sam’s side. She’s smarter than the guy who was hired, and obviously that’s the only relevant criteria. Whether she’d make her underlings miserable and end up getting crappy work out of them and perhaps causing a bunch of them to quit is beside the point.

Thus Jordan’s taking the side of the Other Guy (as well as that of the various workers who, quite understandably, didn’t want to work directly under a complete jerk) represented a stab in the back. Moreover, although they obviously don’t come right out and say this, it’s implied that Jordan had a responsibility to back Sam up because she was his girlfriend. I mean, you know, the idea of strictly compartmentalizing your responsibilities between the personal and the professional is so, like, male.

[Future Ken: This also proves the first scene, among about a zillion, where Jordan demonstrates that he’s a secure male and worthy of Sam’s love by groveling and apologizing to her, even when he’s completely in the right. Here he apologizes for coming down on her earlier, when he objected to her walking into an office she (apparently) no longer works at and started bossing around his underlings.

This will prove one of the more obnoxious elements of the teleplay, and stems from Sam being the film’s Designated Hero(ine), i.e., the character the audience is intended to always take the side of. We know she’s right about everything—after all, we’re watching a miniseries about a string of massive earthquakes—and thus we’re to ignore the fact that in real life any intelligent person would consider Sam a monumentally abrasive, self-righteous kook.]

Cut to a Los Angeles Hospital, which, like the Seismology Institute, remains entirely generic. Here we meet Owen and Zach. Zach is the hotshot surgeon, Owen his more grounded friend and co-worker. Zach’s Primary Character Trait is that he never asks for help, because, as he explains, “I’ve never needed to.” Owen admonishes him for this, as well as for the fact that he bulldozes his co-workers, arrogantly employs radical procedures and never follows “The Book.”

This is pretty damn funny because in essence Zach is almost exactly the same character as Sam. Only the film champions her for the very traits that in Zach are put forth as his Official Personality Flaws. Characters in these things need those, of course, so that they can be corrected by the film’s end, thus providing, you know, Personal Growth stuff. See, that’s what will give Zach the satisfyingly blunt Character Arc we bumpkin audiences so crave.

The irony is that Zach is much more likeable than Sam, and thus should actually be given more slack, since he roils his co-workers less. This is largely due to the casting. Sam is played, as noted, by Kim Delaney. Few people project whiny, grating self-righteousness as opulently as she does. Were the character the film’s Designated Villain rather than its Designated Heroine, Sam would be portrayed to be completely insufferable, and quite probably played as a supercilious British male.

Why are Sam and Zach treated by the same script so differently? I once came up with the idea of PC (Political Correctness) points to explain to a confused, apolitical friend why the press coverage of the Clarence Thomas / Anita Hill imbroglio seemed so heavily slanted in Hill’s favor. My system involved awarding points to each participant based partly on how progressive their politics were, but more generally for being a member of some discreet insular minority. Thomas was black, and that was good. However, Hill was black and a woman, and that was better. Moreover, Thomas was a political conservative—appointed by the evil Ronald Reagan, no less—and thus was given an Uncle Tom point penalty. From that perspective, the press had no choice but to back Hill, despite the lack of objective evidence to back up her claims.

This systems works here, as well. Thus:

Sam is always right in her dealings with Jordan, or (later on) Nolan or even the President of the United States, because she’s a woman and they’re not.
Owen, meanwhile, can castigate Zach for acting in the same manner Sam does, because Zach is a white male and Owen a black one.
However, we also learn that Owen is fighting with his wife Jill. He bought a Porsche, while she wanted to use the money to move them and their two children into a bigger house. Jill can safely castigate Owen, because while he is a black male, she’s a black woman.
Let me be clear. I’m not saying that the scriptwriters and casting agents and director necessarily meant to put all this in there. (Although in Sam’s case it’s pretty obvious that one of the main reasons we’re to back her is because she’s a Strong Woman.) Indeed, the film’s conception of personal politics swerves mindlessly back and forth from the PC to the Reactionary. Examples of the latter include the fact that the quakes will indirectly serve to heal several splintered family relationships. Oddly, the stress the situation generates won’t conversely cause other troubled relationships to rupture completely, as you might expect.

