The China Syndrome
Dir: James Bridges
Str: Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas
I am really ashamed to confess I was expecting a total disaster
movie for The China Syndrome when I saw it firstly.
I feel I must firstly confess a very embarassing episode for me about The
China Syndrome. When I saw this movie in a movie theater first time, I was having an expectation the movie
must have been the one like erathquake or The Towering Inferno. Because, at that time, the word "China
Syndrome" had become a kind of vogue phrase by this movie, meaning, a nuclear plant being melted down, theoretically
the core of the plant could penetrate the earth to eventually reach the opposite side of it, i.e. China. By hearing
this, I thought what a story! Furthermore, 1970s was a decade panic movies were flourishing. In short, I was expecting
a total disaster movie for The China Syndrome. But, of course, as this movie is handling more serious social
aspects, my unduly twisted expectation was beautifully betrayed. Anyway, at that time, I was 19-20 years old, which
may well be considered to be old enough to appreciate these kinds of movies more proper way. So I am ashamed of
this memory retrospectively. But I presume there might have been many persons who thought in the same way as me
and rushed to a movie theater to watch the movie as a total disaster movie, though that fact, if true, won't reduce
my silliness in any way.
I dare not talk about anti-nuclear plant message here.
As the movie is depicting an accident happening in a nuclear plant, it might
have been made intended for bringing up anti-nuclear plant message. Actually, as the notorious nuclear plant accident
happened in Three Mile Island soon after the movie had been completed, it seems that the movie could gain much
more popularity than what it could have without it. But, as I consider discussing the validity of constructing
nuclear plants is far beyond the range of a movie review, so I am not going to discuss it here. Instead, I would
like to talk about whether the movie could succeed in conveying the message without examining the contents, assuming
the movie was intended for doing so. In this regard, my answer is "Yes" and "No".
The Chaina Syndrom is not just such a movie complaining about the
danger of nuclear plant itself.
There are several reasons why I say "Yes". Firstly, though this is
too obvious to say, there are no blatant panic and destruction scenes. If there had been, the movie would have
ended up with nothing but another typical Hollywood megalomaniac movie such as Earthquake and The Towering
Inferno (by saying so, I am not debasing these movies), though I was expecting for The China Syndrome
to be so when I watched it first time. Secondly, the movie handles a nuclear plant accident from a view point including
the issues of social and industrial structures. So the movie has succeeded in avoiding winding up in just complaining
about the danger of a nuclear plant itself. For example, the electric power company that owns the nuclear plant
cannot shut down the plant because of the possibility they might lose a considerable amount of money by doing so,
and the institution to check the accident doesn't check it properly, and the constructors who built and is maintaining
the plant are always cutting corners, etc. All these facts are suggesting while no one can grasp the whole picture
of the status of the nuclear plant, that particular plant is about to restart just because they cannot afford to
lose money, which means it would be no wonder if actually china syndrome happened.
The ploy letting audiense see the whole incident through the eyes
of news reporters is very effective for adding a documentary
to the movie
Finally, I must mention the fact the tone of this movie is rather documentary-like,
and no superfluous dramatic music is present, therefore the audience wouldn't be so easily reminded of the fact
the movie is just a fiction. What is very cleaver ploy employed here is, the whole accident is seen through the
eyes of two news reporters, Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas. Though Jack Lemmon who is playing a manager of the
nuclear plant should be considered to be the lead player of this movie, main focus is rather placed on Jane Fonda.
As a proof of this, I can bring up the following point. The movie starts with the scene Jane Fonda is giving a
TV report that has nothing to do with the nuclear plant. I think this is intentional, for, by this scene, the eyes
of audience watching the film will be certainly forced to focus on Jane Fonda's activities, not Jack Lemmon's.
In other words, by letting the audience watch a whole incident happening in the film through the eyes of news reporters
that are supposed to watch things objectively, the movie has succeeded in creating an intermidiate view point,
through which the audience are expected to see the story. In this point, there is a possibility some pseudo-illusory-reality
and concomitant plausibility may come into effect, and, as a result, the story looks more realistic.
Jack Lemmon's powerful performance is too dramatic for audience
to retain the movie's verisimilitude in their mind.
Then, you might be wondering why I said "No". The reason is rather
simple. Because it is somewhat related to Jack Lemmon's powerful performance. It's just a joke, when I say, watching
Jack Lemmon playing a lead character, who has been appearing in too many comedy movies and sporadically appearing
in serious ones as if he wanted to prove he could act serious characters as easy as pie too, lest, by his long
absence in serious movies, the audience forget the fact he could do it if he did, I cannot take the whole matter
so seriously. But, the final scene where Jack Lemmon takes the control room of the nuclear plant as a hostage in
order to claim the right to broadcast the whole truth is so active and dramatic that the audience are easily reminded
of the fact the movie is a fiction after all. In short, when verisimilitude is diluted by dramatic effect, it will
become very difficult to salvage real messages from there. Here, I think there is one problem of weaving real social
messages into fictional materials, for balancing between dramatic effect and verisimilitude is not so easy task
to achieve. Anyway, though this is merely my personal liking, usually I don't appreciate the movies that have a
blatant intention of conveying messages concerning social problems so much, though, of course, I can understand
it will become more effective when an issue is found in the place where they are not expected to than found in
the place where it should be. Upon having said so, finally I would like to add this; even without this message,
The China Syndrome is a very excellent suspense movie with good performances from Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda,
and Michael Douglas.
Go Back to Movie Reviews Main Page