On July 15th, the ABC network ran a poorly reviewed disaster movie, The Sky’s on Fire. In an effort to imply that the film was new, ABC promoted the occasion as the ‘broadcast’ premiere. Checking on the Internet Movie Database, however, I learned that it originally appeared on cable television’s USA channel in 1998. The day before it ran on free TV, I posted a note on our bulletin board inviting readers to send in their thoughts on the film. Here are the assembled results, including my take. As for the quantitative paucity of response, we shall have to see whether this reflects the poor amount of lead time or rather general disinterest in the concept.
Quantity aside, I couldn’t ask for more astute contributors. I am joined here by my fellow sitemaster Apostic, who had a helping hand from his equally perceptive and even more charming spouse Jo, and Kurt vonRoeschlaub, B-Fest attendee and distinguished correspondent.
In case it should occur to anyone that I put my contribution first out of a sense of ego, let me demur. The truth rests quite in the opposite direction. An iron rule of Vaudeville was to never follow an act that performed smashingly well, for fear that your own performance would appear weaker in comparison. I have wisely followed that precept here. As for my associates, a flip of the proverbial coin dictated the order of their contributions.
Ken Examines The Sky’s On Fire:
We open with a scene out of Greek Mythology. This kind of stuff allows screenwriters to convince themselves that they aren’t doing hackwork. Icarus flew too close to the sun with his wings of wax and feathers, and hence fatally crashed to Earth. Here we watch three people baked by unrestrained ultraviolet rays as they also fly too near the sun in a small plane. Here’s a bet. Sit down with the three (!) screenwriters who adapted the source novel “Fatal Exposure.” (Isn’t that a Shannon Tweed movie? It should be.) I’m sure they’ll excitedly explain how the metaphor works. “See, as with Icarus, this is a tale of Hubris, and how Man’s attempts to conquer Nature inevitably lead to disaster. By rooting our tale in the most ancient of human myths, we were able to lend them a subliminal deepness….”
Cut to Los Angeles. Expository radio broadcasts — what an innovative device! — reveal that the city is the victim of an inexplicably severe heat wave. This established, we meet Our Hero, Dr. Evan Thorne. He’s played, sort of, by Disaster Movie veteran John Corbett (Volcano; the sinkhole epic On Hostile Ground), taking time out from Ford commercials to again fight Nature run amok. He’s the honest scientist who’s attempted to warn us all of our folly, only to have his career destroyed by Dark Forces. Needless to say, he’ll be proved right here, so at least he has that. Meanwhile, John, a cynical reporter, begins to suspect The Truth when he sees a large number of dead whales washed up on a beach. The shot of the whales, by the way, is one of the film’s better moments, being actually eerie. I’m still disturbed, though, that more audience sympathy can be reaped from dead animals than dead people.
Ominous stuff happens, mysterious deaths, wildlife dying and going insane, weird hot winds, yada yada. Finally it’s confirmed that a gigantic hole in the ozone layer has appeared, threatening the world with undiluted solar radiation. Or, at least, Disaster Movie favorite Los Angeles. Thorne must again battle with his nemesis Dr. Schiffren, an establishment (boo! hiss!) scientist who fears a panic, apparently because it will adversely effect his stock portfolio. I mean, Greed can be the only answer for wanting to suppress The Truth, right?
- A surfer reacts to the dozen dead whales lined up on the beach: “This is totally bogus, man!”
- Want proof that Our Hero knows his stuff? “He wrote the book on it at the University.” (Wow!)
- Dr. Hellstrom gives her opinion: “He’d be better off here a little more longer.”
Corbett’s always been known for playing laid-back characters. Lately, though, his technique could more accurately be described as ‘sleepwalking.’ Admittedly, he’s obviously being forced to appear in crap, but hey, give us something here. Dammit, where’re Bruce Boxleitner or William Devane when you need them?
Worst Promo Stuff:
Blatantly stealing from the not-terribly-successful Volcano, the pre-broadcast spot for the film warns that The Coast Will Roast. Also, we’re dramatically told, “The ozone is moving towards L.A.” Does that sentence mean as little as I think it does? And isn’t the plot in fact about the effects of a paucity of ozone? How does that fit in with it “moving towards L.A.”?
- Yeesh, did they just head back to a storeroom somewhere and pull these characters, wrapped in dusty cellophane, directly from stock? I mean, c’mon. Not to mention the obligatory Life’s A Rich Tapestry™ plotting, by which all the characters are written so as to connect with all the other characters. Let’s see what we’ve got here:
- Thorne, the scientist who’s always warned that this was coming. He cares more about The Truth and Human Misery than about Money or Politics. (Although a catastrophic economic collapse would in fact more adversely effect the poor than the rich. When is Hollywood going to figure this out?) This brings him once again into conflict with his corrupt ex-partner…
- Schiffren, the overly cautious ‘scientist’ — if you can even call him that, since he demands ‘proof’ rather than just accepting the hero’s gut feelings. (This always being a fatal flaw in a movie scientist.) He cares more about Money and Politics than The Truth and Human Misery. His efforts to do mischief lead him to try to bulldoze…
- John, the cynical lone-wolf reporter who becomes a believer, risking it all to inform the public of the coming catastrophe. His path to enlightenment begins when he consults…
- Elizabeth Sobel, a beautiful female scientist — forgive me for being redundant. Like Thorne, she attempts to bring the Truth to the fore by warning the Mayor of Los Angeles and his beautiful female top aide – forgive me for being redundant — …
- Jenny, who likewise sees through Schiffren’s obfuscation and bravely fights against his perfidy. But how could she do less? After all, she’s Thorne’s sister. (My mistake, I thought she’d be his ex-girlfriend.) Oh, and she’s also the fiancÃˆe of…
- Racer (!!) (“Speed, you will never now that I am your brother, or how proud I am of you“), the brave National Guard/rescue pilot who survives an early encounter with the ozone hole. He later risks all by flying on a possible suicide mission with Thorne, who holds mankind’s last hope in his hands…
- Oh, and let’s not forget the worshipful younger scientist at Thorne’s office, who can ask all the expository questions that fill the audience in on stuff: How bad is it really? What’s Thorne’s backstory? Will this desperate plan work? Etc.