However, just because the writing is philosophically and/or politically incoherent doesn’t mean that my musings are necessarily or completely inaccurate. The fact is that the screenplay amounts to a turgid mass of clichés. The political resonance, or more accurately dissonance, of these various clichés probably wasn’t taken into account when they were Frankensteined together into a script. To the extent that they were purposeful, it probably represented an attempt to please everyone.

Anyway…damn, we’re only about twelve minutes into this. Better get going.

Back to the Institute. Jordan informs Sam that *gasp* the predictions about the quake she tossed around earlier have proven correct. “You were right, Sam,” he admits. Along with, “Sam, I’m sorry,” that line represents about 37% of Jordan’s dialogue in the movie.

Owen calls Jill. They argue. Clark and Amanda drive along. They argue. Then we get one of the film’s comic highlights. We cut to a train traveling through a remote area. Of course, we know what’s going to happen now. Trains always get destroyed in Giant Monster movies, and that’s basically what a Disaster Movie is, after all. Sure enough, another earthquake occurs, causing a fissure to start opening up right behind the speeding train. Hilariously, to foster suspense, the fissure then proceeds to follow along behind the train, as it chasing it! This occurs even after the train turns a corner. Eventually the train is swallowed up, into a very deep crevasse, whereupon the fissure instantly ceases to advance.

For whatever reason, there’s very little onscreen death in this movie. That’s pretty comical for a film centered on gigantic urban centers being decimated by massive earthquakes. It’s also atypical for the Disaster genre, which usually revels in grotesque carnage. I’m sure it’s partly because it’s a TV movie, but even so, I’ve seen such that were much grizzlier. In any case, while the train plummets to its destruction, we never once see any of its passengers meeting their ends. Massive death tolls are implied throughout the picture, but extremely few people actually buy it onscreen.

Back at the Institute, everyone is flummoxed. Earthquakes don’t follow each other in succession (or, generally, chase after passenger trains). However, this second event in northern California has scaled 8.4, which is higher than the initial Seattle quake. Such is, we’re told, more than a little atypical for an aftershock. Needless to say, this is all your standard Portentous Signs filler, meant to sloooowly inch the other characters along to path to realizing that Sam is on to something.

Here, after about twenty minutes, we get our first commercial break. They often hold off on the first one to get you hooked, even though that means that subsequent breaks arrive at an even greater than usual frequency. It was here I learned that NBC had decided to employ one of my personal bete noirs: The commercials are bracketed with short clips of ‘exciting’ scenes from later in the show.

Presumably the network knows its business, and perhaps these previews indeed keep viewers from wandering to other channels. However, whatever happened to the idea of being surprised? Does the average viewer really like knowing in advance what set piece is coming? Of sitting around waiting for some moment they saw twenty minutes ago to be fleshed out? This is a variation of those horrible three-minute movie trailers we get in theaters, the ones you have to avert your eyes from and hum through lest some film you want to see is entirely blown months before it’s even released.

Cut to Governor Carla’s office. Various extras scurry around to indicate a staff in crisis mode. Carla is on the phone with the governor of Washington, promising any aide she can provide. Rachel, Carla’s personal assistant, comes in and informs her that there’s an important call on another line. This is when Carla learns of the second quake, here in California.

Back to Clark and Amanda. They argue. She’s wrapped up in herself (duh, she’s a teenager), he’s a bad father, etc. This is the kind of stuff that’s supposed to make the spectacle ‘matter,’ right?

