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Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Celluloid Zeroes Present: It's All True! (Except for the Bullshit.) Without Warning (1994)

At the instigation of Chad "Micro-Brewed Reviews" Plambeck, the Celluloid Zeroes are examining fiction presented as truth--the kind of film that gains its effectiveness by pretending that the events really happened, or are really happening. The most famous contemporary example of this type of film is probably The Blair Witch Project, with the Paranormal Activity films running a close second (and one of the granddaddies of them all, the inexplicably popular Cannibal Holocaust, serving as an inspiration for plenty of horror movies that work their audiences over by putting them in the mindset of the characters). The genre is flexible, with entries ranging from Lovecraftian horror to a ground-level look at a kaiju attack to 84C MoPic, a war movie presented solely from the point of view of an Army movie cameraman (and a film that I'd really like to see because it sounds like a fascinating evolutionary dead end on the way to films about prosumer-grade recording equipment in haunted houses).

Join us as we take a look at a few different examples of the form, from the "documentary" that's barely ten percent nonfiction by volume to found footage horror to a tribute to the "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast that allegedly convinced a nation that it was under alien attack. It's the kind of film that craft and technique work together to bring the audience into its world, and it's all true.

Except for the bullshit that someone made up to sell tickets.

Story by Jeremy Thorn, Walon Green and Peter Lance; Teleplay by Peter Lance
Directed by Robert Iscove

Sander Vanocur:  Himself
Bree Walker:  Herself

Jane Kaczmarek:  Dr. Caroline Jaffe
Dwier Brown:  Matt Jensen

This must have worked like a charm on its audience back in the day. It's an early-generation found footage horror movie that starts out like something entirely else. The title "Without Warning" fades up over TV-movie brass and oboe providing suspense music. One of those rainless storms where the lighting flashes synchronize with the thunder exactly is happening while a man with a gun sneaks up a staircase in a well-appointed suburban house in the dead of night. And about thirty seconds into the apparent TV movie, a "Special Bulletin" card gets cut in to the signal and a news anchor describes seismic events in a remote area of Wyoming, as well as Europe and Asia, though that's as exact a location as you're going to get for right now. Then the TV movie resumes, with a man and woman (an uncredited Loni Anderson) embracing in bed as passionately as network censors will allow.

Just as the gun-wielding man walks silently into the bedroom and points a gun at the couple, there's another break-in, from "Evening World News", a fictitious but real-sounding program that goes live to their Washington, D.C. studio to bring a special report. Sander Vanocur, a real-life television journalist playing himself in the film, describes a huge asteroid that broke into pieces and landed in three different spots on Earth during a meteor shower.

I bet that distant spot in Wyoming is one of those locations, don't you?

The meteorites have all crashed into remote areas; according to scientists, if any of the three giant space rocks had landed near a city, it would have been a horrific disaster (and, if you'll allow me to put on my Dr. Science lab coat and goggles for a moment, if any of the rocks had landed in the ocean they might have steam-cleaned the planet--yes, it's bad if a several ton chuck of rock and metal slams into the ground after falling out of orbit, but it'd be orders of magnitude worse to land in the sea. Gigantic tidal waves and huge clouds of steam scouring the coasts clean of life worse. Apocalyptically worse. And, just by the law of averages, two of those meteor fragments should have hit the ocean, because 2/3 of the planet is covered in water).

Over at Mount Palomar Observatory, another reporter stands in front of the building and describes the impact crater (with a satellite photo showing a big round hole in the dirt and flames in the forest and grassland around it). Then it's time for Bree Walker, a reporter in a helicopter (also playing herself); she happened to be on vacation sorta-kinda near the impact site and is now in the passenger seat of a news chopper, doing a report when she probably thought she had time to decompress and read a trashy novel or go skiing. There's too much static and interference to get anything useful out of her report, so it's back to Sander Vanocur at the desk. Is it just me, or would his name be pretty good for a James Bond villain? Perhaps someone trying to manipulate world finance?

Then the movie has what I'd call a "Spinal Tap" moment. The first time I saw This is Spinal Tap, I didn't realize it was a fake band and a fake documentary until I spotted Howard Hesseman in a cameo and put two and two together about the truth of the film's subject matter (coming up with the square root of sixteen)--in my defense, I was twelve years old and there wasn't anything in the film that seemed so oddball that it had to be fictitious rather than real. Anyway, John de Lancie portrays the next reporter on the scene (in Casper, Wyoming) and if I thought it was a real report up to that point I wouldn't think so after hearing his voice. I would have seen him as Q on Star Trek:  The Next Generation at some point before my hypothetical viewing of this film in 1994. Fourth wall, you are nice and busted now.

