Saturday, September 20, 2014

Nuke Kids On The Block

Year: 1989
Director: Steve De Jarnatt
Cast: Anthony Edwards, Mare Winningham, John Agar
Run Time: 1 hour 27 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Nuclear war was a common topic in American film of the 1980's, rivaled only by the glut of "whoops, we made a radiation monster" films of the 50's. Perhaps the most famous is 1983's WarGames, in which a young Matthew Broderick almost incites the nuclear holocaust by playing a computer game - something avid fans of online gaming might have experience with if they've ever cost an experienced team a round.

It's not like the threat of nuclear devastation has ever completely gone away, but in today's everyday world it seems about as far-fetched a possibility as an asteroid smashing into the planet. It's something people might fear, but in a more abstract, less immediate way. However, because I am a connoisseur of finding things to worry about, I have a unique empathetic skill among my age group - the ability to put myself in a position where I can relate to the nuclear fears of the generations before my own.

For that reason and that reason alone, I was able to extract every last crumb of tension from the premise of the remarkably silly late-nuclear period movie that is 1989's Miracle Mile. However, if you are not me, this movie will almost entirely fail to rile you. But it's fun enough as a hunk of 80's trash that I'd still recommend it to the non-discerning viewer.

And any fan of dollar store brand Dolph Lundgrens.

Harry Washello (Anthony Edwards) is a struggling musician living in Los Angeles. When he meets Julie Peters (Mare Winningham) at a local museum, it's love at first sight. For the first twenty minutes or so, the film progresses like a generic indie rom-com (They do quirky things like visit the tar pits, play with a prism, and buy lobsters from a restaurant only to set them free. Also Julie's grandparents are deeply in love but haven't spoken with one another for 15 years.), made even stranger by the fact that this genre wouldn't be in vogue until a couple decades later. My guess is that they were going for a straight romance but the stars they chose were so flippin' nerdy that they accidentally shunted the script into being ahead of its time.

Not exactly Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler.

But after he sleeps through their second date, Harry ends up eating away his feelings at a diner at 4 in the morning. As if that wasn't enough stress to deal with, he answers a call on a pay phone and discovers that the American government has ordered a nuclear strike and the retaliation is due to come in 70 minutes, destroying the city.

Thus begins an epically cheesy cross-city journey as Harry attempts to locate Julie and get her to an escape helicopter - featuring a Tangerine Dream soundtrack, Nightmare on Elm Street 5's Kelly Jo Minter, and Mare Winningham's orange feathered mullet - a tangerine nightmare, if you will. 

But first, the single best scene in the movie and perhaps the only moment where it operates on a level outside of fatuous 80's frivolity. You see, the original concept for Miracle Mile was that it would be a segment in Twilight Zone: The Movie, evoking classic episodes like "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" with a single location depicting various individuals bouncing off of one another under the strain of a potentially imaginary threat.

And if you're looking for a group of unique individuals with diverse backgrounds to populate your story, you could do worse than an LA diner at 4 in the morning. Here we get two womanizing workmen, a flight attendant in training, a stern businesswoman, a snarky drag queen, a hapless waitress, and a hotheaded cook struggling to face the harshest reality the cultural climate could possibly provide.

This section of the film is taut, edgy, and clever, providing a thin slice of true humanity in a movie that will soon devolve into admittedly enjoyable but much less rewarding excesses. But for those shining moments, Miracle Mile exposes the truly remarkable anthology segment it could have been.

Although the stranglehold of the 80's can never be fully eradicated.

Although nothing else can quite match the dizzy heights of this scene's incisive tension, the rest of the film is pure confection SPOILERS [save for the shockingly bleak ending that would be emotionally resonant if it didn't follow 50 minutes of pure 80's tomfoolery]. Once the cross-city antics begin, character motivations fly right out the window. In fact, they smash headfirst through a wall and call it a window.

Harry wanders through a barren Los Angeles at a speed more suitable for a trip to the supermarket than a frantic escape making terrible decisions left and right, including but not limited to leaving the helicopter pad to explore a neon-spandex nightmare gym and refusing to tell Julie what's going on until the very last second, rendering her completely useless to his cause. Also a guy decides to avoid ten years in jail for stealing stereos by lighting two cops on fire. It's like the screenwriters exhausted themselves after the diner scene and just let Mare Winningham's mullet write the rest of the script as it brushed across a keyboard.

An American Hero.

The 80's signifiers take care of the rest, bulking up the back half of the movie with enough content to remain engaging. And the filmmaking itself is decent, especially in the first act - in which nearly every camera shot just begs us to look to the skies:

And I'm sure this is symbolic of... something. Ice age = nuclear winter? Kevin Smith's new movie sucking? I dunno, I'm sure someone can fill in the blanks. I can't move my eyes from her hair long enough to focus on the composition.

Miracle Mile, for what it's worth, could be much much worse than it is. As it stands, it ranges from being a delectable nuclear thriller to an ebullient cheese tray, so at the very least it's never boring. I wish the third act could sustain its tone more to really bring the apocalyptic mayhem home, but this depiction of the end of the world is not at the end of my list.

Solid effort. Would detonate.

TL;DR: Miracle Mile is a cheesy 80's train wreck, but at times manages to be the taut nuclear thriller that it wants to be.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1038

1 comment:

  1. I enjoy how they set my crustacean brethren free. Should be a lesson to all.