Back to her office, where Governor Carla opines that she shouldn’t make a public statement until “we know all the facts.” Yeah, that will work. I’m sure the Press will be like, “Sure, OK, we’ll call back later. Or you could call us, when you’re ready. Whatever works for you.” Then she starts calling for Rachel. In the film’s most strenuously useless Personal Subplot—and that’s saying something—Rachel is talking to her husband on the phone. He wants to have a baby, she doesn’t. Seriously, this is what they’re talking about in the middle of this gigantic state crisis. It’s…it’s…

Working. It just hit me. Rachel is a person. Sure, one we’ll see for about five minutes total, and in thirty seconds increments. But, still. She’s a person, a woman with her own identity, her own real-life problems, a career, a husband…albeit one we’ll see for a total of about forty seconds. But, still. Wow. Is that something in my eye? Excuse me for a second, would you, folks?

Still, is it just because I’m a guy, or did actual female viewers also think it obnoxious to watch a woman who’s the chief assistant to the governor of the most populous state in the Union, during an extraordinary crisis, yakking on the phone with her husband while her boss repeatedly calls out for her?

I realize the thinking behind these things is that the personal stories are important so as to keep the viewer involved on a human level. Seriously, though, couldn’t this particular conversation wait for a more appropriate time? We’ll be getting a lot more of this sort of thing. The main effect of these ‘humanizing’ subplots is to make our cast seem remarkably self-absorbed, what with all the widespread death and destruction and everything.

Meanwhile, Governor Carla continues her strategy of remaining sequestered in her office and not addressing the media. Her rationale is still that this is the best course of action until there’s hard data available. Did no one who worked on this movie have even the slightest knowledge of politics? If anything is likely to trigger the public panic she’s supposedly seeking to avoid, it would be the Governor squirreling herself away and remaining incommunicado in the aftermath of two huge west coast disasters. Seriously, this is utterly moronic, and the idea that it represents enlightened leadership is downright inane.

Back to the Institute. Sam for the first time advances to Jordan the idea that the second event was a discrete earthquake, not an aftershock. This early in things, of course, nobody’s ready to buy into her theories. Actually, they shouldn’t, because what she’s suggesting is unprecedented in recorded history. However, when Jordan objects that the odds against sequential quakes are gigantic, she replies, “The odds of an aftershock being larger than the original quake are worse.” He doesn’t contradict this statement, implying that it’s accurate. This makes his, and everyone else’s, refusal to listen to what she has to say rather nakedly a matter of script mechanics. Yeesh, I can’t believe people make good money writing this stuff.

Anyway, for those that care, her radical theory is that there are super-faults hidden so deep within the Earth that they are at present beyond scientific detection. (Why haven’t these faults caused serial monster quakes before? Uh….) Despite the fact that she’s apparently the only person in the world to believe this idea, she will, of course, continue to prove correct in every intuitive assertion she makes throughout the film. In this she’s much like the nearly identically obnoxious hot female paleontologist played by Julianne Moore in The Lost World: Jurassic Park.

Back to the Oval Office. The President demands solid facts—that’s just the kind of hardnosed leader he is, dammit—while Oily John tries to fob him off with vaguely sourced factoids. Again, why is this guy a presidential advisor? And haven’t they called in someone with a scientific background to brief the President? Etc. and so on.

The President makes a manly, leadership-driven, bold decision. The public, scared sheep that we are, needs to know someone’s in charge. “We don’t have time to cut through the red tape,” he declares, apparently not being conversant with the concept behind ‘cutting through red tape.’ Despite the fact that neither Washington nor California has yet requested federal aid (oh, yeeee-ah, I’m buying that—any politician would have done this first thing, if only to pass the responsibility buck upward), Hollister decides to send somebody out there to take control of things.

Who will the President rely on in this hour of need? Why, coincidentally enough, Roy Nolan, the guy we saw him playing basketball with earlier. This led into one of the five biggest laughs I got out of this thing. The whole scene plays like Hollister picks Nolan in a gut-driven moment of inspiration, purely because Roy’s his go-to guy. However, when we cut to Nolan in his office, we find out for the first time what he does: He’s the head of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In other words, rather than an out-of-the-blue intuitive choice for the role the President envisions, he’s the single most obvious guy you’d expect to be chosen. Wow, sending the head of FEMA out to deal with the aftermath of two massive natural disasters. That’s an audacious move there, Mr. President.

