Last time I started off a review of a disaster flick, I said I was struggling to find disaster films pre-1990s. Then I found 1974’s The Towering Inferno and now, 1988’s rather forgotten disaster flick, Miracle Mile. Directed and written by Steve De Jarnatt in only his second ever (even since then) directorial effort, supposedly American Film magazine said it was one of the 10 best unproduced screenplays circulating Hollywood prior to filming.
The film follows Harry (played by Anthony Edwards), who randomly falls in love instantly with Julie (played by Mare Winningham), and then, receives an accidental phone call from a guy named Chip (voiced by Raphael Sbarge) located at an underground missile silo. As in, the place where missiles are launched. (In the years since the film and the height of the Cold War, most have been decommissioned.)
Chip tells Harry that nuclear war is set to begin in 70 minutes, and then Chip gets confronted by someone else, who presumably shoots Chip dead. The person on the phone then tells Harry to forget everything he heard and go back to sleep.
Of course, Harry does not. Instead, he’s freaking out and announces what he heard to a local diner where Julie works. A local businesswoman, Landa (played by Denise Crosby) is there, overhears this, calls her political contacts in Washington and confirms that many of them are heading to the Southern Hemisphere.
She suddenly believes all the patrons in the diner, including Harry, can get a private jet out of Los Angeles International Airport to a compound in Antarctica … somehow in less than 70 minutes. Harry initially piles into the bus to take them to LAX, but then hops out to go save Julie. As far as I can tell, we never learn the fate of the bus driving the diner patrons to the LAX.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the name of the diner’s bus was Fat Boy Catering. That had to be an intentional nod to “Fat Man,” the codename given for the nuclear bomb dropped by the United States on Nagasaki, Japan Aug. 9, 1945.
Along the way, Harry meets Wilson (played by Mykelti Williamson, aka, Bubba from Forrest Gump!), more chaos ensues as the Los Angeles Police Department comes hot on their heels (and the cop having been sprayed with gasoline by Wilson, shoots off her weapon and gets burned alive; she deserved that for being a complete moron, to be honest), and eventually Harry is able to get to Julia and track down a helicopter pilot … somehow. In my opinion, with less than an hour to go until nuclear war commences, he spends way too much time trying to track down a helicopter pilot for an unrealistic jaunt to Antarctica.
Once word has spread that nuclear war is coming, L.A. turns into hell on earth, with panic, fornicating, shooting, looting, and everything in between occurring. Harry wonders if he’s created a Chicken Little scenario, wherein he’s made everyone falsely think the “sky is falling” and then it’s not.
As it turns out, nope, the nukes are coming and the film ends with everyone getting nuked. Dark!
I’ve never seen a tonal switch like that in a film, where it started out so downright 1980s, loopy, almost surreal romantic silliness and then downright serious, chaotic energy, as the nukes arrive, along with a very dark ending. Honestly, I’m not quite sure what to make of it.
My first thought was that it would have been better if it was indeed a Chicken Little scenario where Harry created a false panic because he believed some nonsense he heard on the phone (granted, that wouldn’t explain the sounds of Chip being shot or Landa’s confirmations). That would have been a fun meditation on how people react to what they think is the end-of-the-world and how quickly society breaks down. But they go with full-on nuclear war.
Now, regardless of what came out of that initial phone call, whether it was legitimate or not, the premise of having a normal guy (and others) suddenly thrust into an end-of-the-world scenario has always been one of my favorite premises across film, television and novels. I love that premise. I love crap hitting the fan on normal people and the crap hits the fan quite a bit here in escalating chunks.
I think I would fix that tonal issue, though. You can still get the impact of a “crap hitting the fan” without the weird romance angle at the beginning. Far too many films fill the need to shoehorn a romantic angle because they want to give the film emotional weight. You could still have emotional weight here without the romance.
I did like the motif of the film. At the beginning, we are shown a reel of the creation of the universe and then life emerging from the waters to eventually form us bipeds, and at the end of the film, after the helicopter crashes, Harry and Julie are submerged and ultimately die, in the water. Life emerged from water and was submerged again in water. Again, I don’t know if that was an intentional choice, but I noticed that and I liked it.
Overall, if you’re looking for another off-beat, atypical disaster flick, I’d highly recommend adding this one to your disaster movie canon. It both feels quite 1980s, as a lot of 1980s films do, but also something of an oddball among 1980s flick with its unrelentingly dark tonal turn and ending.