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Film: The China Syndrome

1979 political conspiracy thriller starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas and a good-sized nuclear reactor in California that won't behave.

A local TV newswoman, Kimberly Wells (Fonda), is frustrated that her station (KXLA) won't let her cover serious news (she's stuck with light-hearted non-events). Sent on a tour of a nearby nuclear power plant to promote the positives of nuclear energy, she and her cameraman Richard Adams (Douglas) witness the reactor room just as something goes wrong. Supervisor Jack Godell (Lemmon) finds out the core's close to meltdown and works with his friend Ted (Wilford Brimley) and his team to fix the problem (during which Jack feels an unusual tremor that unsettles him for the entire movie). While Jack's team saves the plant, Richard had quietly filmed it all with his camera...

Thinking they've got a big story to report, Kim and Richard are instead told by their network bosses to keep quiet and have the film placed in storage while their lawyers figure out their liability. Meanwhile, Jack tries to warn his bosses that there's something fishy with the plant, only to have his bosses insist there's nothing wrong. An investigation into the incident gets rubber-stamped. Meanwhile, the company responsible for the construction of that plant is busy trying to get another one built in a hurry...

At every turn separately and then as a team, Jack, Kim and Richard try to find out what happened and try to warn others that something's wrong. By the time Richard's friend is hurt trying to sneak the film of the accident to a regulatory committee, Jack's paranoid and frustrated enough to seize a security guard's gun and take control of the reactor. Kim tries to interview Jack live on television (breaking into KXLA's regularly-scheduled programming of The Magnificent Marble Machine; no, seriously) to help him report what went wrong, but the power company SCRAM the reactor in order to take control away from Jack - during a SCRAM it runs fully automatic for a short time. The power company kills the TV signal and sends in a SWAT team to shoot Jack. While he lies dying, the faulty main coolant pump goes to maximum power ... during which the reactor goes through a terrifying few minutes of OMG it's gonna blow! The pump is finally shut down just as it completely breaks free of its moorings. At the end with the power company trying to paint Jack as a madman, Kim approaches Jack's friend Ted and gets him to say that Jack was sane and that there needs to be a full investigation.

China Syndrome came out during the Post-Watergate era, at a time when the public was in a paranoid mood about the people - politicians, the corporations, the media - who seemed to be in charge of things. What made this movie stand out was that on March 28, 1979 (two weeks after Syndrome was released) the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster took place, making what was a standard thriller into a prescient piece of film-making.

Note that nothing actually happens in or to China; the title comes from a joke that if a nuclear reactor did have a meltdown it would burn all the way through to China on the other side of the Earth. Actually, a meltdown's extreme heat would get absorbed by the surrounding earth, and would get as far as the underground water supply where it would make things a hundred times worse. Also, if it did burn through the Earth to the other side, it'd end up in the Indian Ocean.

This film provides examples of:

  • Artistic License - Nuclear Physics: Averted in the depiction of how a nuclear core meltdown might occur, which is fairly realistic. Played straight in the described possible effects of said meltdown, which are ridiculously over-blown and inaccurate, exposing the film's infamous anti-nuclear message disguised as supposed realism.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Jack dies, and the company tries to pin the blame on Jack by calling him insane. Kim finds Jack's friend Ted and forces him on live television to admit Jack "was the sanest man I know", and that there ought to be an investigation into the disaster.
  • Book Ends: The film opens and closes on a shot of a TV monitor showing bars and tone.
  • Cool Pet: Kim has a pet tortoise.
  • Foreshadowing: The second tremor that Jack felt during the accident. It haunts Jack until the end, when it's revealed to be the main coolant pump cavitating as it goes to maximum power during a SCRAM, which stresses its sub-standard welds.
  • Kick the Dog: Richard leaves a message on Kimberley's answer machine just to call her an asshole.
  • Oh Crap: Pretty much everyone's expression when they realize that the water level indicator they've been using through the incident has been stuck on "high", giving very false indications. Jack Godell taps the glass and the needle drops down to a level only a few inches above the reactor core falling dry.
    • A second Oh Crap moment occurs when Jack realizes that the X-ray pictures of the pump welds were falsified during construction.
  • Properly Paranoid: Think the corporation you work for doesn't like how you're digging into how the nuclear plant was built and how the quarterly safety checks were forged? Wondering about that car behind you on the highway carrying guys who could take on the Steelers' defensive front? Terrified that your own co-workers - and even your best friend Wilford Brimley! - are talking about bringing the reactor back online at full power? Welcome to Jack's world!
  • Rule Of Pool: In a deleted scene, Kim is at a party and one of the guests is harassing her. They are all standing around a pool. Guess what happens to the guy.
  • Silent Credits
  • The Seventies
  • Think of the Children!: The anti-nukes, during the safety hearing for the power plant, hold up pictures of their children and read out their names.
  • What Could Have Been: Richard Dreyfuss was originally cast as the TV reporter. When he dropped out of the film, the part was re-written with a feminist slant for Fonda.
  • Artistic License - Nuclear Physics: Terrifyingly averted during the first accident: everything they talk about happening could have been disastrous to say the least. Subverted when Richard is able to sneak an 'expert' in to see the film, to have the expert comment on what he thinks happened: said expert talks in Technobabble instead, and also Title Drops the movie.
  • You Keep Using That Word: Nucular. Mike, you're a great actor and we're sure you put your heart and soul into the project but for the word is nuclear.

The Cat and the CanaryFilms of the 1970sCity on Fire

alternative title(s): The China Syndrome
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