By the way, is anyone in authority bothering to go to the scene of any of these calamities, or even talking to the press? So far, the President, the Governor of California and the head of FEMA have not ventured outside their respective offices. Yep, that’s some pro-active leadership all around, by golly.

Hollister phones Nolan with the assignment, and the verbal chestnuts gush forth. “Get together the best [scientists] in the field,” the President helpfully orders. “You will report directly to me,” he imaginatively adds. Asked what his first move will be, Nolan replies that he’s going to call a press conference—which is this universe appears to be a bolder move than you’d normally think—so that they can “hit this disaster head on.” The President approves. “People need to know you’re in charge,” he opines. Wow! This is probably what the Allied chiefs sounded like as they formulated the plans for the D-Day invasion.

“You’d tell me if you weren’t up for [the job]?” Hollister eventually inquires. “No, sir, I would not,” Nolan wryly chuckles. Ha, ha. Again, this is the work of two professional, highly paid writers. I know a job’s a job, and I’m sure they both received paychecks of the sort normal people only dream about. Even so, you can’t help but feel sorry for Ward and especially Beau Bridges—as Hollister, he gets to be alternately wise, decisive and caring, and that’s about it—as they attempt to avoid looking like total asses while regurgitating this tripe.

Back to Generic Hospital. Victims from the quakes are flooding in. Owen pulls Zach aside and tells him that he has to stay on duty, despite that fact that he’s just finishing a double shift. This is the first Zach has heard of the earthquakes. I know he’s tired, but you’d think he’d have inquired about the dozens of gurneys being rolled in. We cut to Jill and the kids worrying about Owen, then zip back to the hospital. I had another good laugh when Zach sees Nolan’s picture on TV and we learn that he is, in fact, Roy’s son. Yep, everyone is connected someway or other in a disaster picture.

Zach quickly phones his dad at FEMA HQ. How he even gets through, well, you got me, as you’d expect Roy to be a little busy right now. He then demands that Nolan fill him in on what’s occurring. The idea that his father’s job doesn’t allow for this—you know, being as he’s the personal agent of the President of the United States in this matter—is palmed off as an example of the two’s estrangement. Roy, we learn, has been more than a little emotionally distant from his son. “He [even] avoided my mother’s funeral,” Zach reveals later. (!!) That’s all very touching, but again, doesn’t anyone understand that this earthquake thing is sort of a big deal, and that maybe it’s not the best time for those in various positions of authority to be asked to chew over their personal lives?

What? Yeah, that’s correct, Zach and Nolan are estranged. Hmm, you’re right. There are a lot of estranged people in this film. Sam has been estranged from Jordan. Clark is estranged from both his ex-wife and his daughter. Owen is fighting with his wife. Rachel is fighting with her husband… Damn, if Nolan was estranged from Hollister everyone would be estranged from everyone else.

It turns out, duh, that Jordan and Sam have both been appointed to Nolan’s team of scientific experts. This allows for further innovative dialogue:

Sam: “What’s going on?”
Jordan: “I don’t know. They say ‘jump,’ we say ‘how high.'”

Back to Governor Carla’s office. Donna, a second aide, comes in and informs Rachel that her husband’s on the phone again. (!) Rachel dithers and then asks Donna to tell him she’s busy. Donna responds by noting that he’s attempted to phone her four times already. (!!) This isn’t concern for a loved one, it’s a Lifetime movie about the seemingly perfect spouse who suddenly turns out to be a murderous stalker. Good grief, what’s the guy like when the upper part of the state hasn’t been devastated by an earthquake?

