Forum: The Sky's on Fire
On July 15th, the ABC network ran a poorly
reviewed disaster movie, The Sky’s on Fire. In an effort to imply
that the film was new, ABC promoted the occasion as the ‘broadcast’
premiere. Checking on the Internet Movie Database, however, I learned that
it originally appeared on cable television’s USA channel in 1998. The
day before it ran on free TV, I posted a note on our bulletin board
inviting readers to send in their thoughts on the film. Here are the
assembled results, including my take. As for the quantitative paucity of
response, we shall have to see whether this reflects the poor amount of
lead time or rather general disinterest in the concept.
Quantity aside, I couldn’t ask for more astute
contributors. I am joined here by my fellow sitemaster Apostic, who had a
helping hand from his equally perceptive and even more charming spouse Jo,
and Kurt vonRoeschlaub, B-Fest attendee and distinguished correspondent.
In case it should occur to anyone that I put my
contribution first out of a sense of ego, let me demur. The truth rests
quite in the opposite direction. An iron rule of Vaudeville was to never
follow an act that performed smashingly well, for fear that your own
performance would appear weaker in comparison. I have wisely followed that
precept here. As for my associates, a flip of the proverbial coin dictated
the order of their contributions.
Ken Examines The Sky’s
We open with a scene out of Greek Mythology. This kind
of stuff allows screenwriters to convince themselves that they aren’t
doing hackwork. Icarus flew too close to the sun with his wings of wax and
feathers, and hence fatally crashed to Earth. Here we watch three people
baked by unrestrained ultraviolet rays as they also fly too near the sun
in a small plane. Here’s a bet. Sit down with the three (!)
screenwriters who adapted the source novel "Fatal Exposure."
(Isn’t that a Shannon Tweed movie? It should be.) I’m sure they’ll
excitedly explain how the metaphor works. "See, as with Icarus, this
is a tale of Hubris, and how Man’s attempts to conquer Nature inevitably
lead to disaster. By rooting our tale in the most ancient of human myths,
we were able to lend them a subliminal deepness…."
Cut to Los Angeles. Expository radio broadcasts -- what
an innovative device! -- reveal that the city is the victim of an
inexplicably severe heat wave. This established, we meet Our Hero, Dr.
Evan Thorne. He’s played, sort of, by Disaster Movie veteran John
Corbett (Volcano; the sinkhole epic On Hostile Ground),
taking time out from Ford commercials to again fight Nature run amok. He’s
the honest scientist who’s attempted to warn us all of our folly, only
to have his career destroyed by Dark Forces. Needless to say, he’ll be
proved right here, so at least he has that. Meanwhile, John, a cynical
reporter, begins to suspect The Truth when he sees a large number of dead
whales washed up on a beach. The shot of the whales, by the way, is one of
the film’s better moments, being actually eerie. I’m still disturbed,
though, that more audience sympathy can be reaped from dead animals than
Ominous stuff happens, mysterious deaths, wildlife
dying and going insane, weird hot winds, yada yada. Finally it’s
confirmed that a gigantic hole in the ozone layer has appeared,
threatening the world with undiluted solar radiation. Or, at least,
Disaster Movie favorite Los Angeles. Thorne must again battle with his
nemesis Dr. Schiffren, an establishment (boo! hiss!) scientist who fears a
panic, apparently because it will adversely effect his stock portfolio. I
mean, Greed can be the only answer for wanting to suppress The Truth,
- A surfer reacts to the dozen dead whales lined up on the beach:
"This is totally bogus, man!"
- Want proof that Our Hero knows his stuff? "He wrote the book on
it at the University." (Wow!)
- Dr. Hellstrom gives her opinion: "He’d be better off here a
little more longer."
Corbett’s always been known for playing laid-back
characters. Lately, though, his technique could more accurately be
described as ‘sleepwalking.’ Admittedly, he’s obviously being forced
to appear in crap, but hey, give us something here. Dammit, where’re
Bruce Boxleitner or William Devane when you need them?
Worst Promo Stuff:
Blatantly stealing from the not-terribly-successful Volcano,
the pre-broadcast spot for the film warns that The Coast Will Roast.
Also, we’re dramatically told, "The ozone is moving towards
L.A." Does that sentence mean as little as I think it does? And isn’t
the plot in fact about the effects of a paucity of ozone? How does
that fit in with it "moving towards L.A."?