- Do we really need two characters who earlier damaged their careers by blowing situations out of proportions and are now seeking redemption? Because they explicitly give John the reporter this background, too.
- So…the characters who die in the plane crash notice their vision going blurry, but don’t notice that the flesh on their hands is literally baking before our eyes? And wouldn’t that hurt?
- The idea that the press, especially the television variety, wouldn’t be swarming over the dead whales story is ludicrous. Sure. An environmentally themed story, involving whales, in California. And with that visual?! Yet we never see anyone but John working on it. It’s utterly and patently ridiculous. However, the movie needs to castigate the (news) media for ignoring, you know, the Real Stories.
- I don’t want to read too much into this, but could Corbett’s character be named “Thorne” because he’s a ‘thorn’ in the side of those seeking to Suppress The Truth? If so…wow!
- Most of these movies feature a character who has paid a price for an earlier attempt to expose The Truth. In other words, they have a history of having been wrong in the past, but are now facing a situation that confirms all their warnings. Yet, despite this history of their earlier panic-mongering, everyone who ignores them in the present is portrayed as stupid or venal or both. Why? Isn’t this what we all learned as children from The Boy Who Cried Wolf?
- Seeing the whale report, Thorne phones Elizabeth the Beauteous Female Scientist . When he seeks to introduce himself, she assures him that “I know who you are.” Of course. Don’t all scientists know of each other’s work? Whether they work in the same field or not?
- Racer is taken to the hospital, having suffered from exposure whilst searching for our initial plane crash victims. His emergency room physician is named “Hellstrom.” Is this supposed to be an inside joke? Because it’s kind of lame. For the record, in the ‘70s there was a made-for-TV movie called The Hellstrom Chronicles. This rather decent semi-documentary featured Hellstrom, a fictional scientist who believed that Man would ultimately be supplanted by insects and arachnids. Given the later perfunctory bug attacks featured here, I thought maybe one of the writers was trying to get cute. Actually, if the doctor herself were attacked by bugs, it might have actually been funny. But she isn’t.
- To show petty politics at work, we see the Mayor complaining about a request for $6,000 to buy fans for library workers. (Man, we always get screwed.) Because, you know, of the heat wave. Now, I know that Mayors of even big cities get caught up in small matters, but a request for six thousand dollars? I mean, Los Angeles must have an annual budget running into tens of billions of dollars. And he’s concerned about six thousand dollars?!
- I know all the good scientists, the ones who care about The Truth, work in the same underbudgeted lab as Thorne. But are you telling me that no one in Schiffren’s office is even expressing concern about the data they’re collecting?
- If Schiffren is a bureaucrat rather than a scientist, why isn’t he acting like one? Rather than utterly ignoring the situation, wouldn’t he be setting things up so as to cover his ass if the worst should happen? He should be issuing vague press releases that are cautionary but reassuring at the same time, so as to have a paper trail to fall back on no matter what happens. Instead, he keeps definitively telling those in authority that nothing bad’s going to happen. Even after the city’s entire bird population goes completely nuts (although, why would they then stop acting weird?), he still flat out says that it’s not connected with the ozone depletion. This is not how one climbs the bureaucratic ladder.
- Watch the scene where Thorne rags out Schiffren for caring about money while the world goes to hell. With his stoic acting style, monotone voice and gigantic sense of moral superiority, it’s apparent that Corbett is turning into Steven Seagal. He even, with his long face and long hair, kind of looks like him.
- OK, let’s assume that everyone on this featured fishing trawler could bake to death before returning to shore. But what, they didn’t radio in what was happening?
- Regarding the scene where the birds goes nuts: Wouldn’t a full-fledged panic occur after such an event? And why were the birds able to smash through the Mayor’s windows? I’d think that Mayor of Los Angeles’ office would sport bulletproof windows.
- OK, again, how is it possible that no one other than Thorne’s people can tell that this ozone hole is moving towards the city? This is probably the biggest running flaw in the movie, as it just seems impossible.
- Schiffren, the heroes lament, will never admit what’s going on when “half his funding is coming from the same people who caused this problem in the first place.” First, if he’s this well-known corporate lackey, then why are we constantly being reminded that government offices like the National Weather Service and NASA keep deferring to him on this issue? And why would the implied Dark Sinister Forces (i.e., corporate America – no, not the film and television industries, the rest of corporate America) have such a complete nitwit in their service?
- Pike, Thorne’s boss/colleague, explains that foreign scientists from around the world agree that the ozone hole isn’t going to close up before disaster strikes. (Why didn’t anyone mention these guys earlier?) So, I guess the only stupid and career oriented scientists are here in the States.
- Talk about Deus ex Machina! See, Pike and Thorne had once worked on a device called the ORB; Ozone Replenishing Bomb. (Personally, I’d think even scientists would have enough PR savvy that they wouldn’t call an environmental tool a ‘bomb,’ but there you go.) By “destroying” the chorine that eats through the ozone layer, it allows holes to close themselves up. (Wouldn’t removing the chlorine more likely just halt further damage?) Now, if they could only get the abandoned, nearly completed prototype to work…
- If you were wondering why they hadn’t pursued working on this wonder device, you haven’t been paying attention. Why, because Schiffren shut them down, of course, “days” before they were to test it. Who else? After all, the last thing his Evil Masters would want would be a device that would allow them to minimize ecological damages as they pursued their industrial goals and…uh, wait, could you run that by me again?
- OK, I’ve figured it out. The reason Schiffren’s Evil Masters are against such a device is because he works for Hoggish Greedly and the other villains from Captain Planet.