De Lancie's reporter is there to describe a massive wildfire burning around the impact crater; thousands of people's homes are being evacuated and measures are being taken to ensure that as few lives are lost as possible. Lots and lots and lots of property is going to be a complete writeoff, though. He wraps up his live remote just in time for Bree Walker to return with footage of the crater (called Impact Site Alpha now), near Grovers' Mill, Wyoming. And yes, boys and girls, that's a tip of the hat to a broadcast also made on October 30 (just like this movie originally was), and also presented as news when it was really fiction. Attentive and nerdy viewers just figured out what the actual plot of this story is going to be.

Bree, humorously enough, is in the helicopter describing what she's seeing. There's no real difference between a sequence too expensive to show and a live remote where they just want a journalist standing or sitting near something newsworthy. There's footage from the camera mounted underneath the helicopter (which means the effects sequence can be spliced in without having to superimpose Bree Walker into the blazing crater). It's also nice to see the static, picture roll and interference in this report as well--if everything was working perfectly for an unprecedented story like this, it wouldn't be nearly as convincing as the glitchy, static-riddled update with occasional audio dropout. Oddly enough, it's the flaws that make Bree's updates more convincing.

Bree's update includes shots of a helicopter flying some distance underneath her helicopter; it's got hastily scrambled HAZMAT specialists inside, who will be checking for radioactivity and other contaminants once it's safe for someone not from Krypton to approach the 1200-degree crater fire. She says there's some survivors / witnesses to the impact that have been located and teases their forthcoming interview before ending her segment and referring coverage back to Sander at the main desk.

Sander has a little more information about Impact Sites Bravo and Charley; one is in the Gobi Desert between China and Mongolia and the other is in the Pyrenees Mountains in southern France. The closest town to Site Bravo is Lourdes, with a stringer for Evening World News standing in front of a cathedral--if the drinking game was "do a shot every time there's a journalist standing in front of something" you'd be in a coma about twenty minutes into the film--describing the mood on the ground. One of the witnesses describes a massive fireball falling through the atmosphere and landing in the mountains; there's also the inevitable "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality that results in an interview with a tearful French woman whose husband is missing in the wake of the meteor impact.

In China, the state-run news media hasn't given any information beyond the time and location of their impact site. There's a satellite photo of the desert impact crater--at least in the Gobi Desert there isn't anything to catch on fire. The photo shows a blackened impact site inside a huge debris ring, but nothing else is known about that site for the time being. Full credit to the filmmakers here--it's night in Washington, D.C. and in France while the "Beijing" footage is a bright morning; they got the time zones figured out correctly, which leads to much greater verisimilitude (especially when they do the "anchor in one frame and reporter on the scene in another" two-shot. According to Denise Wong on the ground in Beijing, the crater is a mile and  a half in diameter and there were no reported human casualties. However, part of the reason there aren't any tragedies to report is the sheer inaccessibility of the crater; there's no rail service or sturdy roads leading to the area where that meteor came down.

For a change of pace, we've got a reporter standing inside a location now; Matthew Jensen is live on the ground at the Houston space-tracking room at NASA. Look at all the (for the time) high-tech beige computers with massive cathode-ray monitors! The effort to explain what's going on is just starting at NASA, with maybe a fifth of the terminals in use and the fluorescent lights in the tracking room currently dimmed. Jensen is there to ask why the meteor that fragmented and slammed into the earth wasn't noticed by any sky watchers until seconds before impact; there's some expository NASA footage of the (real-life) Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet impacts from July of 1994 that would have been used in legitimate news broadcasts if something like this had actually happened.

And the NASA scientist brought in to explain things is played by Philip Baker Hall, which had to be a "that guy is an actor, not an astrophysicist" moment for some of the viewers at home. Dr. Kurt Lowden tells the viewers at home the totally reassuring fact that it's difficult to see massive rocks hurtling towards the Earth because they don't emit or reflect light, and spotting a stone even a few miles across in the vastness of space is extremely difficult. Sander, back at the anchor desk, cuts in when he hears that explanation to do a little media fear-mongering by asking if there are any more undetected asteroids headed for the Earth at that very moment. Dr. Lowden obliges him by saying that the devastation from a meteor impact in a populated area would be orders of magnitude worse than a nuclear bomb dropped on a city.

Before they can ask another scientist about what the heck is going on, it's time to check in with Bree Walker. She's still in the helicopter and still having problems with static and interference. She's also got reports of three deaths--sheep ranchers in the area around Impact Site Alpha died in the massive forest fire touched off by the meteor impact. While getting footage of the ash-strewn wasteland that used to be a leased grazing area owned by the federal government, Bree's cameraman sees a person. Impossibly enough, they're unharmed in and the middle of dozens of square miles of scorched earth. Bree has the helicopter land in order to rescue the survivor, who turns out to be a little girl lost and crying in a field. The girl has sustained burns and is saying something that, through the trauma and interference, is completely unintelligible.

