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"the worst SF films ever made"
review by Ian Shutter
In an early scene of the TV adaptation of Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, there's a throwaway line of dialogue which concerns both the impending demolition of planet Earth and the resulting inconsequentiality of that same day's football match: "Foregone conclusion?" asks the barman, wondering if his oddly attired but happily beer-guzzling customer simply rates one of the soccer teams as an unbeatable side.
"No, it's just that the world's about to end," quips the nerdy but amusingly nonchalant little guy with an insider's knowledge of planet Earth's complete lack of a future to look forward to. By comparison, this film about averting the end of the world is about as exciting as the Vogon poetry recital that follows - well... I'm sure you're all familiar with the rest of the Hitchhiker's story.
In Scorcher, screenwriters Graham Winter and Rebecca Morrison concoct a ridiculous plot in which underground nuclear tests in China are responsible for causing unprecedented levels of volcanic activity around the world. Ultimately, the Chinese have triggered shifts in the Earth crust and a movement of the Pacific plate that will release enough of the planet's inner heat to scorch the entire surface from pole to pole. John Rhys-Davies (of TV's Sliders) and Tamara Davies play feuding scientists - Dr Mathew Sallis and his daughter Julie - who have the know-how to fix this tectonic problem, and save the world from catastrophe by detonating a 15-megaton nuke in Los Angeles, but they cannot agree on how many bombs are needed - one or two?
Despite staggering advances in global communications technology, and many impressively inventive ways of graphically representing complex scientific data to explain technical problems to functionally illiterate audiences, the lack of a sufficient budget for command centre sets on this blunderingly nonsensical 'SF thriller' means that the fate of the whole world is to be decided by a bunch of incredibly stupid characters in a largely darkened room with only one operational display screen.
As the US President with an agonising decision to make, once notable Dutch actor Rutger Hauer maintains a pained expression of forced anxiety - like he's feeling heavily constipated but cannot remember what he ate for breakfast that morning. However, without much ado, L.A. gets evacuated in less time than it takes to clear your average sports stadium, and hero Colonel Ryan Beckett (Mark Dacascos, star of Crying Freeman, 1995 and Drive, 1996) leads his squad of "misfit tactical mavericks" on a road trip to a specific location, where they plan to drill a hole in the ground and plant their nuclear device. Of course, everything that could go wrong does. Starting with an unprovoked and quite misguided attack by unseen gunmen (urban survivalists, crazed terrorists? we are never told), Ryan and his men find trouble at every turn. Chief among the mission's problems is obvious bad guy Kellaway (Mark Rolston), the antagonistic federal agent sent along to spy on everyone, and to pick a fight with mission boss, Ryan. So the story's main dramatic climax reveals a complete lack of psych screening for this save-the-world operation. Yes, our hero cannot be trusted to save the world he lives in, so a twisted psycho with a gun and a death wish accompanies him to make sure the job gets done!
James Seale directs simplistically, ensuring that no surprising subtleties pop-up anywhere, and no individual nuances are allowed to creep into the central performances if boringly conventional reactions to danger will fill just as much screen time. Furthermore, Seale misses no opportunities to straitjacket his cast with grossly clichéd dialogue. Just watch those numbingly dull father and daughter reconciliation and rescue scenes, and feel the true horror of witless TV soap opera writ large. Apart from the actors mentioned so far, we also find G.W. Bailey in his usual top-uniformed-guy mode as General Timothy Moore, military advisor to Hauer's myopic President.
Predictable as water running downhill, both atomic weapons are eventually used, while our hero and heroine escape in a sleek private jet (which somehow landed on an L.A. street just outside a subway entrance!), and the city of angels gets well and truly nuked. However, the best and most spectacular effects sequences re-use footage lifted from average disaster movies Dante's Peak and Daylight (both 1997), namely the raining of ash at an erupting volcano site, and scenes of an explosion in a collapsing road tunnel. Dodgy widescreen visuals of Scorcher's Antarctic firestorm look much less convincing than its urban earthquake footage, and it was probably a mistake to open the film with genuine newsreel clips of natural disasters from all around the world, as this puts an unwelcome emphasis on the falsity of later unconvincing trick work.
Basically, then, what we have is an unoriginal re-shuffling of elements from Fail Safe (1964), in which Henry Fonda's deadly serious US president nukes New York; crowd-pleaser Armageddon (1999), in which Bruce Willis leads the drilling crew that saves Earth; and Peacemaker (1997), which has a soldier and scientist team (George Clooney, Nicole Kidman) on a nuclear mission. The trouble with Scorcher is that it brings these potentially entertaining ideas together, only to bury them in the concrete of instant boredom.
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