- Actually, the people most likely to be against the ORB would, in the real world, be hardcore Leftist ‘environmentalists.’ There are many such whose real agenda is a hostility to industrialization, or, more to the point, Capitalism period. The last thing they’d want is a device that would encourage the masses to believe that industry is environmentally sustainable. As an example, there are those who don’t like fuel-efficient cars because they believe — correctly — that they reduce the likelihood of private ownership of cars being abolished overall. Of course, they don’t exactly go around parading these motives when they appear on Meet the Press to argue that rising gas prices are in fact a good thing. (“Gas prices are much higher in Europe,” they’ll say with a limpid gleam in their eyes, as if that’s an argument for anything.) Needless to say, though, adding such grays to the palette of stark Blacks and Whites with which the script is sketched would be unthinkable.
- In an effort to lend tension to the ORB concept, Thorne resists having to use it because if it doesn’t work, it might make the ozone hole bigger. Huh? This concept is being introduced at about the forty minute mark, out of the two hour (with commercials) running time. In other words, we now know exactly where the film is taking us for the next hour and twenty minutes: People will debate whether using the bomb is wise, the effects of the ozone hole will become more severe, they will decide they must take the chance, and the ORB will work. There, you can turn off your TV now and do something useful.
- Expository Question Asking Guy points out that the ORB could be delivered via a missile fired by a high-altitude jet. Pike confirms that NASA would be glad to provide the plane. Hmm, now if they only had access to a pilot…
- So they go to the storeroom (!) where the almost completed ORB rests. Thorne mentions that they’ll have to make sure it’ll work, alerting us to stand by for a boring Race Against the Clock to get the device functioning before *yawn* it’s too late. Gee, I wonder if they’ll make it.
- We cut back to the hospital were Racer went. Apparently Dr. Hellstrom is also going to be a running character. Here we start seeing the true ramifications of this dire situation. Literally twos and threes of extras sporting burn make-up flood (in a very limited sense; ‘moisten’ might be a more appropriate term) the emergency room. After examining a patient for about zero seconds, she orders “ten cc’s of morphine! Stat!” Needless to say, this impenetrable medical jargon makes the scene come alive.
- In the film’s greatest lapse of taste, as opposed to its more normal transgressions against intelligence, John’s boss watches a news report on the dead fishermen as shown earlier. Noting the mildly baked condition of the bodies, he notes “It’s like they went back in time, to Hiroshima, 1945.” No, actually, it isn’t. And whoever wrote that line is a sick bastard. Screw you, sir, and the horse you road in on. Your grotesque attempt to tart up your stupid little movie with such a comparison reveals you to be insensitive creep of the highest order.
- For absolutely no reason we can discern, in the middle of this crisis and with her hospital purportedly jam-packed with victims of the ozone hole, Dr. Hellstrom drops in to visit the recovering Racer at home. Doesn’t she have anything better to do? And why is she wearing a suit jacket? In fact, in almost every scene, someone’s wearing a jacket. Despite this putative heat wave they keep prattling about. I mean, Racer was wearing a bomber jacket (!) when he collapsed from heat stroke. And it’s supposed to be north of 110âˆ« out! On top of that, how come no one’s sweating?
- Anyway. She’s coming, I guess, to demand answers about what’s happening. When he was brought in, Racer had mentioned the dead plane passengers. This has aroused her suspicions, as there’s been zero news coverage on this. I think they’re implying a news blackout on the story, but by who? And if ‘They’ are trying to keep things a secret, what about the just previously shown news coverage of the dead fishermen? HELL-OOOO!!! And why is she asking this guy, anyway? What would he know?
- As the news finally breaks, with everyone following John’s lead, of course, Thorne is referred to on air as a “renowned environmental scientist.” A what? I always wonder why there are so many more ‘famous’ scientists in movies than in real life. Let’s see. Stephen Hawking. Uh…
- Thorne is quoted as saying that the animals affected by the hole will “present humankind with horrors that are beyond the imagination.” (Not in this movie!!) Oh, but don’t panic or anything.
- In one of the film’s more hilarious moments, which is saying something, stock footage of a traffic slowdown on the expressway is shown. This is meant to portray unprecedented frenzy as people stampede out of town, or something, but I’ve seen worse traffic while driving into Chicago after during rush hour. And I mean, much worse traffic. Everybody’s moving at a nice steady clip here.
- Now come some riot scenes, or as much as they can do with the two or three thousands bucks they’ve evidently been afforded here.
- The governor tells the Mayor that he’ll send in the National Guard and also call the Pentagon, as this is “a national emergency.” How the hell is an ozone hole over Los Angeles a ‘national’ emergency? And do governors directly call the Pentagon in any case? It’s under civilian (federal) command. Wouldn’t you call the White House, and *they’d* call the Pentagon?
- Yawn, as if they haven’t dragged things out enough (and running-time wise, I guess they haven’t), they give the Mayor an obdurate advisor – a white guy, of course – to argue against the ORB, even though he doesn’t know what it does. The Mayor agrees to hear out Thorne anyway, but notes that Schiffren must take part, as he’s “still the voice of authority.” Now, considering that events have proven him dead wrong, how could that possibly still be the case? And since he presumably works for a NGO (a Non-Government Organization; since we’ve heard his funding comes from commercial concerns), who made him so? Wouldn’t NASA and The National Weather Service, now wearing large quantities of yolk on their faces, have stepped in directly by now?
- I’ll mostly skip over the boring “will we perfect the device in time?” testing sequences, but there are a lot of them, and they’re really boring.
- Now comes a mysterious sequence. Bees are invading the city, as shown in a couple of really bad matte shots. Strike that, they use the same one twice. They change the foreground but you can see the smudge, er, bees, twice flying past the same buildings, minutes apart. Cripes, what kind of shoestring budget did they shoot this on, anyway?
- Anyway, Elizabeth is in her car, which is stuck in the traffic jam, and bees start pretty much spontaneously pouring through her a/c grill (?). Oddly, we don’t see any bees outside, other than in the two (well, one) matte shot(s), so I guess they’re all in her car. She freaks and becomes the only person to try to drive out of the jam, again, I guess, because the bees are only bothering her and aren’t in anyone else’s car, or outside anyone’s else’s car, for that matter. (If you look real close, you can see a couple of black dots on the picture, which look like they were drawn in with marker. They do show some pedestrians running around, but again, Elizabeth’s the only one in a car being effected.) She drives into a horizontal metal beam on a truck and decapitates herself in her panic. If I’m getting this right, I think we’re supposed to ‘care.’