The screen goes to static again and Sandor winds up on Camera One recapping what just happened and telling the audience that it's time for the affiliates to break for commercials and pay some bills. The lone cornet and snare drum theme, camera work ("pull back and up, slowly, to show the anchor at that desk") and already-created title graphic of the burning crater are all pitch-perfect reproductions of mid 1990s news coverage. If the movie were made now, the commercial breaks would be more frequent and there would be some kind of logo and catchphrase already up on the screen (and, if it were aired on Fox, the meteor impacts would have been blamed on Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton).

When they return from the break, Sander's at the desk again. He sums up what already happened and the footage of Bree Walker wrapping her coat around the little girl who lived through unimaginable devastation gets shown again with a RECORDED EARLIER bug in the upper-left corner of the screen (this is another detail that wouldn't get used today; if there's forty seconds of a burning car at a protest rally, that forty seconds will be broadcast on a loop for six days and always get presented as if it's happening at that very moment). The survivor's being flown to a nearby hospital (and is unavailable for an interview, which is a real problem).

At the studio desk, Sander interviews the show's science editor--one assumes she was either already at work or showed up as soon as humanly possible once the story broke--in order to inform the World News Tonight viewing audience. Dr. Caroline Jaffe tells Sander about other meteor impacts in the past (including the massive crater in Arizona and the Tunguska blast of 1908); she saves the dinosaur killer of the Yucatan for the last. There's plenty of stock footage and licensed animation to show while Dr. Jaffe tells what's going on. Dr. Jaffe also mentions that there's a one in five chance of other meteor impacts based on what is known about the rock's trajectory and the way that objects in space cluster around each other. She gets cut off by the anchor right after mentioning that, however, because NASA has a press conference ready in Houston.

Matthew Jensen is in the much busier command center in Houston, where all he's got to add for the moment is that NASA has analyzed a lot of data very quickly and will have a statement soon. The reporters are all stuck in a big closed-off room for the time being while the scientists draft their speech that is due to be given shortly. Then it's back to Sander just long enough to say that another correspondent is standing in front of a massive deep-space-searching antenna (take a drink!) with some new information. Previously recorded footage shows a Marine helicopter landing at the dish an hour before the report was filed; two MPs ran out of the chopper, got one of the scientists from the facility, ran back into the helicopter and departed in a matter of minutes--the chopper went to a nearby Air Force base and the scientist was flown to the NASA command center in Houston. This new journalist doesn't know who the scientist was or why everyone was in such a hurry, but something is obviously up.

Sander asks why they couldn't have just used a phone to get information from the antenna complex; the journalist standing outside with the massive dish in the background doesn't know. There is a sketchy report of something to do with the meteors' trajectory, both before it broke into fragments in the atmosphere and after the breakup, while each piece was plummeting to the ground.

Dr. Jaffe has more reports about Impact Site Charley; no human casualties have been reported, but a hydroelectric dam forty kilometers to the southwest of the impact site was damaged from the sheer seismic force of the impact; power is out and China is requesting emergency aid from the Red Cross since seven and a half million people are in the affected area and no longer have power or access to clean water.

From the overwhelming scope of the disaster it's time to take a closer look at one victim--Bree Walker is at the hospital in Casper, Wyoming, where the lone survivor girl was taken for treatment. During the update (the girl has been badly burned and is being treated for her injuries as well as exposure to the elements), one can see at least one more TV journalist doing his own update in the background--a great little touch that shows it's not just Evening World News that's covering this story. There's also a hotline for people to call if they know who the little girl is, complete with an 800 number for tips.

There's also news from France. Jean-Paul Chounard, the missing skier thought dead in the impact at Site Bravo, has been found by rescuers. They don't have tape of that yet, so it's just an update with a photo of the skier in the air over Sander's left shoulder. They do have amateur home video from Newcastle, Wyoming, where a local man was taping his kids and wife in their Halloween costumes before a night of trick or treating (bonus points for having one of the kids sulking; not everyone wants to be on camera!). He catches the very tail end of the meteor impact, having turned just too late to catch the full event--which is incredibly realistic, and I wish more found footage movies would remember to have the frame cut things off or wind up just missing some important events from time to time.

