The China Syndrome: Special Edition

The China Syndrome: Special Edition (1975)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Michael Douglas, Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon
Extras: Featurettes, Deleted Scenes, Filmographies

When I first saw "The China Syndrome" a long time back I had no idea what the term actually meant. 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 as a result of a 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. Sadly the liner notes tha twere part of the film’s previous DVD release have been dropped altogether as they gave viewers 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 a hot topic 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 wonderfully portraying 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-cannon 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 came 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 TriStar Home Entertainment presents this Sepcial Edition of "The China Syndrome" on this DVD release in a <$16x9,16x9 enhanced> <$PS,widescreen> version in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. 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 clearly dates the film with its subdued pastel tones. The general color reproduction of the transfer is very good however, reproducing these colors faithfully. Blacks are deep and solid, and highlights are well balanced. No edge-enhancement or compression artifacts are evident.

The disc contains a <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> remix of the original stereo track – which is also included on the disc. The mix is balanced and makes good use of the surround channels, rendering a wide sound field. It is not aggressive but uses surrounds for good ambient effects with occasional usage for effect. The frequency response of the track has been normalized but still sounds a bit harsh, giving away the movie’s age. Dynamic range is good finely reproducing all moments of the movie. "The China Syndrome" is closed-captioned in English and also contains selectable subtitles in French, Chinese, Japanese and Thai.

On this Special Edition release, Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment has added some cool new supplements, such as two featurettes featuring new interviews with actor/producer Michael Douglas and Jane Fonda as well as numerous other cast and crew members. It is great to hear the talk about the project with so much distance, reflecting back at how it has influenced their careers, what their own motivations were to pursue the project and more. They remember working with Jack Lemmon and how each of the cast member tried to bring out the best and most authentic of their onscreen characters.

The second featurette "Creating A Controversy" is a look at the production of the movie directly. Talking about how it all came together cast and crew members remember the making of the movie and the problems it was facing as a result of its hot topic. It contains a great many anecdotes and stories form the film that makes this featurette absolutely well worth watching.

Also included are three impressive deleted scenes as well as fimographies of the principal cast and crew members.

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. With this Special Edition, Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment is surplanting their original bare-bones release and looking at the features included here, as well as the wonderful feature presentation, this release is a keeper and an addition to your must-see list of films. It is still a bit thin on the content side for a Special Edition and doesn’t even contain a <$commentary,commentary track>, but still, I found the featurettes truly informative and exciting.