- Much like the birds earlier, the bees for some reason launch an attack and then just go away. Their job here, I guess, is done.
- More very low-grade ‘riot’ scenes. Yawn. I like the bit when the National Guard jumps from their convoy trucks, right out of The Blue Brothers movie. Then, for some reason, a guy with a stolen TV set runs right in front of them, which doesn’t seem an optimum strategy.
- They use video here to add a cinema vÃˆritÃˆ sort of feeling, but more likely it was to save a couple of bucks. They obviously ran out of money at some point. This montage goes on for a while and never looks other then really fake.
- Jenny goes to visit Schiffren, apparently to try to get him on board for using the ORB. Still proving to be a complete ass, Schiffren notes that the device could “cause more harm than good,” something they keep having people say in a vain attempt to explain why the idea is controversial. How could it hurt? Anyway, you can only laugh when Schiffren continues that “I would no more encourage its use in this situation than I would an atomic bomb!” Uh, yeah. Meanwhile, he’s still pushing the ‘no hole’ thing, making the character look unimaginably dumb. Claiming that “you’ve been lying so long you don’t even know what The Truth is anymore,” (yeah, that’s the way to get the guy on your side), Jenny then smugly accuses him of “selling your soul to the Devil,” i.e., presumably, to *gasp* Big Business.
- How cheap is this movie? OK, we cut to some more riot stuff. If you look close, you can see events occurring now that we earlier saw being broadcast on a ‘news’ report in the Mayor’s office!
- Now comes another highlight scene. Jenny goes home and eventually — got to build suspense, you know — finds that a (sorta) huge mess of bugs are all over where they clearly weren’t just a minute ago. Apparently UV rays turns bugs into Ninja commandos. (Reminiscent of the teleporting spiders that would appear underfoot the second the camera cut away in Kingdom of the Spiders.) This is portrayed in a series of escalations; there’s a spider on the counter, then a worm in her coffee mug, then a bunch in a kitchen cabinet and then lots of them on the floor. This is followed by the piÃ‹ce de rÃˆsistance, where she moves a credenza and discovers bugs literally pouring through an air vent. I mean, they look like they’re being extruded from a prototypical Giant Play-doh™ Bug Factory. Meanwhile, backing the tape up confirms that no bugs were visibly present when the scene began one minute earlier.
- OK, I want you to think about this. You enter your house. Seconds later, thousands of bugs magically appear all over the place. Even ignoring their mystical properties, what would you do? If you answered “leave through the front door I just came through, which is all of three feet away,” you’d be wrong. No, you’d hide in a nearby closet and try to barricade yourself with a jacket under the door. Really.
- Now, I don’t want to be mean. But who wrote this crap? I mean, in less than ten minutes of screentime, the writers put one of the two female characters in a car ‘filled’ (sorta) with bees. Does she get out of the car? No. Counterintuitively, she attempts to drive away from the bees (in her car) and dies. A bit later, the film’s other female character finds her house ‘filled’ (sorta) with bugs. Does she get out of the house? No. Counterintuitively, she attempts to hide in the closet from the bugs (in her house) and is trapped. Can you say, “Out of ideas?”
- OK, they cut back to the lab, where on the TV we see, I swear, the same attack on the same store for a third time. Perhaps you’re saying that “Well, Ken, maybe this is a replay of that vandalism as caught on camera earlier.” So then I guess it would be nit-picky to point out when we saw the crime in ‘real’ time (quite a while after we saw it on the Mayor’s TV), there were no news cameras evident?
- When Expository Question Asking Guy asks Thorne if the device will work in this round of tests, he answers, “It has to work. We’ve adjusted the chemical mixture, and now we need to create the right aspersion rate.” Uh, how does that second bit add up to “It has to work”?
- Apparently having Jenny tell him off worked, because all of the sudden Schiffren has a change of heart and starts helping out with the ORB. I believe this is meant to be nuanced characterization, but instead it just seems imposed by the script. Nothing we’ve seen or been told about Schiffren would indicate the potential for this transformation. Before he was a two-dimensional bad guy, suddenly he’s a two-dimensional good guy. Whatever. Thorne, meanwhile, acts increasingly like a petulant baby as the movie progresses. And why does he keep sounding more and more like Steven Seagal? It’s getting a little creepy.
- Schiffren has a high-altitude F5 jet to offer, he reveals, all perfectly tricked out for this mission. (That’s convenient.) The only thing he doesn’t have is a pilot for it. But, hey, Racer, hanging around the lab, is an F5 pilot. (That’s convenient.) Of course, earlier he was flying a rescue helicopter. Apparently, much as movie scientists are conversant with all fields of science, movie pilots are conversant with all flying machines. (That’s convenient.)
- Somebody mentions the temperature, which unsurprisingly leads to one of those “Of course!! That’s the answer!!” Light Bulb Moments™. “We change the temperature of the atmosphere with the dispersion blast,” Thorne realizes, “so we have to put that in the test!” By George, it just might work!
- Cue dramatic music as they (sloow-ly) test Thorne’s theory. And guess what, it works. There, I didn’t want to keep you on edge.
- Racer gets home, calls out for Jenny, and within twenty seconds is looking in the closet (?). It can’t be because she made a noise, because she’s found lying unconscious, covered with non-poisonous wolf spiders – OK, one non-poisonous wolf spider — and with make-up blotches all over her. Racer grabs her. Of course, he doesn’t leave the house, because humanity in this universe didn’t evolve with that gene. Instead, he lays her on the bed three feet from the closet, where luckily there are no bugs. For some reason, the bugs don’t bother them anymore after this point.
- Rather than calling the hospital, Racer phones his buddy at the National Guard hanger and tells him to send a “med-evac unit.” While he doesn’t say so, I think he wants that ‘stat!’ Of course, this appropriation of military equipment is breakin’ all the rules (wow!), but that what friends are for.