Back at the main desk, Sander has an update about the scientist flown to the NASA command center; the man is named Avram Mandel and he's got a doctorate in astrophysics. He normally can be found at the Houston office once a month or so, but in this case he's been brought in out of schedule and with amazing haste (hitching a ride in an F-16 instead of a commercial jet). While they're waiting to hear from Dr. Mandel, the Evening World News staff has a man on the ground by Impact Site Alpha, where police are now allowing people to approach the crater. The various news crews are near the crater but not within sight of it; police are telling everyone to stay back for their own safety because of aftershocks, but not a single journalist or cameraman has felt anything. Intriguingly enough, it isn't just scientists at Site Alpha; one helicopter drops off several soldiers with assault rifles. I don't know how threatening that space rock is likely to be, honestly, but maybe it's better to be safe than sorry. The Wyoming correspondent also drops a couple other tidbits of information:  Cartographers have shown up at the impact site (how much damage did that meteor do, anyway?) and there's now an FAA-mandated no fly zone above the crater itself, to be enforced at gunpoint if necessary.

Before anyone can chew over the implications of any of that, the Johnson Space Center in Houston announces that they're ready to make a statement. Dale Powell, the official media spokesman for NASA, gets mobbed the instant he walks into the press room. He tells the assembled reporters that he won't be taking any questions, and that he's got a prepared statement. Before he even makes whatever statement he's going to make, Powell covers his ass by saying that none of the conclusions are final--they are vague sketches rather than a finished oil painting. Then he says the asteroid approached Earth from directly "above" it, dropping down towards the North Pole before splitting into three pieces that landed at three remote sites equidistant from each other, and on the same latitude each time. He doesn't make any conclusions beyond this, but it seems obvious to even an untrained eye that you don't get perfect distribution of three points on the same line by dropping a rock down on the Earth and breaking it into three chunks that will tumble randomly down. Looks like the three meteorite fragments were steered, one way or another (although Powell doesn't say anything at all about any of these points even when asked directly about them, and leaves after restating that no questions will be allowed).

Back at the anchor desk, Sander and Matt Jensen talk about what just happened, including the revelation that the scientist flown to Houston in a fighter jet was a member of SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence project. Several scientists at NASA were also members of SETI, so I'm guessing Dr. Mandel is either really high up in that organization or extremely well-regarded by everyone in it. The next commercial break gets teased with Sander Vanocur calling the coverage "Asteroid:  Fire From the Sky", which sounds about right for television news broadcasting.

When the narrative resumes, there's already a graphic worked up showing the impact sites on a world map, highlighting how unlikely it is that they'd all randomly wind up in a line (two points are always on the same line, but three or more don't have to be). Vanocur sends it to the correspondent in France, where the stranded skier Jean-Paul Chounard is being taken to a hospital. Looks like they aren't trusting to the miracle shrines at Lourdes; this is an alien-encounter movie, not a "Touched by an Angel" episode. All we really see of Monsieur Chounard is a limp form in a bright orange thermal rescue bag that looks for all the world like the hospital ordered a burn victim and they expect it in thirty minutes or less.

Meanwhile, in Wyoming, the little girl who shouldn't be alive (and who is badly burned) has been identified. Her mother saw the news reports and called in to the tip line to report the child's identity. She's an eight year old named Kimberly Hastings, and is from New Mexico; she was reported missing the previous week and lived 400 miles away from the impact crater. That's a mystery for a later time, though; Sander wants to talk about the strangely equidistant meteor impacts, and a Ph.D. from Cal Tech is on hand at an observatory to talk about it. Doctor Robert Pearlman is standing in front of a huge telescope (but he's not a journalist, so don't take a drink). He's also, along with the previously mentioned Dr. Mandel, one of the chairmen of the SETI project.

Dr. Pearlman says that the impossibly precise landing of the three asteroid fragments (or, possibly, "asteroid fragments" proves that there was some kind of intelligence directing their descent. He's got a sketch worked up to show just how precise the impacts were--not just in their location but in the angle of their descent, which was (in each case) a 45 degree angle from the breakup spot, which was itself directly above the North Pole. He claims that it's "unnatural" for this to have happened, and he's got a point. But Dr. Jaffe cuts him off pretty much immediately after he says that and I imagine the committee in charge of his grant funding just called an emergency meeting to have his funding pulled and for him to be beaten with a towel full of oranges.

Sander Vanocur and Dr. Jaffe both stress the importance of not jumping to conclusions with only a tiny fragment of brand-new evidence available (which is one of the chief differences between coverage of a big event in 1994 and one a couple decades later). Then it's back to Q on the scene in Casper, Wyoming. Turns out a crop duster reported a UFO sighting around the same time that the meteor landed at Impact Site Alpha--and ominously enough, as he's running the gauntlet of journalists outside the police station where he was questioned, he says "I already told those Air Force people everything I know". The crop duster drives away in lieu of giving any statement to the press, so a sheriff's deputy is the next best person to talk to. According to the deputy, the crop duster pilot saw some kind of aircraft keeping pace with his plane before leaving him and going straight up into the sky. The FAA, when asked if anything else was bopping around the lower atmosphere at that time, gave a hearty "no comment".

