LOS ANGELES — Remember “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno?” They were silly little 1970s disaster diversions that took implausibility to refreshing new depths.
But they were positively scholarly compared with “10.5,” NBC’s two-night sweeptime extravaganza that would have to greatly dial up its dialogue to be merely lame. It blew millions on the elaborate visual effects and comparative pennies on the script, resulting in a tale of uncommon ridiculosity. You know things are bad when you find yourself rooting for the earthquakes — anything to steady cameras that appear to have been stricken with Parkinson’s. They rarely stop quivering, perfectly balancing the dangerously shaky science of the teleplay from Chris Canaan, John Lafia and Ronnie Christensen.
Actually, you’ve got to make it all the way to the end of the second installment before being treated to the spectacle of the 10.5 temblor of the film’s title. I’ve been doing a little bit of research, and I found out that not only would a magnitude 10.5 shaker be the most powerful on record, but were it possible on the San Andreas Fault — and it apparently isn’t — it would cause the entire mainland, and not merely the West Coast, to tumble into the Pacific.
Of course, “10.5” isn’t supposed to be about the story. It’s incidental to the visuals that include the Space Needle collapsing in Seattle (before the opening credits are finished rolling), the Golden Gate Bridge imploding into the sea (complete with cars sliding into the drink with it) and, most symbolically, the Hollywood sign smashing to bits. The effects here (including plenty of shattering windows and collapsing objects) are pretty decent, if a bit on the overcooked side. Yes, there is indeed a whole lot of shakin’ goin’ on. But Jerry Lee Lewis is nowhere in sight. And once the rocking and rolling stops, the lunkheaded conversation kicks in again in earnest.
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Kim Delaney (“NYPD Blue”) supplies the closest thing here to star power as Dr. Samantha Hill, the can-do control freak of a research scientist who is alone in figuring out that a cluster of quakes making their way down the coast pretty much means that we’re all doomed. It begins with a magnitude 7.9 shaker outside Seattle, moving to an 8.4 in Redding, Calif., and a 9.2 in San Francisco. Over the early objections of her cowed boss Dr. Jordan Fisher (David Cubitt), Hill takes charge, earning the instant respect of both the president (Beau Bridges, sounding like a man in desperate need of a good bowel movement) and anal retentive FEMA bureaucrat Roy Nolan (Fred Ward).
Hill’s harebrained scheme — and I’m not making this up — is to detonate nuclear warheads underground in strategic locations so as to, um, stabilize the plates or something. I know that when I want to stabilize something, it always seems to involve enriched uranium of some sort. So anyway, the chain-reaction quakes keep a-comin’, accompanied by the traditional dweeby farewell speeches from both the dying and the simply traumatized. And meanwhile, we get to know a couple of completely doltish survivors (played by John Schneider and Kelly Cuoco of “8 Simple Rules” fame) a bit too well as they meander purposefully through the fractures and fissures.
And talk about straining credulity to the breaking point. Here we have the most powerful quakes the nation has ever known, all within hours of one another, and not a single act of looting! The grand finale quake in Los Angeles — so massive that it requires a commercial break — finds a total redistribution of coastal geography (complete with a tsunami that’s downright biblical in scope) and yet not one apparent death, at least involving anyone who counts. Nothing significant in the way of fires, either. We Southern Californians are nothing if not a fortunate bunch.
So it goes in “10.5,” which shows us that earthquakes have an uncanny knack for inspiring people to utter just the dumbest stuff imaginable. Director John Lafia (who also co-wrote the teleplay) appears to tell his actors to just scamper about in circles a lot and then, occasionally, emote badly on cue.
Oh, Irwin Allen, where art thou?
“10.5” airs on NBC, Sunday night at 9 p.m.
Copyright 2012 The Hollywood Reporter