- Actually, when we get to the hospital, someone does indeed say, “Get in the ER, stat!” Man, that’s verisimilitude.
- The halls are jammed with what must be almost twenty extras. I hate to say this, but they did a better job of the ‘victims clogging the hospital’ thing in Steven Seagal’s The Patriot. You know you’re doing something wrong when you come in second to that movie.
- Thorne gets a call regarding his sister, setting up an Emmy Clip™ moment for the stoic John Corbett, who goes so far as to appear mildly bummed out. Bravo! Bravo!
- Then it’s Racer’s moment. Leaning close, he softly tells his comatose fiancÃˆe, “Please, Jen, don’t leave me like this. Not now. Not now.” Hey, while you’re passing those Emmys around, save one for the scriptwriters!
- Schiffren is signing off on the ORB thing, and we again go through the “it’s not really a bomb” thing. Well, guess what then, brainiac. Don’t call it one! The word ‘bomb’ tends to be a red flag for a lot of people. Why are they subjecting Schiffren to this third degree anyway? They’ve been telling us for the entire picture that this has been his call and his alone.
- So they send a helicopter to get the ORB team. Only it’s so windy they can’t hardly land. And time is so short! (This goes on for almost a minute.) Will they make it? They do! Only…why then do they easily take back off thirty seconds later, and with nary a buffet?
- OK, let’s cut to the chase. We’ve got about twenty minutes left. (Reporter John shows back up here – he’s always around when something important happens, like little Kenny in the old Gamera movies.) First they milk the ‘preparing for the mission’ stuff. Then it’s the ‘will they find and hit the ozone hole’ thing. The shots of the jet climbing, by the way, are some of the shoddiest effects of recent memory. I’m talking Clutch Cargo stuff here. Considering this is the kind of thing they pull off in Gillette ‘Mach 3’ commercials only adds to the embarrassment. This all eats up well over ten minutes, with the actual flight detailed at excruciating length. Then we get the ‘the mission is successful, but did Racer and Thorne make it out?’ bit. Needless to say, yes. (Sorry to blow the surprise.) Then it’s the ‘cut to the hospital, Jenny’s going to make it after all’ coda. Believe me, it’s a lot more boring watching it than reading it.
- There are highlights, though. When John pops up in the control tower, an understandably surprised Schiffren (who’s calling things on the ground) growls, “How the hell did you get in here?” John replies, “No way I’m gonna miss this. I was here at the beginning, I’ll gonna be here at the end, no matter what.” Despite the fact that this in no way answers the question as posed – I guess we weren’t supposed to notice that – Schiffren basically just shrugs his shoulders rather then have the guy kicked out on his ass.
- The jet has to fly higher than it’s rated for because, and I quote, “The hole must be bigger than we figured. To get a proper fix, we’re gonna need more altitude.” If I’m deciphering this correctly, the hole is harder to find because it’s bigger than they thought. Huh?
- By the way, since they’re so close to the hole, why aren’t they frying like those who earlier baked to death way down at sea level?
- Ah, it’s so nice when they save the best for last. And here they do. So the ORB works, and the chlorine that’s sapping the ozone layer has been neutralized. Now, we’ve been told, the layer can “replenish” itself. And how long does it take the hundred-mile-plus wide hole to close? By my count, roughly forty-five seconds. Yep, it’s just that easy
- As Schiffren looks for the plane after the explosion, he holds his binoculars in the most peculiar fashion. He hooks his thumbs under each side, then holds up and fans out his fingers. I kept expecting an announcer to say, “Cats…Now and Forever!”
- Why are the radio calls to the airplane also being played over the base PA system? Oh, I guess that’s to explain why a bunch (sorta) of extras come running out in celebration after they land.
- We end with a couple of text cards that inform us that there’s no scientific reason that ozone thinning couldn’t in fact appear over the continental United States. Well, duh. Oooh, how ominous. Besides, why should we be worried? One quick flight and zap! the hole’s quickly filled in. Thanks for that ORB thing, guys!
Apostical Insights (a.k.a. Deep Hurting Impact) :
Sent: Sunday, July 16, 2000 1:52 AM
To: Ken Begg
Subject: (The Sky’s on Fire)
Following your request, I watched The Sky’s on Fire. Matter of fact, I’ve just finished it. Man, I wish I’d had a blank VCR tape for this one.
Don’t know how you envision a future Nugget from those of us who are responding, and since I don’t have a copy of this feature to do a detailed analysis, here are a few observations you may find useful.
First, the Good News
Thank God Ben “Crichton” Browder [Racer] was in this. His smooth, laid back delivery during some banal scenes made this thing almost tolerable. Plus some of the lab scenes were OK. Not perfect, but OK. Therefore, I can’t honestly say this movie is all bad. But some parts are awesomely awful.
The First Act, and Things Go Downhill from There
Let’s start with the initial plane crash. What the heck is this? A neutron bomb ozone hole? It destroys people but not, for example, aircraft? It doesn’t even seem to mess with the sensitive electronics on an airplane.
When Animosities Attack
Jo and I watched this thing together. Jo, as you know, is from New Zealand, where they have an ozone layer depletion problem. However, their everyday lives are not interrupted by homages to Day of the Animals (1977), The Birds (1963), The Swarm (1978), and Squirm (1976). No, they just produce some kick ass sailing teams, rugby players, and filmmakers. Perhaps the ozone hole over NZ has been a good thing.
One of the ozone hole problems in Kiwiland has been sunburns, with an extra chance of skin cancer. However, a lot of the people in this movie look like they could use a little more sun anyway, so no great loss.
Regarding the unintentionally hilarious pigeon attack in the office. Is THIS the only office they decided to attack? Come to think of it, what is it with disasters like this? The earth’s surface area is nearly 200 million square miles. Why do these things always head directly for the big cities, which make such a small fraction of that surface area?
When the woman’s home is invaded by about two gallons of earthworms coming through a ventilator, we’re asking, what the heck? Was she living over a bait shop? When she’s bitten and stung into submission by various arthropods, we ask, if they were driven to aggression, why didn’t they just attack each other? (Shoot, I was having a Frogs (1972) flashback.)