In what can only be a concerted attempt to discredit the crop duster, Dr. Jaffe reports that the National Enquirer bought his story for a hundred thousand dollars and then asks if there really was something in the sky earlier in the day. Obviously by asking the question right after invoking the name of the best-known supermarket tabloid in the country one is leading the audience to answer in the negative. Then there's a "talk to people on the street" feature asking if they believe in UFOs, because time needs to be filled up between commercial breaks.

Whatever the Evening World News was stalling for with the vox pops segment is ready to go; the next correspondent is at the Pentagon talking to the deputy undersecretary of defense for advanced technologies. The functionary says, in no uncertain terms, that anyone claiming alien involvement is either lying, crazy, or both. He also mentions various probes sent out as cosmic messages in a bottle like the Voyager program, and says that after moon landings and space missions from the United States and the USSR, there haven't been any first contacts. Of course, in cosmic terms a moon mission isn't necessarily something that aliens in another solar system would even notice. But it does sound convincing enough for television.

For the opposing view, the (fictitious) author Terrence Freeman has shown up; his (equally fictitious) book Messengers From Beyond is all about alien contact. Freeman is played by the awesomely named Ron Canada, an actor who is also in John Sayles' masterpiece LoneStar as a barbecue chef. He's the Ehrich von Daniken figure in the story, giving a quick summary of the theory that aliens had to teach primitive Earth people how to stack rocks on each other in order to build the Great Pyramids in Egypt and Stonehenge in Britain. Usually the proponents of the "aliens built my monuments" theory only mention structures built by nonwhites, so it's nice to hear Stonehenge getting lumped in with everything else that these people tend to point to. Freeman says that the aliens show up every few hundred years, and are currently overdue for a visit. Dr. Jaffe reflexively takes the opposite view, saying that simpler ideas tend to be correct.

Before the disagreement can boil over into a full on shouting match, Sander interrupts the pair and the scene shifts to Impact Site Alpha, where things have started happening. A radio signal strong enough to disrupt the news helicopters' navigation systems has started emanating from the crater; presumably it's also this signal that is causing yet more interference with the transmission of the live report. There's also a loud electronic noise that has been steadily increasing; it's noisy enough that the reporter on the scene has to yell just for his mike to pick up his own voice. He tries to get closer to the crater but the noise is so loud and so painful that he abandons the attempt after less than a minute; the static and interference with the TV signal is also considerably worse the closer he gets to the crater.

Dr. Jaffe quotes a NASA scientist, who says that the same radio signal has been picked up hundreds of miles away from the crater on the FM band--her take on it is that the space debris is electrically charged and is somehow building in strength in the aftermath of the meteorite impact. Back at the Houston Space Center, the station's reporter says that the same signal has been noticed at Impact Site Bravo and Charley. There's some technobabble about charged ion fields caused by perfectly natural phenomena, but I think most people know when they're hearing something an authority figure has come up with just to shut up a persistent questioner.

Meanwhile at the headquarters of the Federal Aviation Administration, their spokesman is talking about the way this radio signal is disrupting airplane navigation systems, which is screwing up air travel nationwide (Chicago, Detroit and New York City are all mentioned when he's listing the affected areas; none of those are anywhere near Wyoming or Mongolia, right?). All of those cities are roughly on the same lines of latitude as the meteor impacts, though, and the FAA spokesman has absolutely no comment at this time when asked about this massive coincidence. Before going to another commercial break, Sander Vanocur points out that lots of things are unknown about the situation; right now, what is known for sure is that there were virtually no causualties from the meteor impacts and that the main effect they're having so far is an air travel crisis. He's doing quite a good job trying to keep a lid on things and actually inform his audience.

After another commercial break, Sander comes back to sum up again, and things are significantly more dire than they were when the meteorites first came down--now there's mass disruption of air travel; there's an Evening World News reporter in New York City, covering the way people are affected by the shutdown of air travel at LaGuardia. The JumboTron screen in Times Square gets used as a quick way to bring everyone up to speed--in short, the rerouted planes that would have gone to LaGuardia are causing backups at other airports in the region. The ripple effect from delays at those airports is affecting travel elsewhere. There's a series of gigantic traffic jams in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and other places as people who can't use planes to get somewhere are either trying to go back home or trying to get to their destination the slow and earthbound way. The reporter also says that every off-duty police officer and firefighter is on the job making sweet overtime trying to keep order. Lastly, St. Patrick's Cathedral has heavy attendance during a hastily convened prayer session just in case the bishop has enough pull with God to get things taken care of.

