After 25 years, "The China Syndrome" still has the capacity to scare us toward a safer form of energy production.

James Plath's picture

When "The China Syndrome" was released in 1979, America was embroiled in a debate over nuclear energy. Protesters went up against powerful utility companies to try to halt the spread of nuclear power plants, for which there hadn't been a carefully reasoned plan to deal with radioactive wastes or to ensure plant safety. Until it was explained in the film, nobody in America except nuclear power insiders knew what the title meant. "The China Syndrome" refers to a worst-case scenario where the core of a nuclear reactor becomes exposed and, without water to cool it, "melts down," accelerating into an explosive chain reaction that goes downward, all the way to China, releasing a cloud of deadly radiation at the site. Before "The China Syndrome" was made, nuclear power plant worker Karen Silkwood was killed in a mysterious car accident as she tried to blow the whistle on a plant for continuing to operate when serious defects existed that might cause such a disaster. But her story wouldn't be told until 1983, when Meryl Streep starred in "Silkwood."

"The China Syndrome" was the first film to deal with the issue of nuclear safety, and just two and a half weeks after the prophetic film opened, America experienced a near-meltdown at Three Mile Island. Yet, 25 years later, little has changed. Utility companies still petition to build new plants, Congress still argues over what to do with a literal mountain of nuclear waste, and activists continue protesting while holding their breaths that we won't have a China Syndrome disaster as they did at Chernobyl. Maybe that's why "The China Syndrome" is still as taut of a thriller as it was in 1979.

Jack Lemmon gives a very "unlemmony" but still powerful performance as nuclear power plant supervisor Jack Godell (Go tell? Is there a better name for a whistleblower?)—a performance which would earn him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Jane Fonda was nominated for Best Actress for her performance as TV fluff reporter Kimberly Wells, who yearns to report hard news at a time when women newscasters were little more than eye candy. But things heat up when she and her cameraman, Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) go to the local power plant to film what was supposed to have been another light PR piece featuring a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the gargantuan machinery. What they see, though, scares the pants off of them. Watching the control room from a bullet-proof glass-enclosed observation walkway, they witness an accident that causes the entire building to vibrate. Later, Godell and his assistant, Ted Spindler (Wilford Brimley), try to pass it off as a "routine turbine trip," but Wells and Adams know better. They saw genuine fear in the men's eyes and the relief when their corrections stopped the water level from sinking further and exposing the core. What's more, they have proof. Adams secretly had his camera running as he held it waist-high. Eventually, Godell gives in and agrees to go public, but the explosive footage and their attempts to bring the information to the attentions of nuclear regulatory hearings and to try to convince KXLA to run the story, ends up drawing them all into a multi-pronged conspiracy to silence them. Douglas, fresh from his triumphant debut producing "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," puts together another top-notch cast and fuses two nuclear disaster scripts to make one tense wake-up film—the domestic version of "Failsafe," really.

Though Seventies' and Eighties' fashions can often make a drama now look unintentionally comedic, that doesn't happen here, mostly because there's just one "watering hole" scene, and it's a neighborhood tavern rather than an after-hours dance club full of hairy chests and gold chains. There are a few "kittenish" scenes where Wells is patronized by the males who work around her, but precious else besides this obvious gender time warp diverts viewers' attention from the drama at hand. Another thing that can date a film from this era is the pacing, which, at worst, can feel as lazy as a leisure suit. But again, that doesn't happen as much here, because Douglas and director James Bridges follow the formula for thrillers featuring monsters—the monster in this case being a menacing piece of nuclear machinery that threatens to run as amok as if it were the Blob. And the film also operates in the tradition of "The Manchurian Candidate" and other espionage thrillers, where sinister forces shadow and ultimately chase the good guys. In retrospect, it's that blend of two genres that saves "The China Syndrome" from the slower pacing that can now seem tedious to generations of film lovers raised on MTV and mind-blowing CGI special effects. "The China Syndrome" doesn't have the breakneck speed or forward hurtling sense of visual vertigo that accompanies thrillers these days, but it still moves at a pace that allows even today's ADD audiences to become drawn into the drama. What action there is in this 122-minute film becomes all the more potent because there isn't a chase or a threat in every single frame. And the performances? Fonda and Lemmon are able to convey real and significant character development as it goes through subtle stages of transformation. Look for Mohammed Ali's daughter in a small part as one of the nuclear power plant workers.