Back to Clark and Amanda. Confronted by a downed tree blocking the road, the removal of which could take “hours,” Clark drives his SUV off the road and directly into the Deep Woods. This is necessary, of course, since they have to get lost and have various life-threatening adventures, which in turn will allow them to bond. Meanwhile, they must simultaneously be somewhere they can’t be found, thus causing Carla heartache at the same time she’s valiantly refusing to address the public in her role as blah blah blah…

Cut to Los Angeles, where Nolan is addressing his newly assembled team of consultants. You can imagine what his speech is like. Again, one must pity the poor thespian forced to try doing something with material like this: “We need to know what we’re up against. Each and every one of you is here today because you’re the best. The nation is counting on your expertise and knowledge. You have access to some of the most advanced equipment possible. Anything that you don’t have, that you need, let me know.” (Nor am I jumping around. That’s exactly what he says, in sequence.)

Wow, five sentences, five clichés. Somebody’s batting a .1000.

Back to the Hospital, which is packed with emergency patients. Zach and Owen are in the ER. Owen asks if Nolan told Zach anything. “He share any secrets?” he asks, in front of a full surgical team. That’s probably why Nolan didn’t tell Zach anything, because he’s obviously a massive blabbermouth. Of course, that doesn’t mean Zach isn’t sulking about things. “What’s his problem?” Owen asks. His problem? The guy is on a special assignment, one to which he was personally appointed by the President of the United States, and because he doesn’t spill the beans to every civilian who gets him on the phone, he’s got a “problem”? Man, these guys should get together with Rachel’s husband. They’ve got a lot in common.

Since we obviously don’t have enough characters on hand to serve every essential script function—like, you know, Rachel and her husband are doing—we now meet Zoe. Zoe is an intern working as a gofer for Nolan’s team. She introduces herself to Sam, who she obviously views as a role model. Then she leaves, for the nonce, and Jordan and Sam discuss further Mysterious Signs, blah blah.

On to a team meeting. Sam, impatient as always, expounds on her theory that the second event was a quake in its own right, instead of being an aftershock. More quakes are coming, she warns, and bigger ones. Everyone else is incredulous, whereupon she gets mad because they don’t just bow down before her and salute her superiority. (Unsurprisingly, though, the most open-minded of her colleagues is—surprise—a black woman. Meanwhile, all the men except Nolan and Jordan just sit around and make sarcastic comments at her expense.) Sam gets even madder at Jordan because he didn’t pointlessly stand up for her, etc.

The best part is when she says, “I believe the public needs to know what they’re up against.” In other words, she has a radical theory shared by none of the other respected experts in the room, and she wants to just jump on the air and sow panic throughout several of the most heavily populated areas in the country. This is tantamount to insanity, needless to say, although sadly it isn’t completely unrealistic. Check out Paul Erlich and the rest of the pseudo-environmentalist crowd.

Furthermore, and this is a gambit used in every one of these movies to discredit rational thought, Sam’s naysayers predictably assert that they want to wait until they have “all the facts.” I think I’ve heard that exact phrase in dozens of these things. Of course, you can never have ‘all’ the facts, and the statement is meant to make those hesitant to jump to outlandish conclusions look like dilatory boobs. How come they never say, “When you have a solid factual basis for your theory, come back and we’ll talk”?

Clark and Amanda see birds circling around in the air in an odd manner. Then the area is suddenly hit by a gigantic dust storm. They come across an area they passed through earlier. Then there was a small town on the site, which has since been swallowed up. This leads to a scene that indicates somebody on the writing staff saw Tremors. Clark clambers down a hill and uses a camping shovel to unearth an SUV that apparently sank right down into the ground and was buried.

The family inside—shock sting—has suffocated. (Although I think I maybe see a revolver in the vehicle, so maybe they supposedly shot themselves as a quicker way to go. I don’t know.) Anyway, we’d seen this family in an earlier scene, for literally about ten seconds, so I guess we’re supposed to ‘care.’ Clark returns to Amanda and she figures out what he saw and starts to have a panic attack, at which point we learn that she’s dangerously asthmatic. Oh, bru-ther.

