I was told repeatedly over a number of years that if I loved nuclear apocalypse movies then this was one I needed to see. I finally did see it, and my only regret is not being able to unsee it. At first I thought "hey I'm glad I watched this just to find out its deal" but a few days later it became "this movie blows and I am going to tell the internet why I think so in selfish and base terms". For those of you out there that actually like this film, that's okay by me- you can keep it.
Plot synopsis: Harry (Anthony Edwards of Top Gun fame) meets Julie (Mare Winningham) at the La Brea tar pits and immediately falls in love with her. They spend a sappy romantic almost John Hughesian day together and set up a date for later that night. The power goes out in Harry's apartment so he misses the date (via a HUGE PLOT GAP I will discuss momentarily) and showing up to the coffee shop he leaves a message on her answering machine explaining what happened. Shortly after he hangs up the pay phone begins ringing and he finds the caller (who has misdialed at the worst possible moment) is attempting to warn his dad about the nuclear holocaust that will begin in roughly 50 odd minutes. All hell and insipid mushy love bullshit that would never ever actually occur begin to take place.
Like I mentioned, I have heard from various friends over the years that this was a cult film I needed to see. Too bad all of them were (in my opinion anyway) completely wrong. This movie could have been really honestly good in the most disarming of ways, but really got done over by what seems to me to be the screenwriter/director's (both the same person for this film) unwillingness to really go for it and leap off the edge. Starting out the film paces like a mushy love story which made me very weary indeed, but then the whole pay phone thing throws the film on its head and I was really hoping for it to continue on a maddeningly fast trip downwards into the hell that we all imagine would ensue from the knowledge of catastrophic nuclear armageddon, but...
Sure we do get that for a little while, with lots of jarringly illogical actions by the main characters peppered in to make things unentertaining as possible, but the director goes back to the ridiculous and overused idea of "love conquers all". No it does not, sorry bub. In fact, the way this film was handled made it come out to be nothing more that an apocalyptic date movie. It's like dudes who want to act like they are in to bleak shit want to take their girlfriend who isn't to something they can both enjoy so they pick this.
A better title for this film, once all of its romantic trappings are considered, would have been "Love Is Nice". It's almost as if the initial idea for this story was a very bottom of the barrel boy meets girl affair but considering how incredibly worn out that story is it was decided to take the unfinished middle and lackluster end of the nuclear war movie also being scribbled on cocktail napkins at the same time and combine them into one movie that was worse than if both were watched separately.
I had better give you some nitty gritty to back up these accusations, as painful as they are to recount. First things first- the HUGE PLOT GAP I brought up a bit ago: Yes the power in Harry's apartment fails so his alarm clock doesn't work. How is this a problem you ask? HE WASN'T USING A PLUG IN CLOCK. Willing suspension of disbelief is often a very important part of stories that use extreme plot elements like nuclear war, but if you think I'm so fucking stupid that I won't notice the fact that the prop master couldn't spend the extra $4.99 to get a plug in style alarm clock to carry your story to fruition (because the alarm not going off in the first place is what propels this story to its unfortunate conclusion) then you are dumber than you think I think you are. It was a very potent warning sign that this film would not turn out as I had initially hoped.
What else? Well there's a lot but I shut most of it out of my memory in the wild and likely unattainable hope that some day I will forget about this train wreck, so I will narrow it down to a couple of things for the ease of explanation. Harry really fucks up his nuclear escape plan six ways from sunday. How?
(In no particular order, in case you are curious. There are lots more ways than this sure, but these two stick out in my mind most of all)
1) By continuously separating from Julie and saying "Wait here I'll be right back".
THAT SHIT NEVER WORKS IN REAL LIFE, EVEN AT A GROCERY STORE WHEN THERE IS NO NUKE THREAT. Seriously, you tell someone you are going off to grab a tin of pinto beans while you are shopping at Fred Meyer and you tell them to wait for you by the ice cream you are currently standing in front of and they wander off almost immediately making what should have taken thirty seconds go into a fifteen minute long search to find them so you can get back to proper shopping. Why are you doing this to us over and over Harry? Oh yeah I know why- because you're an ignoramus, that's why. That or more likely the screenwriter wasn't nearly creative enough to find a different way to build tension or flesh out what was likely (sans craptastic fluff like this) a 70 minute movie with hum drum "I have to go find this person because I am an idiot and didn't take them with me on my pointless errand" type garbage. Never ever separate in moments of crisis- EVER.
