From the beginning of the movie when Jackie Cooper’s pilot Steve Barker finds himself a virtual prisoner of a small town’s bizarre system of dealing with speeders to the revelation that somehow he knows an earthquake is about to hit that small town to him having to hijack his own airplane to airlift the disbelieving townspeople to safety, the only thing constructed in more slipshod fashion than the dilapidated town of Bates is the script.
Steve’s involuntary servitude in working off his speeding fine in Bates is probably the movie’s dumbest sequence. That it happens early on, is critical to the plot and consumes a not insignificant amount of screen time buries the movie in so much ridiculous rubble that it never recovers.
When Steve is caught speeding and doesn’t have the cash to pay about $100 in fines, he has to work on a municipal project for Bates that the town judge is cluelessly hanging all his hopes on to bring tourists back to town after the freeway was built. It’s a Santa’s Village that he hopes will bring people far and wide to see Santa’s summer home. What everyone else sees is a dirty collection of falling down structures, trailers and broken and rotting decorations that only a Rob Zombie movie would be envious of.
Of course if he just called his wife or business partner to drive out with some cash, that would fix everything, right? It’s never explained why that doesn’t happen, but he needs the connection with the town and in particular a little girl who helps him escape to give him a reason to come back to first find out about the impending earthquake and second to save everybody. He also promises to take the kid to Disneyland and leaves his dog Pepper with her promising he will be back someday. Who the hell just randomly leaves their dog with some kid they just met? The screenplay was obviously by a guy who likes cats.
Steve and his partner Harley (Cleavon Little in everyone’s second favorite film of his from 1974) run a failing aerial photography business. On one of their runs taking pictures of some property, the photos develop will some odd red smudges. A second trip to take pictures of the same location don’t have the smudge, but Steve notices some rocks have changed position, almost as if by a landslide.
Steve’s wife checks with the provider of the film and discovers it has been recalled! A one in a thousand computer glitch caused some weird chemical reaction in it! And as former Navy bomber turned expert geologist Steve surmises, the smudges are actually a picture of the heat radiation coming from the earth that foretells when an earthquake is about to hit! And if that sounds like so much silly junk science, Steve seems to confirm it when he confronts the townspeople with the news stating the doesn’t have time to “explain all the scientific mumbo jumbo”, they just know a big quake is coming! (His wife backs him up, helpfully explaining, “it’s true!”)
The big finale of any disaster movie is naturally, the disaster. At least The Day the Earth Moved delivers on that, though it’s not really all that spectacular. The town of Bates is trashed, but it was a town of maybe four or five buildings and most of them looked like they wouldn’t be able to maintain their structural integrity through a loud fart, let alone an earthquake. (Luckily, one of the buildings was a gas station and we all know what that means – explosions! What’s a disaster without some explosions, right?)
Like any disaster movie, it attempts to have some human interest subplots. Steve and his wife are having problems because he runs around on her. Nothing comes of this and in fact, the movie never has him doing anything but flying his plane and doing hard time at Santa’s trailer park. His partner Harley is given nothing to do, but cajole Steve for being a crappy husband. Even the failing business and Steve’s plane getting repoed is just an excuse to stage a dramatic take off to go save the people of Bates. All the townspeople have the same backstory – they’re too scared to leave their cruddy little town. At least that problem was solved!
Despite its 75 minute or so running time, it easily feels at least as long as it big screen big brother, Earthquake (also 1974), which was really more than twice the length as The Day the Earth Moved. Cooper, Little and Stella Stevens are no worse than Charlton Heston, George Kennedy, and Ava Gardner were in Earthquake, but these types of movies aren’t about acting, it’s about scale. The nature of the disaster has to be substantial enough to make an audience sit up and take notice. Leveling Los Angeles via a catastrophe whose possibility is still talked about with regularity in real life works. Trashing what looks like a ghost town in the middle of the desert populated by eight or so people is the sort of thing that causes viewers to use the phrase “TV movie” pejoratively.
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