Various stuff. Carla worries about Clark and Amanda. Nolan phones Hollister to give him a head’s up on Sam’s theory about there being further quakes, just in case. “What’s your gut tell ya,” Hollister asks. Always with the gut. Being a Steadfast Leader, the President comes to a decision. “Get the evidence, Roy,” he solemnly orders. Gee, thanks for your wise stewardship, Mr. President.

Next we get one of those mandatory scenes where an unenlightened person, in this case Zoe the Intern, asks an innocent question that causes the film’s hero(ine) to experience a Light Bulb Moment. This doesn’t really change the central situation yet—it’s way too early in the movie for people to buy into Sam’s theory—but again, you get docked by the screenwriters’ union if you don’t have a scene like this in your script. The only direct result of this is that Sam goes to Nolan and requests his permission to investigate the site of the second quake. He authorizes the trip, but since the President just ordered him to get the evidence, chances are he would have done this anyway.

Sam makes to leave. Jordan asks if he can join her. She really works him over and makes him grovel before finally giving him her consent. As this went on and on, I was sort of hoping he’d eventually just haul off and punch her in the face. Sadly, though, this immensely audience-pleasing moment was foregone. At least we’ve learned that Jordan should be safe in a quake, however, since he has a rubber spine.

Cut to the two on scene at the remote quake site. They search for evidence, although of what sort isn’t entirely clear. To be fair, at least they don’t stumble upon it right away. On the other hand, this means that Sam has more time to act like a big, er, witch. By now it was all too obvious that Jordan wasn’t going to step up to the plate and smack her one. Instead, I began to hope that a bear, driven mad by the quake, would emerge from the surrounding woods and bite Sam’s head off, perhaps after swatting her around for a while. Sadly, though, the filmmakers lacked my bold, populist vision.

Eventually, just when all seems a bust, they come across some Movie Evidence. By which I mean, something so obvious that even the layman viewer can tell it Means Something Is Wrong. In this case it’s the bodies of numerous deceased animals. (See Dante’s Peak for a very similar scene involving floating schools of dead fish.) Apparently a poisonous gas pocket, of the sort found only as deep as Sam’s theorized superfaults, has ruptured.

There’s a bit of a ‘suspense’ scene wherein they have to dig out some gas masks and nearly expire before getting them on. (Yeah, like we thought that would happen, especially a third of the way into things.) To our vast relief, however, they make it out alive—whew!—and now supposedly have the evidence they need, although they don’t bother to take pictures of the dead animals or gather air sample readings or anything of that sort. I guess they know everyone will take them at their word about what happened.

Nolan finally talks to the press. In a rather implausible moment, he flatly declares “the crises is behind us.” No political appointee would make so definite a statement publicly, because there’d be no way to cover his ass if things went south. Then we cut to Zach and Owen, who are watching the coverage. Zach, reading his father’s mien, opines that the situation is much worse than Nolan is letting on.

Meanwhile, we actually get a fairly successful suspense scene* Clark and Amanda, like the family Clark uncovered earlier, find their SUV being swallowed up by a sinkhole. Amanda makes it out her window at the last moment, but Clark is trapped inside the buried vehicle. This actually is pretty affecting, which is no surprise, given that being buried alive is such a universal phobia. (On the other hand, it didn’t help that they showed a teaser of this scene before a commercial break a while ago.) Eventually, Clark is able to use his flashlight to smash through the vehicle’s skylight, whereupon Amanda helps him disinter himself. This brush with eternity allows them to realize how much they love each other and yada yada.

[*Just to be pathologically accurate, Clark and Amanda’s incident occurs before Sam and Jordan find the dead animals and are threatened by the poison gas. As noted above, however, to follow the film with complete accuracy, in each teeny scene as it jumps around between characters, would be even more wearisome than I’m sure this review already is.]

Sam and Jordan return to team HQ. Jordan apologizes to her yet again, and I once more fantasized about my killer bear idea. Admittedly, having it emerge from an office instead of the woods wouldn’t make much sense. However, given what the rest of the movie is like, I don’t see why that would be an obstacle.