Once again, classic film buffs, it's time to upgrade, and not just because of the extras. The original 1999 DVD release featured a choice between the theatrical presentation (approximately 1.85:1 aspect ratio) and pan-and-scan 1.33:1. But it was grainy and the film was showing its age, with the color looking slightly dingy. The 2004 release, which features new digitally HD remastered video, this time with just the 1.85:1 ratio, is a noticeable improvement. Though there are still scenes where a slight graininess appears, "The China Syndrome" has never looked better. The color palette is still pure Seventies, but it has a new vibrancy now.

The original mono audio mix gets a boost from a new Dolby Digital 5.1 remaster for the Special Edition, and unlike some of the mono-to-stereo transfers, this one has great separation of sounds and totally justifies the remix. The film is now presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, the original English mono, and French mono, with subtitles in English, French, Japanese, Chinese, and Thai.

Too bad that this Special Edition was put together after Lemmon's death. It would have been nice to have heard the screen legend rate this film in the context of all his other marvelous performances. But at least viewers get to hear from Fonda and Douglas in two 30-minute features. "China Syndrome: A Fusion of Talent" tells the behind-the-scenes story about how the film came into being, including the fact that the script came to Douglas unsolicited because of the success he had with "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," and that there originally wasn't a part for Fonda. The first script featured two males, and Richard Dreyfus was slated to play opposite his pal, Douglas. It was only after the one script merged with a second that a synthesis began which brought Fonda onboard to create a role for which she'd become famous. Practically everyone studying broadcast journalism knows about Kimberly Wells, as the film was first a textbook case for J-schools, and now an ironic part of the profession's history. Adding to the lore? Fonda says she dyed her hair red for the part as a tribute to comic-strip journalist Brenda Starr. She talks about getting to know the actors, and reveals that Brimley was once a bodyguard for billionaire recluse Howard Hughes. Mostly, though, it's fascinating to hear how committed Lemmon, Fonda, and others were to this film—how they were all anti-nuclear activists in real life.

In "The China Syndrome: Creating a Controversy," there's some overlapping but also additional details, including the revelation that the film had a working title of "Power" or "Eyewitness," because filmmakers were concerned that "The China Syndrome" would prompt nuclear power plant officials to deny the crew access. Though they couldn't film inside a real power plant, because Douglas had filmed "Cuckoo's Nest" he was able to gain access to the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant in Oregon, and much of the film's accurate detail was based on that visit. In this segment viewers learn about the special effects and the conditions which made filming difficult at times. There's a smattering of interesting trivia—such as Fonda breaking her foot near the end of filming but continuing, without a noticeable limp, and a note on the machinery miniatures (which were created by a man who would go on to make miniatures for "Star Wars" and the Indiana Jones series.

There are also three short deleted scenes, two of which, interestingly enough, made Lemmon so angry that they were cut that he first refused to do interviews to promote the film. Rounding out the extras: Star filmographies and a few previews.

Bottom Line:
Studios are going nuts with DVD reissues, but "The China Syndrome" more than deserves a digital facelift and a few extras to commemorate a solid film that made Americans at least momentarily concerned that we really ought to be pursuing a safer source of energy. Jack Lemmon kept his plate empty for over a year because he wanted to be a part of this film, and it's a tribute to him that one of his most impassioned roles is now available in a brighter and sharper HD remastered print. After 25 years, "The China Syndrome" still has the capacity to scare us toward a safer form of energy production.


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