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Film / Chain Reaction

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Chain Reaction is a 1996 Science Fiction Thriller film directed by Andrew Davis, starring Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, Morgan Freeman, Brian Cox, Fred Ward, and Kevin Dunn.

Eddie Kasalivich (Reeves) is a machinist working at a laboratory researching a new hydrogen power source involving a laser beam and sound waves to induce sonoluminescence. When he returns to the lab after the first stable test, he finds his boss murdered and the place about to explode. He and his coworker Dr. Lily Sinclair (Weisz) are framed for the explosion and have to run from the authorities while trying to clear their names.

Not to be confused with the game show that involved a chain of words or with the 1980 Australian film The Chain Reaction.

This film provides examples of:

  • Artistic License – Physics: Simply burning hydrogen extracted from water would result in a net loss of energy, since breaking those molecular bonds would require more energy than would be gained from the reaction. If it were some sort of fusion reaction, it would make more sense (the novelization makes it clear that it is a fusion reaction).
  • Anti-Villain: Paul is the only member of the secret cabal of industrialists (that we see on screen, at least) who believes The World Is Not Ready (at least just yet) for this technology and hates Lyman's brutal tactics. His reaction at seeing the explosion of the first reactor is pretty much "My God, What Have I Done?" and he laments the professor's death. Once Eddie mentions that he has sent the information on the project to every news service in the country and the FBI, he shows himself a Graceful Loser and wants to let them go, even telling Lyman that killing them now won't make any difference. When Lyman insists on leaving them to die anyway, Paul kills him instead and opens the gates so that Eddie and Lily can try to Outrun the Fireball.
  • Ax-Crazy: Lyman is decried by his fellow conspirator Paul as having "poor impulse control" and when asked why the hell does he goes through the trouble of constantly killing (or threatening to kill) people when there are other less messy/complicated solutions, his only defense is "two words: convenience and expedience".
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: Paul Shannon and Lyman Earl Collier are the masterminds behind the scheme to get the hydrogen project for their own by killing Dr. Alistair Barkley, making the original device go haywire and framing Eddie, Lily, and Chen for it.
  • Black Site: The C-Systems compound is a corporate-owned version of this.
  • Can't Stop The Signal: Eddie releases to the world the details of the machine allowing production of functionally unlimited energy by faxing it to news offices everywhere.
  • Clear My Name: Eddie and Lily are trying to clear their names after being framed.
  • Evil is Petty: Lyman coldly guns down Dr. Lu Chen in a fit of rage merely because Eddie outsmarts him and exposes his crimes.
  • Follow the Leader: The film retreads much of the structure and a number of elements from the director's previous hit film, The Fugitive, down to the lead character being framed for a murder and on the run from reasonable agents who eventually figure out he is innocent.
  • Frameup: Eddie, Lily, and Chen are framed as agents for China attempting to steal the hydrogen technology. It's so blatantly transparent that the FBI decides about halfway through the film that they're probably innocent and start working off that assumption.
  • Gas-Cylinder Rocket: Invoked. During the climax, Eddie uses an axe to chop the valve off a tank of hydrogen gas to shove open a safety door so he and Dr. Sinclair can escape. He wraps the axe in cloth to keep it from igniting the gas.
  • Murder Is the Best Solution: Lyman's plans involve either killing people or threatening to kill people until he gets his way (and then applying "You Have Outlived Your Usefulness" as needed). Paul makes it pretty clear that he is sick of Lyman's tactics throughout the film and kills him when he leaves Eddie and Lily to die to the second reactor's explosion, immediately opening the facility doors so they have a chance to escape.
  • Information Wants to Be Free: The researchers wanted to make the technique available to the world for free. The Big Bad didn't, justifying himself with the economic instability this would supposedly cause.
  • Karma Houdini: Paul manages to get away from the C-Systems' explosion and ends the film at large. In his defense, it is pretty clear throughout the film that he is an Anti-Villain
  • Orgy of Evidence: After Eddie witnesses the sabotage when he wasn't supposed to, Lyman quickly frames him, Lily, and Chen with some hastily planted evidence pointing at the Chinese. The FBI eventually realize that something is amiss.
  • Outrun the Fireball:
    • Eddie arrives at the laboratory to find his boss murdered and the equipment rigged to blow up. Unable to stop the chain reaction, he straddles his bike and speeds away from the lab. When the equipment finally overloads, it explodes in a very large fireball, almost akin to a small nuclear blast. Eddie manages to Outrun the Fireball just barely; the back of his bike is actually lifted by the shockwave (but the forward wheel somehow remains on the ground).
    • Happens again in the climax, this time heading up as the second reactor is about to blow. The fireball catches him and Lily this time, but fortunately it just flings the lift they were using out of the hole without harming them.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Interestingly, for a villain, Paul is this. He constantly tries to be helpful to Eddie without exposing himself as one of the Big Bad Ensemble, and absolutely loathes Lyman because he firmly believes Murder Is the Best Solution for anything, and no amount of chewing out will make him stop.
  • Smug Snake: Lyman, with the kind of cold-blooded hamminess that Brian Cox can pull off.
  • Shout-Out: Eddie sends a Public Secret Message to the FBI to come to C-Systems by sending flowers with an advertisement of "Spawn Vs. The Neanderthal Man".
  • The Stinger: What seems to be cut footage of an serial view of the C-Systems compound shaking from the underground explosion of the climax, followed by Ford saying "whoah".
  • Stupid Evil: Lyman keeps stepping on Paul's toes to get to Eddie and Lily, even though they trusted Paul and would have come in so long as he guaranteed their protection. His interference actually hinders Paul's efforts - and gets Eddie mistaken for a cop killer (meaning he could be shot instead of just being arrested) - but Lyman has the effrontery to blame Paul for their lack of success. Paul finally kills Lyman, as their superiors agree with his opinion of Lyman's idiocy.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Lyman quite obviously intends to kill Chen, Lily, and Eddie once he has the perfected technology. Idiotically, he also threatens them with almost these exact words if they continue failing, giving them no incentive to play along either way. Paul even calls him out on this.
    Paul: I really wish you wouldn't threaten to kill my scientists right to their faces. It just might make my job a little easier.