With the arrival morning in Asia, the power outages and electronic interference leads to the reported suspension of trading on the Hong Kong and Tokyo stock exchanges. But that's way the hell over in foreign lands, so they don't even have stock footage to show while talking about it.

After that moment of international exposition, it's time for a historical overview of the UFO conspiracy culture in America, courtesy of Dr. Jaffe. The official government report, of course, says that nothing in any of the UFO reports contained anything harmful to American natural security. And the newsreaders leave it at that, rather than going for the "some say" double-talk and celebration of intentional ignorance.

The interference with electronic communications isn't so bad that an expert opinion from across the world can't be consulted. The next person to appear on the Evening World News big monitor is Arthur C. Clarke, also playing himself, brought in as an expert who has thought about alien contact in his career as a science fiction author, and who has considerable scientific expertise as well (True Fact:  Clarke is the one who first came up with the idea of artificial satellites as a method of relaying communications back in 1945, which makes him legendary here at Checkpoint Telstar). Clarke says something rather sensible during his interview--there's a near-certainty that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe because it's such a vast place. But for fifty years or so humanity has been broadcasting radio signals (and, later, television as well) but there hasn't been a response yet. Which means that there isn't anything in a sphere 100 light years across that was interested in talking to Earth if they got our transmissions. This all cheerfully ignores the fact that anything sending a response to our SETI receivers would need an equal amount of time to get their message to Earth; light speed is incredibly fast but space is so mind-bogglingly huge that it could potentially take centuries just for our radio / television transmissions to reach a place that could understand them (and remember, double that time for a response. It'd be like trying to carry on a conversation via Morse code where it took a year each time someone wanted to press the telegraph key). Awesomely enough, there's a "LIVE via Satellite" graphic on Clarke's image during the interview. Clarke also has a copy of the Voyager 2 record, which he holds up to remind the audience about that particular message in a bottle tossed into the cosmic oceans.

Whatever they want to talk about after Clarke has his moment in the sun gets pushed to the side when there's a White House press briefing; the press secretary announces that a second asteroid with a trajectory nearly identical to the previous one has been sighted and is streaking towards Earth at that very moment. It's going to impact in five minutes, according to the press secretary, and Air Force fighter jets have been scrambled in order to shoot down the asteroid with nuclear missiles before it smacks into the Earth. Several of the reporters in the chaotic press conference are playing themselves, which had to be an interesting day's filming.

At the Houston command center, Dr. Lowden is the only person willing to go on record and talk to the Evening World News reporter about what a terrible idea it is to try and blast a massive rock traveling fifty times faster than sound with nuclear weapons. Even if it works, there's going to be massive environmental consequences at the polar ice cap and so many things could go wrong that it seems insane to try the hastily derived plan. The press flack for NASA tells the assembled reporters that they'll be allowed to stick around and listen in on the transmissions from the F-16 pilots that will try to shoot down the asteroid. Meanwhile, at the United Nations building in New York City, an impromptu candlelight vigil is taking place as concerned people say that potential alien contact should be met with peace and a hope of understanding rather than a nuclear blast.

Back at the Houston command center, the pilots successfully launch against the plummeting asteroid (I like the grainy, low-fi look of the plane-cam footage; it looks a lot more convincing for being unclear and vague because nobody's going to make a great nuclear launch on a TV movie budget). As soon as the missiles are on their way towards the asteroid, that electronic noise starts up again and both F-16s drop out of contact with NASA. The reporters are summarily shoved out of the room and back into the holding tank they'd been in earlier and when one of the soldiers acting as doormen grabs a news camera the screen goes to black for another commercial break.

When the story comes back there's a mocked up ASTEROID:  Fire From the Sky animated bumper ready to go. It's awesome that the movie is 55 minutes in when that shows up; obviously, there were people in the graphics department woken up and put to work to make it and that strikes me as the kind of thing that would actually happen in this kind of situation. Sander Vanocur gives another summation of recent events; this time, he doesn't bother mentioning the asteroid impacts at the three sites or anything about the first 2/3 of the film. He's only got time to mention the presumed deaths of the two Air Force pilots and the destruction of the second asteroid before going back into the news. That's another great little detail that makes perfect sense within the context of the narrative.

