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The China Syndrome DVD

Your March 2008 Unrandom Movie Club Results Are In!

Tagline: Today, only a handful of people know what it means... Soon you will know.




We watched a tape of "Industrial Performance Art" pieces by Survival Research Labs. Founded in 1978 by Mark "Honey I Blew Off My Hand" Pauline, SRL is the precursor to Battle Bots, but on a much grander, louder, and scarier scale.
Gigantic, monstrous, post-apocalyptic robotic contraptions roam around their playpen (usually an unsanctioned parking lot) destroying each other in metal-to-metal combat, or the occasional flame throwing. I went to one in L.A.'s Chinatown and it's a pretty awesome spectacle. Hundreds of people gathered to watch the show, which left the taste of gasoline in our mouths. There is indeed a thrill to this fantastic-bombastic event which is rooted in the subconscious joy that people came together to do this...and to watch this.

SRL often features creepy visuals like baby heads, gigantic heads, and one contraption that drags itself on the floor by its arm making it appear like a wounded animal. They've also reanimated dead animals by use of robotics, which borderlines eerie, distasteful and genius.

The problem with the tape is...it's a tape. I can't think of any performance that benefits more from seeing it live. After about 10 minutes we were done, letting it play out as we chatted. But people who've never heard of SRL got a taste of it. They just didn't taste the gasoline.


The '70s were winding down and the No Nukes protesters were rising up. So what better time to make a movie about a potentially dangerous nuclear reactor. But perhaps the best example of timing in movie history was that only 12 days after THE CHINA SYNDROME hit the theaters, the accident at Three Mile Island nuclear plant occurred, amping up the nation's fear and concern, not to mention the number of conspiracy theorists.

Richard (Douglas) and Kimberly (Fonda) at Ventana Nuclear Power Plant
Jane Fonda stars as Kimberly Wells, a TV reporter relegated to the puffiest pieces on the news. Desperate to break into hard reporting but held back by her boss, Kimberly gets her wish when an accident occurs while on assignment at the Ventana nuclear plant. And guess what? Her brash'n'cocky cameraman Richard (Michael Douglas playing Michael Douglas) secretly films it. And so begins the cover-up, as the news station is more than influenced by the honchos at the plant. Now if only they had some everyman-type actor to play conflicted plant worker Jack Godell.

Enter Jack Lemmon.

Talk about dream casting. Lemmon's built-in righteousness gives TCS all its credibility and humanity. He glows, and not because of any fallout. The way he stares at the coffee cup during the accident's aftershock is worth it right there. Many actors are great at just that - acting. But fewer are great (excuse the pun again) reactors.

Jack lives in a modest apartment, alone. They never get into his backstory, which works just fine. It lets us fill in the missing pieces any way we want. While most people who live alone have a plant to take care of, Jack's life is to take care of a nuclear plant (I have no idea what it is with me and puns today). But it's not only how he reacts to the aftershock, but - how will he react to the company that has been his home. Sure, the plant may have a meltdown, but can Jack Godell stop his?

The safety reports come back positive. No accident, no threat. But Kimberly and Richard aren't convinced. The employees did their jobs and the system (and two back-up systems) worked. The end?

There's a great scene when Kimberly has a chance encounter with Jack. Two rival dogs that have an appreciation for each other. No yelling or accusations. Just two people talking and defending their turf. And maybe each walking away thinking, Hey, maybe this other person's not so bad. And the placing of a burning flame from the open pit between them is a nice touch too.

Jack leaves that meeting thinking. Damn, you can actually see Jack Lemmon think. And then he discovers a small leak, and some falsified reports. And the melodrama turns to thriller.

Richard (Douglas) and Kimberly (Fonda) interview Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon

As I mentioned, Lemmon is outstanding in this movie. But I did have a slight problem with Jane Fonda. Though highly lauded for this movie, she seemed more like a character from Mad TV - always on and in control, fighting with someone, tugging a last intake on a cigarette. It was a performance of mannerisms more than of character.

Also in the cast, Wilfred Brimley (in his first real movie role) as Jack's co-worker Ted Spindler, also torn between company loyalty and doing the right thing. Ventana's PR spin man was played by James Hampton. Yup, it's TV's Dobbs from F TROOP. Also of note, plant baddie Peter Donat and Kimberly's co-worker James Karen, who together have appeared in everything ever produced.

Besides Lemmon, the real star of THE CHINA SYNDROME is director James Bridges' pacing. Some scenes felt like real time, which lets the suspense breathe, exaggerating the threat. And to accentuate the environment, he lit much of the reactor's containment area in muted greens. Also interesting and effectively jarring was the decision to go musicless. Except for car radios, etc., TCS was music-free, which made the closing credits an ominous coda to the finale.

The China Syndrome Poster
THE CHINA SYNDROME is an obvious yet perfect companion piece to another great thriller, SILKWOOD, featuring Meryl Streep as the nuclear whistleblower/activist. In fact, more than one story point in TCS was lifted from Karen Silkwood's story. She worked for Kerr-McGee, and the Ventana plant is owned by Foster-Sullivan. And if you know both stories, and so I don't spoil it if you don't - Hector's driving is similar to Karen's.

THE CHINA SYNDROME unfolds into a smart and suspenseful thriller, so much so that Act Three had some of us calling out to the screen. It's been 30 years since the movie was made, and the times have indeed changed. But even so, the movie holds up nicely. Even better than a reactor with a stuck relay and a faulty intake valve.

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