Imagine spending all your life in a fallout shelter, completely devoid of contact with the outside world. Now imagine that, after many years, circumstances force you to say goodbye to your former home.
The film begins in 1962. Like many Americans, Dr. Calvin Webber (Christopher Walken) and his pregnant wife Helen (Sissy Spacek) are a little caught up in the tension of the Cold War; Calvin, a brilliant but off-kilter physicist, has built an elaborate bomb shelter under the backyard of their suburban Los Angeles home and stocked it with 35 years of supplies. When the Cuban Missile Crisis presents America with a very real and immediate threat of nuclear war, the Webbers move into the bomb shelter. As fate would have it, a fighter jet crashes onto their property while they're down there, destroying the house and leading the neighbors to presume the Webbers dead. Calvin—convinced that the explosion was the result of a nuclear missile, and lacking communication with the outside world due to having left the radio above ground—locks the vault door, sealing them inside for 35 years. Shortly afterward, Helen gives birth to a son named Adam.
Fast forward to The '90s, when the vault unlocks. While Adam's parents diligently spent decades teaching him everything they could think of, this proves woefully inadequate for getting around in a radically changed surface world. Cue major culture shock when first Calvin and then the now-adult Adam (Fraser) venture out into the world to determine the state of "post-apocalypse" civilization.
Once it becomes clear that some people have indeed, umm... survived the blast, Adam sets out to gather supplies and find a (non-mutant) wife, so he can return to the shelter and seal it up again. Along the way, Adam meets a cynical young woman named Eve (Silverstone), who—after initially being seriously weirded out by him, and despite not knowing the details of his background—comes to see him as an eccentric but basically harmless young man. She agrees to help Adam with his goals, works with her gay housemate Troy (Dave Foley) to acclimatize him to the current times, and gradually finds herself falling for him.
This film provides examples of:
- The '50s: The first scene, even though it takes place in 1962, as well as the Webbers' entire lifestyle... for three decades. Not surprisingly, Adam emerges from the shelter acting like a character from Leave It to Beaver.
- The '90s: As Roger Ebert points out, this movie turns Pleasantville on its head, casting a decidedly unflattering light on modern life as seen from the perspective of a traditional nuclear family.
- Adam and Eve Plot: Defied since the apocalypse never happened, even though the main characters are called Adam and Eve.
- Aluminum Christmas Trees:
- Apocalypse How: The Webbers believe that at least a class 0 has taken place, as a result of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
- Britain Is Only London: A variation. Troy assumes that Anchorage is the capital of Alaska, partly because it is the largest city in the state, but doubtlessly also because it was the only Alaskan city he (or the audience) could think of. Adam corrects him by pointing out that the capital of Alaska is Juneau.
- Cargo Cult / God Guise: One forms from a group of homeless people around the elevator and the Webber family after the father's dramatic appearance. Reinforced when the dramatically appearing man from the underground sends his only son to Earth.
- Chekhov's Skill: Adam was shown being trained in boxing by his dad from a young age, thus when he accidentally pissed off Eve's ex-boyfriend the guy tried to attack him and he effortlessly defends himself and even apologizes for doing so.
- Cloud Cuckoolander: The entire Webber family, justified by having lived underground for 35 years. Mr. Webber, on the other hand, seems to have been one even before the "catastrophe".
- He even starts pacing out a new fallout shelter at the end of the movie, despite knowing that the world is no longer under threat of nuclear war.
- Compound Interest Time Travel Gambit: Subverted, since it's accidental, and the "time travel" is 35 years of isolation. But the vintage baseball cards and blue chip stock certificates sure do become useful.
- Crazy-Prepared: Calvin's fallout shelter has enough supplies to support a family of three for decades, and can grow vegetables and even fish.
- Cold War: Mr. Webber's obsession with this gets the plot moving.
- Deadpan Snarker: Eve, especially early on.
- Death Glare: Eve, at the awesome dancing scene.
- Deliberate Values Dissonance: Several things, but especially the page quote. Adam meant no offense, but as things had changed quite a bit since 1962...