Back at the Governor’s Office, Carla is finally getting off her ass. She’s flying to San Francisco (??) to hold a press conference. I guess they don’t have any reporters in the state capitol. “The people of this state need to see their leaders,” she explains, “now more than ever.” About time you figured that out, you moron. Meanwhile, Donna the Aide informs her that they haven’t been able to locate Clark and Amanda. Cue more teary bathos. (Blech.) Meanwhile, Clark and Amanda are bonding and such as they try to walk their way to civilization. Amanda has lost her inhaler, just to add tension. Yawn. [Future Ken: Despite playing this situation up, Amanda’s asthma is from here on out completely dropped as a plot device.]

Back at Team HQ, Sam is postulating that the superfault is even worse than she initially thought. And the next quake should hit…San Francisco. (bum bum bum) Cut to a commercial break, which is bracketed by a clip of the Golden Gate Bridge coming apart. Thanks for the head’s up.

Sam and Jordan go to inform Nolan of their supposed findings. Oddly, he decides that he doesn’t want to evacuate San Francisco entirely on Sam’s say so. Jordan reacts by basically calling Nolan a coward. This earns him Sam’s thanks, thus increasing the chance that he’ll get back into her pants. Nolan, understandably a bit ticked, orders them out of his office.

A flustered Zoe comes over. She asks if Sam really believes that San Fran is about to be hit by a quake. Sam confirms that this is the case. As if I didn’t have enough loathing for Sam already, she is portrayed as being downright shocked when Zoe reacts with horror to this news. Yeah, duh, Einstein. Of course, Zoe’s concern isn’t because millions of her fellow citizens are threatened. No, her distress must be rooted in some personal concern, and thus we’re less than shocked when she announces that she has family there. She hurriedly goes to phone them to get out of town. (Amazingly, we aren’t forced to meet these particular extraneous characters.)

Here we get the film’s comical highlight, Governor Carla’s press conference. This is filled with idiotic bits. For instance, Carla has finally declared a state of emergency. The press interprets this to mean that the state is still threatened by further quakes. (??) Since in the real world, sequential quakes have never occurred, this is just silly. Also, states of emergency are traditionally called to deal with the aftermath of some disaster, not issued as a prediction that more are to occur. Man, this is dumb. It’s like someone thinking that if you fill out a fire insurance claim, it’s because you expect your house to catch fire a second time.

More ridiculously cliché lines are uttered. I also liked when a reporter asks about the “millions of dollars of damage.” Millions? In real life, California is facing something like a $15 billion dollar shortfall just from run of the mill over-spending. Acting like ‘millions’ is some huge figure lends a whole clueless Dr. Evil vibe to things.

This crass question, however, leads to the film’s single most gut-busting moment. This is a speech so earnest and ‘inspirational’ that the only way you could make it funnier would be to have Leslie Nielsen deliver it in his most deadpan manner: “The issue right now is people! And trust me when I say that it’s our first and foremost priority to see that everyone is safe and accounted for. We will be doing everything to bring our loved ones home, even if I have to personally oversee the rescue of every individual involved in this tragedy. [Emphasis added, but…cripes.] You have my word on that!!”

Screw that stuff, though. We want a good cry, right? So the next reporter asks her to confirm that her “family” is missing. Tears well up in Carla’s eyes, and in mine too, as I remembered that we haven’t even gotten through the first half of this swill yet. The room goes silent, with a long ‘dramatic’ pause, and then Carla bravely responds: “Yes, it’s true. But, there are many, many people in the states of Washington and California who have lost touch with their loved ones. I think we all have been affected in one way or another. Thank you.”

Having said her piece (for all of about two minutes), she makes to leave the room. At this juncture, and I swear this happens, the assembled press corps begins applauding, then jumps up and gives her a standing ovation!!! Damn, that’s the silliest thing I’ve seen in a while.

