• The granddaddy of all disaster movies has arrived at last. EARTHQUAKE, a (hopefully) fictional epic detailing the destruction of Los Angeles, is a masterpiece of special effects wizardry. From the toppling of hillside homes to the dizzy swaying and crumbling of giant downtown skyscrapers, not one sequence seems phony or contrived. The "Sensurround" system, described in this column a few months ago, works even better in a large theater than in a demonstration screening room. Using low-frequency sonic waves, it creates the "feel" of an earthquake with uncanny accuracy. The screenplay by George Fox and Mario Puzo has a slight tendency toward a soap-opera relationship among members of the all-star cast, but the cliches are kept to a minimum; and the plot construction is superbly engineered for maximum thrills and suspense. Charlton Heston creates his best role in years as an architectural engineer, uneasily contributing to the development of high-rise skyscrapers in downtown Los Angeles. Ava Gardner plays his neurotic wife, clinging desperately to the last shreds of their relationship. Genevieve Bujold turns in a winning performance as an actress whose young son is trapped by the quake. George Kennedy is an uncompromising, honest cop. Lorne Greene, Richard Roundtree, Marjoe Gortner, Victoria Principal and Lloyd Nolan all have juicy roles, and Walter Matthau has a running cameo as a quake-proof drunk. Earthquake cost a reported $8 million to make; but for thrills and excitement, it was worth every penny. If you see only one movie this year, Earthquake is the one to see. Rated "PG." —Charles F. Barr

• Anyone who digs satire, rock music or off-beat spectacle is in for a treat. In its own way, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE does for rock music what Citizen Kane did for newspapers. The pop music industry is pilloried (perhaps excessively) as a compendium of cynical promoters, freaky performers, drug pushers, and a mindless, frenzied audience. Deriving much of its plot from Phantom of the Opera, with a bit of Dorian Gray thrown in, the movie centers around an attempt by a rock czar to find an original musical score to open his new concert hall. He discovers a massive new rock opera based upon the Faust legend, and steals it from its composer, who takes his revenge by donning a mask and becoming the "Phantom of the Paradise," terrorizing and wreaking vengeance upon one and all. The elaborately staged, catchy rock songs run the gamut from greaseball to glitter. Paul Williams, who wrote the music, is effective and believable as Swan, the omnipotent head of Death Records. William Finley is Winslow Leach, a wimpy, naive composer and a perfect foil for Swan. Jessica Harper is appealing as a deceptively sweet charmer who will do anything to become a superstar. Writer-director Brian De Palma maintains a straightforward story line amidst the dazzling, highly stylized sets and costumes. Rated "PG." —C.F.B.

• For the first time since the 1960's, Walt Disney Productions has come up with a superior adventure film. THE ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD, set at the turn of the century, is the story of a determined Englishman whose search for his missing son carries him to an uncharted island in the Arctic Ocean. Arriving in a zeppelin-like balloon, the Englishman and his party of explorers stumble upon a lost colony of Vikings, from whom they must rescue his son. John Whedon's screenplay is intelligent, and paced just slightly too slowly. The special effects, especially toward the end of the film, are spectacular. Best of all, the film presents none of the "cuteness" that has plagued nearly all Disney releases in recent years. Hopefully this movie is the start of a new trend (or the re-emergence of an old one) for Disney. Rated "G." —C.F.B.

• THE KLANSMAN suffers from terminal deja vu. It is a film about gratuitous violence, reminiscent in some ways of Sam Peckinpah's films, but without Peckinpah's style and imagination, which in his best films manages to eroticize violence and exhilarate his audience with the terror and suspense of the mayhem committed on the screen. Although The Klansman is rich in murders, rapes and burnings, director Terence Young can barely keep his actors animated. The plot is a tired rehash of racial confrontation in the South. Alabama rednecks, cardboard characters straight out of the magnolia tradition, are portrayed as mindless brutes pitted against poor ignorant blacks and a handful of white liberals who come to town on a voter registration drive. In the midst of the battle are Richard Burton, friend to the oppressed of all colors, taking refuge on his hilltop farm and nursing a third-generation grudge against his townspeople, and Lee Marvin, the sheriff who tries to cool things off and smooth things over by bending laws to keep the country folk from breaking them. All are set upon a course that ends predictably in a shoot-out finale in which Burton comes out of hiding and Marvin is forced to take a stand. It is a situation that has lost its immediacy, in large part because it was experienced so vividly in the mid-1960's, and the presence of a one-man black vigilante (echoes of Death Wish) is not enough to give it new life. Young appears to be as bored by the whole business as the actors. Inspired performances and a competent script might have salvaged the show, but Burton and Marvin plod aimlessly through the film attempting meaningful and profound statements, Burton mumbling unintelligibly at times when his Southern accent seems to get the better of him. There was a time, not so very long ago, when Burton could deliver a performance that would almost redeem an otherwise awful film. If the producers of The Klansman were gambling on his repeating this phenomenon, they lost badly. —James F. Carey