The press conference in the wake of the pilots' demise starts with an Air Force general saying that the second asteroid was completely obliterated, so that the two pilots gave their lives in return for a successful mission. He also lets it drop that the radio signals have ceased from all three of the first wave impact sites and then somehow says this proves that it was all a completely natural phenomenon that happened. Multiple reporters immediately call bullshit on this, and the Air Force general immediately tries to turn the press conference into a commercial for the Reagan-era "Star Wars" missile defense program, which (as of 2015) is an extremely effective welfare program for defense contractors but hasn't ever shot down a missile successfully. The general says that they'll need the missile shield for the "next time", which doesn't reassure anyone in the briefing room, because that implies the military is expecting a third asteroid to come in on exactly the same trajectory as the previous two impossibly precise ones.

Back at the Houston command center, Dr. Mandel has arrived and gets hustled through a corridor past the reporters who all want to ask him lots of immediate questions. He stops long enough to call the destruction of the second asteroid "unforgivable" and says that there were obvious signs that the space rocks were being controlled by some intelligence rather than just being dumb slabs of minerals that just happened to hit the Earth. Mandel points out that the three impact sites were well away from significant population centers and that America just committed a war crime against a vastly superior alien force that arrived--at least at first--in peace. Dr. Jaffe makes sure to tell everyone watching at home that as far as anyone knows, at least right now, the asteroids were both just dumb chunks of rock that hit the planet in a weirdly identical sequence, and that there is no proof of alien contact at this time.

The next report is from World News Tonight's man on the ground in Wyoming; a small town in that state is completely and eerily empty, with not a single human being (or even any house pets) in evidence. The National Guard is checking for anyone who's still there, but so far it looks like the Rapture hit and took every living soul within the city limits. Just in case that isn't bad enough, the correspondent in Lourdes reports that Monsieur Chounard, the French skier caught in the impact blast who was then rescued and brought to a burn center, has died. The reporter has a tape recorder with the skier's last words and plays them for the audience at Chounard's widow's request. I didn't understand any of it, but I don't speak French.

When the newscast returns after another commercial break, it's time to check in with the reporter at the F.A.A., who reports that even with the electronic interference stopped it's going to be several hours before all the delays and cancellations at the affected airports work their way through the system. After that wraps up, it's time to go back to that gigantic satellite dish in the Mojave desert (do a shot! The reporter is standing in front of it!). The scientists at the SETI installation there are analyzing the tape of Chounard the fatally injured skier's last words and comparing them to those of Kimberly Hastings, the little girl found alive in the blast zone from the Wyoming impact.

Speaking of Kimberly Hastings, her condition has been upgraded to "stable"; her mother has arrived at the hospital and there's a moment where she recognizes Bree Walker as the reporter who pulled her daughter out of the smoking wasteland where she could have died. Of course the cameraman gets a great shot of their tearful embrace. After all, it's newsworthy and emotionally affecting. Right after that, Dr. Jaffe goes back to the astrophysicist from the first act, who has a computer graphics program that shows the triangular impact trajectories from the three meteor fragments breaking up; he compares the triangle of their descent paths to a triangle design on the Pioneer 11 space probe; they match perfectly. Looks like some spacefaring civilization did indeed find humanity's message in a bottle.

 Because this is a news program, Sander brings in the functionary from the Pentagon who oversaw the military effort to destroy the second "asteroid". That man takes a few cheap shots at the astrophysicist, trying to paint him as a conspiracy-theory lunatic before Sander Vanocur cuts them off and recaps everything that has happened so far (including lots of repurposed news footage, including shots of then-President Bill Clinton).

Back at the Houston command center, Dr. Mandel is walking out of the building, telling the mob of reporters that he's just resigned from NASA due to their handling of the situation. He seems near tears as he realizes that an unprecedented opportunity was lost thanks to warmongering politicians who wanted to look good and demonstrate their ability (when this was made, the Cold War had ended a couple years earlier; it's entirely possible that the military industrial complex wanted to make sure they were still top dog worldwide and demonstrated it by taking out the "asteroid" when they had the chance). Mandel refers to the situation as "an ongoing crisis" and gets put on the spot when the reporters ask what he meant; he surmises that the NASA press flack hasn't told any of the reporters what's really going on. Dr. Mandel, having resigned from his job, answers to his own conscience rather than NASA's desire to bury the story. He drops the mother of all news bombs:  Three two-mile-long asteroids are headed for Beijing, Moscow, and Washington, D.C. at that very moment. Not only are they headed for cities with huge populations, but the seats of government for the largest and most powerful nations on the planet--and the ones, as Mandel points out, that have first-strike nuclear capabilities.

After the ambassadors in one of the smaller ships were nuked.

Dr. Mandel says the new asteroids are expected to impact in less than ten minutes at each of those sites; he also says that Earth declared war on that race and the response is expected shortly. Time for one last commercial break, I guess. When they come back, the viewer can't help but notice that there's a nice big representation of the Capitol dome on the Evening World News set; looks like Sander and Dr. Jaffe are at Ground Zero for whatever's going to happen in the next ten minutes or so. Curfews and looting are reported in Washington as everyone prepares for the worst (one assumes the shit is hitting the fan in Beijing and Moscow with equal velocity).