Mild in the Streets
Later, we are shown panic in the streets as the residents of Los Angeles evacuate. Traffic on the crowded freeways slows to a halt. Frustrated people begin to run among the motionless cars. Isolated examples of rage develop. Looks like a typical LA afternoon to me.
And then we get the looting in the streets. It struck me as a tad racist, but “tad” grew into “hugely” when they showed a lone Asian man guarding his storefront with a shotgun. King riots, anyone? They spent a lot of runtime on these scenes. I question the wisdom of these selections for padding.
Many of these riot scenes looked like they were shot on video. I can’t tell. Did they chose this medium because they wanted this sequence to look as real as a documentary, or did they originally plan to make this whole thing look like a documentary but changed their minds after they shot these scenes, or were they just too cheap to shoot this on film?
The scientists are initially thwarted by a scientist in a suit. You can tell he’s a bad guy, because he wears a tie. And it’s no surprise he’s sold out to The Great Satan, a.k.a. Big Business, and that it would take a renegade in need of a haircut to save everyone.
Deus Ex Ballista
Lucky thing for everyone there just happens to be an ozone “patch kit” bomb in the LA area, and they just happen to be able to kit-bash it into an air-to-air missile, and they just happen know someone with an F-5 Tigershark who can launch it. (Who else were they going to get? Admiral Nelson and the Seaview?) And, of course, this fixes the problem in about a minute. Think about it. This huge thing would’ve taken decades to form, and presto, gone in sixty seconds.
- To call the acting and dialog in the opening scene stilted is to give the people too much credit. For one thing it assumes they are actors.
- Ultraviolet light does give you sunburn, but does it actually scald your hands? And how did it get into the plane anyway? Glass is opaque to UV.
- “Lethal CFCs”? Obviously a scientific paper he’s working on.
- It’s over 100 degrees and Evan [Thorne] is wearing a corduroy jacket. He is the best in his field, assuming his field is dressing inappropriately.
- I like how hard everyone explains what everyone should already know just to establish that Evan is a good scientist.
- It’s kind of funny how the oceanographer [Elizabeth] would pick just the right cause out of her hat when listing possibilities for the beaching. Almost like she read the script or something. The reporter even repeats it and then she dismisses it as “just a theory.”
- The pilot informs the base he thinks he’s got something. It’s obvious from the air it is a crashed plane. How many crashed planes does he think are in the area?
- After checking the plane he uses the hand radio and ignores the helicopter’s radio. When the hand radio doesn’t seem to be working he gives up and wanders off on his own. Hey, stupid, at least try the helicopter’s radio. Actually, it’s a bit odd he’d be using the handheld at all, they don’t exactly have great range (25-30 miles over water if you’re lucky).
- “Our data is nice, but skeptics don’t have any use for it.” I’ve seen movies where the clues were ignored by the skeptics, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen the hero give up before he even tried. This is especially prophetic given how he will be trying to convince everyone of the danger with gut instinct later.
- When the rescue pilot finds the plane crash victims (how did he know which way to go? Why did he abandon his helicopter anyway?) their faces are covered with red splotches. Now, since we know the premise of the film, we know they died of exposure to UV light, but what the hell killed them? UV light can cause a bad sunburn, but a sunburn bad enough to make your nose bleed? And why were the victims too stupid to get out of the sun? We already know they were blinded, not a good state to be in and wander off into the desert. I guess I can understand why the pilot is near fainting though. It’s over 100 degrees and he’s still wearing a heavy flight jacket.
- Well, let’s see, the mayor is black (i.e. a minority) so he must be a good guy, and he’s willing to joke with his aides about opening the window (a regular joe) but he doesn’t see the point in spending $6000 to “cool a bunch of librarians.” Either he’s an insensitive prick (librarians don’t deserve to have fans in 100+ degree weather) or an idiot (he literally does not see the point in making a library cool so that people working there don’t collapse from heat exhaustion). Either way I have to wonder how he got elected.
- “He’s been telling people for years what a disaster it would be if the Earth’s ozone layer eroded completely.” I just wanted to quote that because it demonstrates some interesting oddities about this universe. For one, most people have no idea what the ozone layer does, not even other experts in the field. For another, people in this world are so dumb they have to be told for years what many in our world jumped on the first time they heard it. Hell, CFCs were banned before anyone even actually made a firm connection between them and ozone depletion. Go to any aerosol can in your house. If you look at the bottom of the label you will see that they use hydrocarbons for propellant, and many even specifically put a notice that CFCs are not used.
- Here we are introduced to the villain of the piece [Schiffren]. Not directly, instead the hero describes him for us. Oddly, in this universe CFCs are still used. On second though, Evan never says they are used. He does say that when he talked about the companies that make Styrofoam (oops, Dupont trademark infringement here, he means polystyrene) and aerosol cans, his partner (aka the bad guy “TBG”) would get bent out of shape. Perhaps because he knew CFCs are not used anymore.
- Somehow they seem to have confused the ozone layer and the greenhouse effect (gee, how could a Hollywood scriptwriter do that) since the crashed plane victims were “baked alive”. Um, how would UV rays do that exactly?
- The doctor seems to have some very plot specific procedures in place. They want to check to see if Racer’s immune system is damaged, but why? Do they do that with all sunstroke victims? And, aside from the need to keep the plot moving, what doctor is going to risk a lawsuit by letting a patient leave when she doesn’t even know what’s wrong with him yet.
- We finally meet the bad guy for real. Oddly, aside from feeling the good guy is wrong he doesn’t seem that bad. He even warns the reporter that if he goes off with half a story there could be a riot as people flee the city, and goes to check the radar data himself. Well, he does have a very nice office . . . the bastard. [Editor Ken: I have to interject here, because Kurt somehow failed to add that Schiffren also sports a nice suit – further sign of his general evilness. You know, now that I think of it, he’s always in his suit jacket until he suddenly turns into a good guy, after which point he’s only shown in his shirtsleeves. So much for our ‘joke.’]
