Until science devises an infallible system for measuring degrees of cinematic disaster, we cannot say exactly how bad is "10.5," a brutally long miniseries concerning what we here at land's end affectionately call "The Big One," beginning Sunday night on NBC. But it is clearly bad on a particularly large scale. Except to connoisseurs of the misbegotten, who will find their plate full, there is little here to recommend.
Once Seattle's Space Needle goes impressively down, which it does before the first commercial, there is not much reason to remain, unless it's to admire Fred Ward's hair, which is even more impressive than Kim Delaney's.
Briefly: The West Coast is experiencing a series of earthquakes of increasing intensity, moving south with almost human intelligence to a date with the poor old new L.A. skyline. All kinds of unlikely, not to say impossible, things happen along the noisy way as the camera shakes and dozens of extras run to and fro for their lives.
Delaney plays Dr. Samantha Hill, a sexy seismologist with a bossy attitude and a radical theory about super-deep super-faults, which can produce any sort of earthquake the screenwriters desire. In one admittedly nifty sequence, a crack in the Earth chases a railroad train for miles -- as if the tracks had been laid specifically along a fault line -- and stops as soon as it has eaten the train, as if all it were after were a good meal. This looks good but makes no sense -- it's an essentially demonic approach to a natural phenomenon, which would seem to suggest the appearance of Satan in the third act. No such luck.
On Delaney's tenuous authority, the president (Beau Bridges) -- in what we are supposed to read as bold decisiveness but seems more like the act of a man who can't be bothered to solicit a second opinion -- not only OKs the complete evacuation of the West Coast, but signs off on the subterranean detonation of several nuclear bombs as a kind of prophylactic terrestrial spinal fusion. (Dr. Hill has worked out where these bombs must go, to the exact foot, because, you know, you have to be exact when you're setting off nuclear explosions.)
There is nothing wrong with cheap, dumb entertainment -- and despite the fancy-for-TV digital dismemberment of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Hollywood sign, which goes all higgledy-piggledy like magnetic letters on a refrigerator door, this is cheap entertainment. It doesn't even matter particularly that the film is full of bogus bad science (and poor spelling -- at one point, "martial law" appears as "marshal"), which is perfectly allowable in exchange for a good time. What matters is that everything else about the film is bogus and bad, and no fun at all.
The script has been loaded with seismological jargon -- "hypercenter" and "active lateral skips" -- to make the characters seem as if they know what they're talking about, though overall the dialogue suggests a pack of kids playing "earthquake disaster movie" after school. This is hard on the actors, all of whom have been good elsewhere but fail to convince here. Not Ward as the heroic head of FEMA (and the president's bestest pal). Not Rebecca Jenkins as the governor of California. Not Ivan Sergei and Dule Hill (standing for California's ethnic diversity nearly alone) as a couple of emergency room surgeons; not even teenage girl Kaley Cuoco as a teenage girl. John Schneider is not believable as a father, though he is one.
Bridges' president is so intense that at first I thought he was going to be revealed as a total nut case. (And I would have been happy to see it.) He wastes no time in declaring total war against the elements, canceling an appointment -- for the third time -- with "the German ambassador." "My people come first," says he.
These characters and a couple of others occupy the time between tremors with semi-intertwined "stories," all of which are essentially the same: This person and that person do not communicate well, because of some old business that happened before the movie began, but will be moved to reconciliation via natural disaster. (Interestingly, most of these reunions will take place over the telephone.) Perhaps the earthquakes are merely metaphors for human relationships -- the fault must slip before the rift can heal. But perhaps not .
One might also easily assume that "10.5" was made this way on purpose, that the bad writing, stiff direction, overwrought acting and slightly-less-than-special effects are in fact tributes to the bad writing, stiff direction, overwrought acting and slightly-less-than-special effects of the disaster films of old. It is not impossible that when Bridges begins barking, "We don't have the time to cut through the red tape! By the time the left hand has figured out what the right is doing, this will have exploded in all our faces," it's meant to be, on some level, parodic. But if that is indeed the case, so thorough a job have the filmmakers done that it's impossible to tell their film from an ordinary bad movie.
In television, as in life, disasters will happen. But you can protect yourself and your family. Locate the "off" button. Learn to use it.
When: Sunday from 9 to 11 p.m., concludes Monday from 9 to 11 p.m.
Rating: The network has rated the movie TV-PG (may not be suitable for young children).
Kim Delaney...Dr. Samantha Hill
Beau Bridges...President Paul Hollister
Fred Ward...Roy Nolan
Ivan Sergei...Dr. Zack Nolan
Dule Hill...Owen Hunter
Rebecca Jenkins...Gov. Carla Williams
Executive producers, Michael Jaffe, Howard Braunstein and Gary Pearl. Director John Lafia. Writers, Lafia, Chris Canaan and Ronnie Christensen.