2) By telling everybody about it creating a general atmosphere of insanity and desperation because they want to bring someone with them too.
Everyone he beseeches for help winds up discovering what is about to happen (or at least a version of it because Harry is a lying sack of shit who doesn't even tell the girl he is madly in love with that he has known for like 12 hours the actual truth) and immediately says "I need to get this or that such person". The problem with this is he has less than 50 minutes to get the hell out of dodge and LA is fucking HUGE. How on earth could any of this even work? Think about it for a second.
Try as I might to find the original first draft of the script in hopes that it provided a better bleaker story, I was disappointed. Considering the fact that this film was being touted around Hollywood for a good ten years before it was made and was referred to as one of the best unmade screenplays in 1983 by American Film magazine you would think it would have been posted somewhere by someone. Nope. I can only assume the story sucked this bad the entire time and that was why no studio would pick the thing up. That and the fact that the screenwriter put a clause in there that he would get to direct it. Considering that Steve De Jarnatt (there, I finally gave you his name) had never directed anything before it is unsurprising everybody turned their noses up. Maybe I should have mentioned that bit earlier, but I didn't want to give you any ray of hope for the proceedings here.
I have to say it- the choice of filming locations made me bored as hell. Plenty of films have used bits and pieces of this iconic section of Wilshire Boulevard but it just added to the boredom for me. Granted some of the locations used appeared in movies that came later (which unlike this movie, are actually entertaining in some regard), but I just don't care about would be iconic southern California architecture. Maybe I just don't like affluent rich people areas of cities- yeah, maybe that is the problem because I for one am usually broke. Johnie's Coffee Shop for instance hasn't been open for anything but filming business since 2000. I won't lie I wouldn't half mind drinking a malted in there but it will never happen. There's a yelp.com page entry for it where three people give some reports on what's what.
Perhaps the best one reads as follows:
"Pretty sure this place is only used for filming. I live right by it and have only seen homeless guys peeing on it. Never seen it open, although they do run the lights on the sign at night, my guess is it's an effort to drum up more film business."
The ending is just so sappy and ridiculous I am surprised I didn't taste bile surging up my throat in protest. It was composed of all this mumbo jumbo of our two would be lovers slowly sinking into the mire of the La Brea tar pits and going on about how they will either be preserved by tar to be found by a future race or something (DUMB) or turned into diamonds if they get a direct hit from a nuke so their atoms will be smashed together forever (DUMBER). Even a room full of monkeys hammering away at typewriters couldn't come up with this...
There you have it. I think now is an appropriate moment to give you a very brief rundown of what I would do in the event of an impending nuclear war that I by extreme serendipity of the worst possible kind. As I am disabled by Multiple Sclerosis in real life and to go any appreciable distance over say a block on completely level ground I will give you two separate scenarios based on that and if I were able bodied.
A) Make-believe able bodied me
-Probably panic a bunch.
-not try to lie to everybody I force into helping me
-not tell anyone to "wait here I'll be right back"
-Probably be selfish and just leave everyone I know and love behind as survival instinct (no matter how displaced) kicks into full gear
-or sit there and wait to be atomized
B) Real life disabled me
-Probably panic a bunch
-Hope I might find some way of escaping knowing I will likely die a horrible slow death from nuclear fallout
-go hang out with my girlfriend if I had one at that particular moment
-or sit there and wait to be atomized
Face it- nuclear war would be pretty messed up and the rawest of raws. If you don't believe me watch the really excellent BBC TV film Threads made in 1984 for what is likely a very realistic portrayal of what a nuclear strike on Britain would play out like. Expect a review of that in the future when I manage to track down a copy of this rather scarce and bleak gem of television history.
That's about all I have to say about this movie. I don't consider this to be underrated as some online reviews state, and calling it a cult film I feel gives it credit it richly does not deserve. How this has an 86% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes I will never ever know come to think of it. Watch it if you are curious, but don't expect anything worthwhile out of this farce. That's all there really is left to say about it. You be the judge, but you were warned ahead of time.
***********************************************************************************************************POST INITIAL POST UPDATE (Timed at or around 2:35pm Pacific time): I forgot to mention that this movies has a surprise appearance by Denise Crosby, most famously known as Tasha Yar from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Terrific, but not enough to make this movie good.