- Eureka Moment: An in-universe example, when Mr. Webber spends decades trying to explain baseball to his son, who utterly misses the point of it all, until he finally watches a game.Adam: Oh, I get it! Because he must!
- Fish out of Temporal Water: Adam and his family, not seeing the changes that occurred happen gradually, suffer from a certain amount of culture shock when introduced to the modern world.
- Fish out of Water: Adam's excuse for seeming so unfamiliar with things, is that he's visiting L.A. for the first time. From Alaska.
- Free-Range Children: Oh so averted.
- The Future Is Shocking: This happened with the use of a nuclear bomb shelter. The character was so shocked by the difference that he assumed humanity had been heavily mutated by radiation.
- Game of Nerds: Eccentric physicist Calvin Webber is naturally a baseball fan.
- Gold Digger: Averted. Eve notes that at least she fell in love with Adam before she learned he was rich.
- The Great Politics Mess-Up: At the end, Adam tells his father about the Soviet Union's collapse, and how the Cold War ended without a single shot fired. His father doesn't buy a word of it.
- Adam's main contact in the surface world is a young lady named Eve Vrustikoff (Alicia Silverstone). The father asks whether her name is Russian, and he's relieved to hear that it's Ukrainian.note
- Have a Gay Old Time: In-universe, when Adam thinks Troy being gay means he's happy.
- Have I Mentioned I am Gay?: Troy. Dave Foley plays him slightly effeminate, but no more so than David Hyde Pierce played the heterosexual Niles Crane. The only real way we know he's gay is because someone says so:Eve: He (Troy) is gay, by the way.Adam: (thinking Eve means that Troy's happy) Well, good for you.Troy: (slightly confused) Thanks. We do try.
- Innocent Bigot: See page quote.
- Innocent Swearing: When the time lock opens in the shelter and Adam asks if they can go right up to the surface.Calvin: No, son. Now is the time we must be at our most cautious. We wait for night.Helen: Oh, shit! (immediately covers her mouth)Calvin: (scolding) Helen Thomas Webber, maybe we have been down here a little too long. (to Adam) Pardon her French, son.Adam: "Shit" is French?Calvin: Well, it's archaic French... it's... uh... a 16th-century colloquialism meaning... roughly, good.Helen: (playing along) Your father's right.Adam: Well, then... Shit!Calvin and Helen: Heh heh. (sigh)
- Manchild: Adam is a borderline example. He is intelligent, and can take care of himself, but is socially awkward and rather naive.
- Mistaken for Apocalypse: First, the Webbers mistake a crashed airplane for a nuclear explosion. Second, during the Webbers' time in the vault, their property had become the run-down headquarters of a fringe religious order, so Calvin's first contact with the outside world only convinces him further that society has collapsed.
- Actually, it was Calvin's appearance from below that caused the fringe religious order to come about. However, the neighborhood had degenerated in 35 years; that along with tattoos, piercings and punk clothing lead Calvin to his conclusion - "Mutants!"
- Operation: Jealousy: Eve goes back to her ex-boyfriend because she's angry at Adam for hiding his backstory. Though Adam's quick skills chased him away.
- Precision F-Strike: We get one from the mother, who is all too eager to head back to the surface. Its precision comes from being the first kink in the perfect atomic family image.Adam: Do we just go on up?Calvin: No, son. Now's the time we must be at our most cautious. We wait until night.Helen: SHIT.
- Right for the Wrong Reasons: At the start of the film, the Webbers are hosting a dinner party when news of the Cuban Missile Crisis breaks. Dr. Webber sends their friends home and goes into the fallout shelter with his pregnant wife. Shortly after this, a jet crashes into their house. Had he continued the party, everyone would have died in the crash. The only thing he didn't prepare was an alternate exit or a bypass in case the manual locks were damaged.
- Sassy Black Woman: The mail carrier Adam meets whom he calls a "negro".
- Straight Gay: Troy.
- The Unreveal: Calvin asks that Helen never learn the truth that there was no nuclear war, since... well, judging that she's become an alcoholic after being locked in a shelter for thirty years for no reason, it's clear that she'd never forgive him.