It’s just minutes later that the third quake hits. This means that even if Nolan had immediately decided to order the city evacuated, they wouldn’t even have gotten started yet. Here we get the big set piece that (thank goodness!) closes out the first half of the show. This, as foreshown in a commercial break teaser earlier, centers on a special effects sequence wherein the Golden Gate Bridge falls apart and tumbles into the bay, bringing presumably hundreds of cars down with it. Again, though, we never cut in on any screaming people during this, but remain more or less aloof from the human cost.

To be fair, this sequence more or less delivers the goods. The only silly element involves a helicopter reporter, one who continuously informs us of what we’re at that moment watching. “It looks as if the entire bridge is going to fall into the Bay!” he gasps, as the entire bridge prepares to fall into the Bay. “It’s, it’s breaking up,” he moans, as the bridge breaks up. “Cars are tumbling into the water!” he reports, as cars tumble into the water.

Still, this is the reason we sat through so much junk, and it is pretty neat. If they were smart, they’d offer a cut version of this show when it hits home video. Keep the special effects stuff, and cut the ‘character’ crap down by a third or even a half. However, chances are the DVD and video version will be even longer, with ‘special, never before seen footage’ and whatnot.

Meanwhile, a very small amount of land-based destruction is seen, including a shot of Carla and Rachel being buried in rubble. Then it’s back to Team HQ, where we again are treated to people shouting out the Richter Scale numbers popping up on their computer screens. In a hilariously appalling moment, Nolan is told that the epicenter is occurring in San Francisco. At this we immediately cut to Sam turning to look at him in a “See, I was right!” moment. Good thing she can still find pleasure in the little things during all this.

Nolan then gets a call from the President. “You had the evidence, and you didn’t contact me?” Hollister growls. Please. As if Sam’s ‘evidence’ was strong enough to order the evacuation of one of America’s largest cities. And again, the quake apparently hit about half an hour or so after Sam reported in. Evacuating a city that size would take days, not minutes. Yeesh.

Anyway, Nolan is shaken. “To be honest, Mr. President, I don’t know where to begin [in dealing with this].” Three guesses what Hollister’s reply is? Ding! It’s “Believe in your gut!” C’mon, you knew it would be something about his gut, right? Hollister also advises that Nolan listen to anything Sam has to say. Yes! Finally! No less than the President of the United States has admitted that our beloved Sam is the Smartest Person in the World! How satisfying a moment this is for all of us! The conversation ends when Nolan nods at his phone (!), and somehow both of them know they’re done talking and mutually hang up.

Back to Clark and Amanda. Because, you know, we have to check in on everyone before the first chapter concludes. Amanda is mewling about how she’s hungry. Damn, guys, they’re in the woods. Are you telling me that in roughly three hours of screentime (minus commercials and such) there wasn’t room for one killer bear attack? Seriously, you guys don’t know what the hell you’re doing.

At this point the two hear a news report on Amanda’s walkman, about how San Fran has been “leveled”—apparently they couldn’t afford to show any of that, so they just went with the destruction of the bridge—and that Carla was apparently inside City Hall when it collapsed. (I hope she can personally oversee the rescue of everyone in the state from in there.) Sobs, hugs, etc.

Back to HQ, where Nolan is taking his turn at kissing Sam’s all-knowing ass. “You warned me,” he prostrates. “I should have listened to you.” With Sam now in charge, she calls a meeting, explaining her belief—which, obviously, is infallible—that a superquake is still coming, one that could destroy the entire California coastline. Luckily, she has a plan to stop it (!), or at least localize it somewhat, by fusing the fault at various points. This will require the use of nuclear warheads (!!), which would be lowered deep down into the bedrock. In other words, her plan is the exact opposite of Lex Luthor’s in Superman: The Movie.

This suggestion throws everyone into a tizzy, as you’d think. Blah blah blah. Sam is now Uberleader, however, and Nolan calls the President. Hollister agonizes a bit, but I mean, you know, who is the President of the United States to gainsay Sam. As dramatic music swells, we get a series of boxes showing all our various characters. And then, thank Jabootu, this thing is finally…half over.

Click here for part 2