An old-fashioned disaster yarn so ripe with sincerity George Kennedy ought to be in it, “10.5” features a whole lot of shaking and overacting, along with the schmaltzy can-do spirit of “Independence Day” or “Armageddon.” Predicting how powerfully such well-trodden material will register ratings-wise is akin to tracking the San Andreas Fault, though this miniseries certainly provides enough mayhem on its TV budget to let the network’s promo department run wild. At the least, NBC may have found a way to curb Southern California’s soaring home prices with the image of a few million citizens dropping into the ocean.
As with most disaster movies, this apocalyptic concept is really all about the human stories. Enormous tremors rocking the West Coast compel dysfunctional families to bond, putting aside petty squabbling under the threat of annihilation. In that respect, there’s not much difference between this two-parter and the original “Earthquake” that struck three decades ago.
The only subtle element in “10.5,” in fact, is that it keeps presenting scenes reminiscent of another iconic 1970s movie, “Superman” — including a fast-moving crater racing along train tracks — without anyone in a cape to save the day.
No, that task falls to a maverick scientist, Samantha Hill, played with customary aplomb by Kim Delaney. She’s awakened by a whopping quake in the Seattle area that levels the Space Needle during the opening credits. Subsequent jolts hit California, causing Sam to conclude that the mother of all faults is about to rupture and take the West Coast with it.
This news is not taken lightly by the commander-in-chief (Beau Bridges), a tough-minded guy with great hair who dispatches longtime friend Roy (Fred Ward), the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to keep expensive models of other real-life venues from toppling as well.
Fleshing out the story, meanwhile, are several TV series co-stars who spent their summer hiatus in Vancouver. The list includes Nolan’s son, Zach (“Crossing Jordan’s” Ivan Sergei), an ER doctor; his buddy Owen (“The West Wing’s” Dule Hill); and most improbably, the governor of California’s estranged husband (John Schneider of “Smallville”) and teenage daughter (Kaley Cuoco of “8 Simple Rules”), who picked a bummer of a time to go on a relationship-healing camping trip.
Under director and co-writer John Lafia, this group brings a sense of conviction to what easily could (and frequently does) feel pretty silly. Bridges’ president occasionally sounds like Jack Nicholson providing bland reassurance that two-thirds of the government is working in “Mars Attacks!” Then there are such moments as Gov. Williams (Rebecca Jenkins) receiving a standing ovation from the press corps, a trick even California’s actual governor would be hard-pressed to pull off.
It’s equally tough picturing scientists watch Richter-scale measurements climb — shouting “7.1! Now it’s 7.4!” — as if monitoring a telethon tote board or the box office receipts for “The Passion of the Christ.”
Putting such inanities aside, there are some reasonably impressive effects here, particularly one that involves a collapsing replica of the Golden Gate Bridge. In addition, the story manages a few unexpected turns, as FEMA and the military, under Hill’s guidance, race to employ a nuclear-weapon remedy to avert tragedy as millions evacuate major cities.
Despite the conventional formula, Lafia seeks to ratchet up the tension by rather ineffectively employing devices used in another numerically titled production, Fox’s “24,” from a fidgety camera to the occasional split screen. About the only gimmick lacking is Sensurround.
Admittedly, the perilous situation gives rise to all sorts of leaden dialogue, such as Schneider telling his daughter, “I shoulda stuck it out with your mom.” Between Lee Holdridge’s flag-waving score and the massive stakes, it’s nonetheless possible to check one’s brain and yield to the drama, if so inclined.
NBC’s Jeff Zucker has quipped that this disaster scenario is every Californian’s nightmare and every Easterner’s dream, which is a pretty funny line. Yet based on the project’s pricetag, my guess is NBC execs are having a few restless nights themselves until they learn whether “10.5’s” ratings can at least live up to its title.