- Now, let me get this straight. This happened once before, but TBG suppressed the report. Why? Evan seems to think he profited from it, but I have no idea what profit that could possibly make. And apparently no harm occurred because of this (he wouldn’t speak so casually about Evan’s “alarmist friends” if people died) so maybe Evan is being absurd even in this alternate universe.
- Now I love this line. TBG says that if they called an alert every time there was an ozone thinning the “world economy would collapse, there would be chaos.” Evan immediately says “Money! Money? Is that all you and your cronies think about?” Err, how exactly would crashing the world economy and starting rioting help people? And it’s not even like he was even worrying about his own stocks, he was talking about the expense of transporting millions of people around every other week. TBG’s response of laughing was completely reasonable.
- Now, maybe they were trying to go for this image, but the scene where Evan meets the mayor gives the impression Evan is a complete loony and the mayor is unreasonably patient with him. The mayor points out how difficult it is to evacuate 6 million people in three days (and to where?) and that there is no evidence the ozone hole is actually dangerous. Evan resorts to hyperbole and pointing out the window. BTW, why not just tell people to stay inside?
- Okay, so we have a boat full of sailors too stupid to use sun block. They all die but one, who, instead of retreating below deck, stumbles out in the sun and screams “somebody help me” at the ocean. With a crew this dumb it was just a matter of time anyway.
- Now apparently UV rays do everything imaginable to the body. Hallucinations? Blindness? Central nervous system malfunction? Food contaminated? With UV rays? Aren’t they used to sterilize food?
- Did the author know that a tanning bed produces UV light? How come people aren’t hallucinating and dying from infections every time they visit the tanning parlor? What kind of an idiot is this “scientist?” I’d have fired him too.
- That’s an awful lot of pigeons. It’s almost like they knew it was the mayor’s office. Assuming the bird disturbance even covers just the building, with over twenty birds hitting the two windows in the mayors office that would be ten per window, ten stories, about five thousand dead birds.
- Now the ORB is introduced. It’s the only hope. And of course they must convince Evan to try it by stroking his ego. This is followed immediately by a stroll through the hospital. The pathos!
- Funny how UV has somehow turned into gamma rays.
- Plot sensing television. Like they’d repeat the full news report immediately after saying it.
- Now the news people are going to release the tape. The question is, what’s going to happen. Hmm, a panic? Who could have predicted that? Oh yeah, everyone but Evan and the reporter.
- Actually, the “mass exodus” looks pretty orderly. Hell, rush hour on the LIE, even when there isn’t a panic, looks worse than that.
- The mayor’s assistant should win an award for overacting.
- The CGI people forgot to draw in the bees. It’s kind of funny seeing all these people reacting to a swarm that isn’t there. Also strange to see that the only people reacting to the bees are those in the center of the camera. Everyone else is just sitting around.
- A fortuitously placed beam decapitates our first bee victim (well, okay so she never showed anything more than annoyance at the bees).
- I assume the National guard arriving on the scene was not supposed to be an homage to the swat team arriving at the end of The Blues Brothers but that’s sure what it looks like (okay, so they shout “go” instead of “hut”).
- These are, by far, the worst looters I’ve ever seen. The run right up to the National Guard marching forward with rifles presented and the looters mime pushing them. Surprisingly, this doesn’t work.
- (Um, my notes here got lost, so it’s going to be sketchy)
- Wow. Maybe the author realized that TBG was acting reasonably throughout the entire film, and decided to have him reexamine the data and offer assistance just in case the problem was real.
- Evan’s sister does not show the intelligence one would normally associate with a mayor’s assistant. The front door is about two feet from the closet she hides in. And so far the insects have done nothing more serious than look gross. And most importantly, uh, it’s night outside. Why would the UV be affecting them now? Perhaps this is the UV contamination Evan had talked about before.
- Just once in the real world I’d love to have someone make an off-hand comment that resulted in my discovering the source of a problem. It has yet to happen to me, but for some reason it happens every other day in movie-land.
- Why would a reduced immune system make a person more susceptible to spider bites? Wouldn’t removing poison be a job for the liver?
- Now, why in the hell is Evan going up with the missile. Because he’s the expert? Not on missiles, and if something goes wrong he isn’t going to climb out and fix it. Well, in this movie maybe he is.
- Why does he need to keep climbing higher to get a fix on the ozone hole? TBG is directing him to it pretty accurately. Why stress the plane for no reason and risk the only solution currently available?
- Of course the hole closes. Surprisingly in about 30 seconds.
- Okay, for some reason the radar stops working. Up until now they have known the planes precise position, but suddenly the plane is spotted visually without anyone seeing it on radar. And why didn’t they respond by radio until now?
- I love this scene by the way: TBG picks up the binoculars and looks out through them and jumps startled. A shot of the plane approaching. TBG scans the horizon and suddenly stops, startled (again). A shot of the plane closer. TBG looks hard though the binoculars and suddenly jumps, startled a third time. What the hell did he keep jumping at? My guess is he never saw binoculars before and was amazed by how they worked.
- Okay, the plane taxies in and a crowd forms jumping and shouting in an unconvincing way while the two people get out. As the people walk away the crowd stays around the plane still cheering. I guess they are cheering the plane since any normal crowd would follow the people if that were whom they were cheering.
— Kurt vonRoeschlaub
So I’m working on this article and my friend and comrade-in-arms Andrew Muchoney drops by. Since he’s there we sit down to watch the movie at length, generating many of the above observations. Then, when it was over, we were left with the same question we often are. To wit, how is it even possible to make a movie this stupid by accident? (I’m assuming it wasn’t on purpose.) It’s not that the film is somewhat dumb, it’s actively, aggressively stupid. It’s not like we’re expecting Citizen Kane here. But, yeesh.
I think this sensation was best summed up by in a review by The New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael in regards to 1970’s Song of Norway: “The movie is of an unbelievable badness; it brings back clichÃˆs you didn’t know you knew — they’re practically from the unconscious of moviegoers. You can’t get angry at something this stupefying; it seems to have been made by trolls.”