As the deadline approaches, there's a quick check-in with Evening World News reporters all over the globe. Red Square is empty while a few people have quietly gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington; there's not much to do with only seven minutes before the apocalypse. The reporters all seem to be affected by the knowledge that their job has guaranteed that they'll never see their families again, but are bucking up and providing information while there is still information to go out. A noticeably disheveled reporter at the Houston command center asks Dr. Lowden what to expect if any of the three asteroids impact the planet; the news is not good.

Back in the Pentagon, the general who oversaw the original attack on the alien ambassadors is planning to launch nuclear weapons at the three "asteroids"; the reporters are baffled that he's even trying something like this. They cut away quickly from that fiasco to talk to Bree Walker in the hospital; it turns out that Kimberly Hastings suffered a massive cardiac arrest and died right around the time Dr. Mandel announced the arrival of the three gigantic alien ships.

And at the anchor desk, Dr. Jaffe takes the last moments she might ever experience to say goodbye to her husband and daughter at home. Sander says she doesn't have to stay through the end, but Jaffe (probably recognizing the futility of trying to flee) decides to stay at her post. Similarly, the reporter at Houston stays where he is at the big board, watching the submarine launches at the asteroids classified as X-Ray, Yankee and Zulu. Contact, unsurprisingly, gets lost with the Beijing reporter when the missile hits the ship targeting that city. The Houston reporter says that the first ship was destroyed, and when the Moscow stringer makes his peace with death it turns out that he didn't have to--the Evening World News desk stays in contact with him even after the missile detonates and the look of baffled relief on his face is pretty amazing. The final missile, the one aimed at the Washington ship, also goes off without a hitch and everything appears to be all right as people celebrate worldwide.

Appears to be.

The second-to-last thing shown over the airwaves is the decoded speech from Chounard the skier and Kimberly Hastings the young girl; they're each speaking part of a message (and there's a gap, because the survivor from the Mongolian impact site was never found). But there's enough information there for Sander to realize that they're reciting the message sent out on the Voyager 2 space probe; the message was found and the responders came in peace only to find that the world was prepared for war.

That's the second-to-last thing to hit the airwaves. The last is the big board at the Houston space command center, flooding with the images of dozens of ships, if not hundreds. There's just enough time for Sander Vanocur to quote Shakespeare about the fault in our selves rather than the stars before static overwhelms the image and the lights go out. Thank goodness there's a "directed by" credit right after that, or some people might have freaked right the heck out when they saw it the first and only time CBS broadcast the movie.

There's a truism when talking about movies that if you say "what a great effect", you haven't actually been impressed by the special effect. The real triumph of a special effect is when the audience accepts it completely as part of the film's world. By that metric, this film is a nearly unqualified success--other than some obvious cost-cutting measures like repurposing existing footage as shots of the panic and celebration at the end of the story, this looked for all the world exactly like a news broadcast of a huge event, complete with occasional emotional breakdowns on camera, people stumbling over what they wanted to say, and celebrity and man-on-the-street interviews. And there's a swerve or two for people who figured out things like the Grovers' Mill reference--yes, in the last fifty seconds or so, this turns into a War of the Worlds adaptation, but it only did so because of the actions taken by the American military earlier in the narrative.

But don't take my world for it completely--the film has been uploaded in its entirety to YouTube. Got a spare hour and a half? Watch a forgotten triumph of TV movie science fiction (and, at the end, horror).


This review is part of the Celluloid Zeroes roundtable celebrating fiction presented as fact. The other reviews going live for the event are:

The Bermuda Triangle at Micro-Brewed Reviews

Legend of the Chupacabra at Cinemasochist Apocalypse

Chariots of the Gods? at Terrible Claw Reviews

Interested readers may well want to check out previous looks at found footage among the Celluloid Zeroes, which may be found here:

Alien Abduction:  Incident in Lake County / Micro-Brewed Reviews
...And God Spoke (The Making Of) / Micro-Brewed Reviews
The Bay / Checkpoint Telstar
Cannibal Holocaust / Micro-Brewed Reviews
Cloverfield / Terrible Claw Reviews
CSA:  The Confederate States of America / Checkpoint Telstar
Punishment Park / Checkpoint Telstar
Quarantine / Checkpoint Telstar
[REC] / Checkpoint Telstar

1 comment:

  1. I'm sorry but if there WERE a meteor impact, it WOULD be Obama's fault. TRUMP would have had the foresight and will to put up a space fence to keep out the illegal alien space rocks.