The China Syndrome can best be described as a "disaster
suspense" film: unlike a conventional disaster film, in which
the catastrophe happens in the first 15 minutes and the rest of the
story focuses on how people deal with it, The China Syndrome's
suspense comes from whether or not the disaster is going to happen...
and how people deal with the uncertainty. It all starts when a
reporter and her cameraman (Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas) witness
what looks very much like an accident at a Los Angeles nuclear power
plant. But despite some concerns from the shift supervisor (Jack
Lemmon), the managers of the plant are more interested in preserving
their investment than making sure the plant is totally safe.
What ended up making The China Syndrome famous is that 12 days
after the film's theatrical release, the nuclear power plant at Three
Mile Island melted down. Possibly as a result of the eerie
coincidence in timing, The China Syndrome has been rather
unfairly pegged in some circles as an "anti-nuclear power"
film, but that's not even remotely accurate.
The China Syndrome is in reality critical of human stupidity
and greed, and our seemingly endless capacity for self-delusion. The
nuclear power plant in The China Syndrome could just as easily
be replaced by something else, say a hydroelectric plant –
perhaps one with cracks in the foundation – though the impact
is certainly heightened by the sheer power of nuclear energy. What
makes it so attractive as a source of energy is also what makes it
all the harder to handle. Sure, this lightning-in-a-bottle is safe
and secure when all the precautions are taken... but human nature
being what it is, can we really, truly trust people not to cut
corners? Looked at in that light, The China Syndrome is even
more chilling, because it's all too believable.
The film also handles the potentially controversial material quite
cleverly in terms of its point of view. Kimberly Wells (Fonda) isn't
particularly pro- or anti-nuke; she's just a reporter who wants a hot
story to break herself out of the rut of fluff reporting she's stuck
in. Engineer Jack Godell (Lemmon) firmly believes in the inherent
safety and stability of the plant he helped build, and with good
reason; it's only when big-business issues start conflicting with
safe operating procedures that he starts getting worried.
As an entertaining film, The China Syndrome has aged extremely
well. Apart from the lack of cell phones, and Michael Douglas' hippie
hairstyle, it could just as easily have come out last year as in
1979... except that now, I wonder if it would have been crafted in
the same way. The China Syndrome is a sharp, intelligent
thriller, but one that doesn't have a single explosive
special-effects shot in the entire film. It draws its effectiveness
from our imagination, as we realize just what could be the
consequences of a failure at the nuclear power plant. A vibration
causing a ripple in a cup of coffee... a needle hovering just above
the red line on a gauge... finding a suspicious x-ray... these are
the events that ratchet up the suspense. And it's remarkably
effective: through its entire 122-minute running time, The China
Syndrome keeps the story moving at a brisk pace, and keeps the
viewer thoroughly engaged in what's going on.
It's also worth nothing that one of the reasons why The China
Syndrome works is that it knows what not to put in the film. For
instance, there's a notable (and highly refreshing) absence of the
seemingly obligatory romantic sub-plot. I'm sure that a modern
rendition of the film would feel compelled to shoehorn some sort of
"thing" between Wells and Adams, but as it is, their
friendly but strictly professional relationship keeps the story
focused on what's important. Similarly, the story ends just about
where it should; we have an indication (or at least a hope) of what
might happen as a result of the story's events, but we're left to
think about it, rather than having it spoon-fed to us.
Columbia has given The China Syndrome a solid transfer here:
it's anamorphic widescreen, in the film's original 1.85:1 aspect
ratio, and it looks like it's been cleaned up quite well. The 1979
film has a clean, bright look to it, with only a hint of the brown
tinge that's so common to 1970s films. Close-up shots look remarkably
good, with the picture looking sharp and detailed. Some of the
longer-distance shots are distinctly lower in quality, with
noticeable noise and a generally soft appearance, but overall it's a
fresh and attractive transfer.
The original Dolby mono soundtrack is included here, but most viewers
will be more interested in the remastered Dolby 5.1 track, which
sounds very good. There's never any distortion or noise in the
background. The sound is crisp and clean, with the dialogue always
A reasonable selection of special features has been assembled for
this Special Edition release. Of most interest is a pair of
featurettes: "The China Syndrome: A Fusion of Talent"
(27 minutes) and "The China Syndrome: Creating a
Controversy" (29 minutes). Despite the specific-sounding
subtitles, these are basically just two parts of an interesting
making-of documentary that covers a variety of topics related to the
film. In each, we get a variety of modern-day interviews with Michael
Douglas, Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, and others involved with the film,
reflecting on the process of creating it.
We also get three deleted scenes (running a total of four minutes),
filmographies, and trailers for Fog of War, Fail Safe,
and Secret Window.
years after its theatrical release, The China Syndrome remains
a genuinely chilling and intense thriller. It's intelligently
written, creating tension through small but effective details rather
than big-budget special effects, and its underlying message of the
danger of human greed and short-sightedness remains all too relevant.
Especially since the transfer is quite respectable, The China
Syndrome: Special Edition warrants a "highly recommended."