The China Syndrome

The China Syndrome (1975)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas
Extras: Theatrical Trailer, Production Notes, Cast & Crew Biographies

When I first saw "The China Syndrome" a long time back I had no idea what the term actually means. But ever since I saw this film, it has become indelibly part of my vocabulary as the film vividly describes the effects of such a nuclear disaster. When the core of a nuclear power plant overheats for some reason, the energy and heat generated would theoretically start melting the Earth’s surface. The core would then start sinking into the Earth and drill its way all the way to the other side of the world – hence the reference to China. In reality however, as soon as it would hit ground water, this water would be heated up instantaneously and explode as a gush of searing mist, contaminating huge portions of the continent.

Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) is a news anchor for a local TV station, slowly working her way up through the ranks defined by company politics. One day she is covering a nuclear power plant as part of a series of informative coverage. While she and her crew visit the plant an accident happens and not knowing what is going on, her cameraman, Richard (Michael Douglas) starts filming the following events without permission. Once they leave the building they try to use the material for exclusive coverage of the event but the station declines, mostly due to legal reasons, in fear of a lawsuit. Aggravated, Richard steals the film and shows it to experts who are able to identify the accident and classify it with comments, such as "we are all very lucky we are still alive!".

During their visit a control meter in the plant’s control room indicated that water level in the plant’s core was too high and to release the pressure Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) orders to open valves to release the water. When the desired effect is not kicking in, he decides to open more valves, trying to drain more water. Once again, without effect it seems, but then a look at another meter indicates that the water level has become dangerously low. To their horror it turns out that the needle of the analog meter was stuck and that in fact they had drained nearly all the water from the plant’s nuclear core.

Immediately the men in the control room try frantically to refill the containment only seconds before they physically lay bare the core. After seconds of desperate measures, they manage to slowly refill the water and contain the danger, but they all know that they almost caused a China Syndrome because of the stuck needle on the gauge.

Officially nothing happened and the press releases cover up most of the events, despite the fact that Richard is still in possession of the film footage. Kimberly and Richard try to make the footage available to the public to show the threat of these nuclear power plants but when they talk to Godell about the events, it turns out that there is a much bigger threat. One that is still acute and can cost millions of lives!

Originally released during a period when the fear of nuclear energy was on the front of everyone’s minds, "The China Syndrome" touched a very hot topic. It is a very authentic film and all the incidents you witness have been taken from real events. The liner notes that come with the disc give you a very good overview over the individual events that were used to embellish the film, and where they really happened. For heightened drama and suspense the filmmakers accumulated all these incidents in the film in order to give the film the weight it needs. Ironically, only 12 days after the theatrical release of the film an accident as described in the film happened at Three Mile Island power plant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Immediately the film was in everyone’s minds and catapulted it to the top of the box-office charts.

Although the danger of nuclear energy is not so much of an issue any more these days, the film is just as powerful today as it was in 1979 when it was first released. It actually makes you wonder, what happened to all these power plants? Have nuclear power plants been shut down and become relicts of the past? We have lost the entire dilemma out of sight, and I believe today, most people don’t really spend a lot of time pondering the origins of the power they use. Are we any safer than we were 20 years ago? I don’t think so, and after watching "The China Syndrome" again, maybe it is time to find out in which closet they hide all those skeletons…

The film is extremely well produced with well-drawn characters and a directorial style that slowly and consistently builds tension. Jack Lemmon is great in his performance as the torn supervisor of the plant, always struggling with himself whether to protect the company or humanity. His commanding appearance during the accident scenes adds a lot to the more fragile and desperate person we get to see later in the film. Michael Douglas is great as the rebellious cameraman Richard. It is a character portrayal that was Douglas’ trademark at the time before he turned to more settled roles. His loose-gun approach adds immensely to the tension the entire film builds. From the beginning we know he is absolutely right and every attempt to stop him will only result in an even more rigorous counter-approach. If you think the part of Kimberly Wells was tailor-made for Jane Fonda, you are absolutely correct. Derived from another character that got scrapped, her part was completely re-written when she cam on board to make sure to get the most out of her and the personality she’s playing in the film. The result is an aspiring anchor woman that is as slick and ambitious as anything you can witness on TV every day. A corporate woman wearing a smiling mask, fighting every day to climb the ladder of success, and constantly struggling to get her priorities right.

Columbia Home Video present "The China Syndrome" on this DVD release in a <$16x9,16x9 enhanced> <$PS,widescreen> version in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, as well as a <$PS,pan & scan> version. The transfer is very clean and shows even the most intricate details. Shot during a period when film’s had a very strong contemporary look, the color scheme of the overall movie looks a bit dated with its subdued pastel tones, but the general color reproduction on this DVD is very good. Blacks are deep and solid, and highlights are well balanced.

The disc contains a Stereo soundtrack in <$DD,Dolby Digital> in both English and Spanish. The soundtrack is generally good, although it sounds a bit dated at times. It fully serves the purpose of this film however and is never distracting. "The China Syndrome" is closed-captioned in English and also contains selectable subtitles in Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean and Thai.

Although "The China Syndrome" is a very good film, strangely it is not one that pops to mind immediately when trying to come up with a list of one’s most favorite films for some reason. Nevertheless, it is surely a film you will never forget. Columbia Home Video’s version that can be found on this DVD is superb and leaves nothing to be desired, so make sure to give this release a very close look.