(Boy, I’d die happy if I ever craft one sentence that perfect. Thanks to the Medved brothers for including the quote in their The Golden Turkey Awards.)
So, is it inevitable that when crafting a low-budget made-for-TV movie it need be this bad? The answer was provided the following week on the same network, ABC, when they showed Ice, another disaster flick. Was it great? No. Was it phenomenally smart? No. But while it had a fair amount of flaws, they didn’t overwhelm the film. Often, there were even surprisingly nice bits to compensate. In other words, on its own modest terms, the film delivered. I couldn’t have asked for a more apt rebuke to our primary object of attention.
Ice, as you might have guessed, is concerned with a new Ice Age, brought on by a solar shift of some sort. This situation, we’re told, will last between ten and thirty years. As most of the Earth becomes more or less uninhabitable, we follow our cast as they try to escape south from the remains of Los Angeles. (Again with the Los Angeles!)
Let’s start with the Bad Stuff:
- The irony of characters complaining about the California heat early in the movie is a tad obvious.
- The hero, Robert, is a cop and ex-Navy Seal (for obvious ‘action hero’ reasons). The bit when he chases Kelvin, a fugitive, through a woman’s boxing match — don’t ask — and gets decked by them is a lame piece o’ comedy.
- Robert visits his ex-wife Julie so as to see their son Max on his birthday. Sure enough, Tyson, Julie’s new husband, is an obvious wimpy intellectual type. How obvious? Cripes, the guy’s decked out like Trotsky, complete with bad beard, sweater vest and eyeglasses. The guy has even made Max a birthday tart (!) instead of a cake. He also is fastidiously irritated by the barking toy dog that Robert brought Max. Could they play this any harder? Oh, and Julie is a defense attorney who naturally gets the scum Robert arrests back out on the street. Oh, brother.
- The bit with panicked crowds at the airport after all the flights have been cancelled due to weather is nice, but the guy who goes nuts with a gun is too over the top.
However, here there’s also some Good Stuff:
- Weird character actor Udo “Johnny Mnemonic” Kier plays Kessler, the scientist who first figures things out. While I’m sure he’d prefer to be appearing in real movies (as he did early in his career), his presence here ensures us some enjoyable scenery-chewing.
- The fact that the disaster is entirely natural in origin is an extremely welcome change of pace, as we can skip all the overstuffed political axe-grinding and pompous moralizing.
- When you take a close look at The Sky’s On Fire, not much really happens. Here, almost the entire darn planet freezes over. Now that’s ambitious. And if the matte paintings and miniature models used to established this are sometimes obvious, well, at least they provide a whole lot of them, including shots of snow-shrouded Washington, Paris, Rome and London. They’re really trying to come through here.
- About three or four minutes into the movie and the odd weather has already begun to make its presence known (although there’s a progression, too, it just doesn’t start snowing out of nowhere). Unlike The Sky’s On Fire, things here move at a nice fast clip. Some of the storm shots as the initial front begins to hit Los Angeles are decent, too.
- The bit where the cops and Kelvin stop in their tracks as snow begins falling is modest, but nice.
- After the laughably convenient ORB device, it’s pleasing to hear Kessler being asked “What can we do to head this thing off?” and have him reply, “Nothing.”
- I like the nonchalant way that Robert is told to sign for 50,000 body bags when on airport duty. They certainly aren’t pulling any punches. (An on-location reporter is later noted as having died in a building collapse soon after reporting hundreds of thousands of deaths up north.) The introduction of a heavy all-terrain vehicle is a little obvious, though.
- As the President prepares to abandon the country to head south, he mournfully looks upon a portrait of Washington and notes that at Valley Forge they survived with rags and a few blankets. Not only is this an actually apt historical reference, but you can see it being made by the guy in this situation. Too bad they step on it with some overly intrusive music, but still.
- Some extremely nice moments occur when the nearly-frozen Robert shows up after the collapse of civilization at Julie’s well-appointed house. Designed by Tyson, an architect by trade, the place still has heat and electricity, and they are living as though nothing much has happened. Robert’s reaction to the surreal aspects of this situation are well-played. Especially well done is his spotting, through the heavily falling snow, of Tyson swimming in the house’s still-heated backyard pool. This is well enough filmed that it does initially come off like a hallucination. Also, it’s just a momentary bit, but I laughed when Tyson handed Robert a glass of wine (misinterpreting Robert’s reeling sensation of how bizarre this oasis is, he attempts to reassure him by nodding and noting “It’s Merlot”) and then tossed him a coaster when he started to put it down on the table. This small gesture nicely summed up the unreality of how they were living.
- Moreover, Tyson’s obvious nerdy qualities are set up to eventually be subverted. With the party forced outside when the house’s power fails, Robert eventually comes to term with the fact that the guy is in fact a better husband for Julie and, if something were to happen to himself, even a potentially good father for Max. This better-than-usual characterization works across the board. Robert, our hero, is occasionally a bit of an asshole. Even Kessler, who comes off at first as your stock Mad Scientist, finally just emerges as an extremely selfish prick. The characters have what seem to be stock characteristics, but in the long run they aren’t purely defined by them. They actually come off more like people than archetypes.
Anyway, at this point we’re less than an hour into the picture and it’s already blowing The Sky’s On Fire away, not that that’s much of a feat. In fact, the film is so good — without being great or anything — that it’s use as a comparison piece began to fade. I thought I could point to it and say, “See? Competent filmmaking in this genre is possible.” Instead, the film transcended competent to become surprisingly good. Sadly, this might be because it was originally telecast in Germany. Maybe their audiences demand better schlock than we do. Also, to be fair, the film clearly had a larger budget than The Sky’s on Fire. Not that we should read too much into that. It still was obviously made for a fraction of what Volcano or Dante’s Peak cost, yet it’s better than those flicks too.
Ultimately, you wonder if the people who produced our main subject saw Ice and viewed it with any sense of embarrassment. The latter shows that, even at this late date, it’s still possible to churn out an interesting and well-crafted genre effort. Too bad nobody connected with The Sky’s On Fire thought to do so.