- Yeesh, did they just head back to a storeroom somewhere and pull
these characters, wrapped in dusty cellophane, directly from stock? I
mean, c’mon. Not to mention the obligatory Life’s A Rich Tapestry™
plotting, by which all the characters are written so as to connect
with all the other characters. Let’s see what we’ve got here:
- Thorne, the scientist who’s always warned that this was coming.
He cares more about The Truth and Human Misery than about Money or
Politics. (Although a catastrophic economic collapse would in fact
more adversely effect the poor than the rich. When is Hollywood
going to figure this out?) This brings him once again into conflict
with his corrupt ex-partner…
- Schiffren, the overly cautious ‘scientist’ -- if you can even
call him that, since he demands ‘proof’ rather than just
accepting the hero’s gut feelings. (This always being a fatal flaw
in a movie scientist.) He cares more about Money and Politics than
The Truth and Human Misery. His efforts to do mischief lead him to
try to bulldoze…
- John, the cynical lone-wolf reporter who becomes a believer,
risking it all to inform the public of the coming catastrophe. His
path to enlightenment begins when he consults…
- Elizabeth Sobel, a beautiful female scientist -- forgive me for
being redundant. Like Thorne, she attempts to bring the Truth to the
fore by warning the Mayor of Los Angeles and his beautiful female
top aide – forgive me for being redundant -- …
- Jenny, who likewise sees through Schiffren’s obfuscation and
bravely fights against his perfidy. But how could she do less? After
all, she’s Thorne’s sister. (My mistake, I thought she’d be
his ex-girlfriend.) Oh, and she’s also the fiancée of…
- Racer (!!) ("Speed, you will never now that I am your
brother, or how proud I am of you"), the brave National
Guard/rescue pilot who survives an early encounter with the ozone
hole. He later risks all by flying on a possible suicide mission
with Thorne, who holds mankind’s last hope in his hands…
- Oh, and let’s not forget the worshipful younger scientist at
Thorne’s office, who can ask all the expository questions that fill
the audience in on stuff: How bad is it really? What’s Thorne’s
backstory? Will this desperate plan work? Etc.
- Do we really need two characters who earlier damaged their
careers by blowing situations out of proportions and are now seeking
redemption? Because they explicitly give John the reporter this
- So…the characters who die in the plane crash notice their vision
going blurry, but don’t notice that the flesh on their hands is
literally baking before our eyes? And wouldn’t that hurt?
- The idea that the press, especially the television variety, wouldn’t
be swarming over the dead whales story is ludicrous. Sure. An
environmentally themed story, involving whales, in California.
And with that visual?! Yet we never see anyone but John working
on it. It’s utterly and patently ridiculous. However, the movie
needs to castigate the (news) media for ignoring, you know, the Real
- I don’t want to read too much into this, but could Corbett’s
character be named "Thorne" because he’s a ‘thorn’ in
the side of those seeking to Suppress The Truth? If so…wow!
- Most of these movies feature a character who has paid a price for an
earlier attempt to expose The Truth. In other words, they have a
history of having been wrong in the past, but are now facing a
situation that confirms all their warnings. Yet, despite this history
of their earlier panic-mongering, everyone who ignores them in the
present is portrayed as stupid or venal or both. Why? Isn’t this
what we all learned as children from The Boy Who Cried Wolf?
- Seeing the whale report, Thorne phones Elizabeth the Beauteous
Female Scientist . When he seeks to introduce himself, she assures him
that "I know who you are." Of course. Don’t all scientists
know of each other’s work? Whether they work in the same field or
- Racer is taken to the hospital, having suffered from exposure whilst
searching for our initial plane crash victims. His emergency room
physician is named "Hellstrom." Is this supposed to be an
inside joke? Because it’s kind of lame. For the record, in the ‘70s
there was a made-for-TV movie called The Hellstrom Chronicles.
This rather decent semi-documentary featured Hellstrom, a fictional
scientist who believed that Man would ultimately be supplanted by
insects and arachnids. Given the later perfunctory bug attacks
featured here, I thought maybe one of the writers was trying to get
cute. Actually, if the doctor herself were attacked by bugs, it might
have actually been funny. But she isn’t.
- To show petty politics at work, we see the Mayor complaining about a
request for $6,000 to buy fans for library workers. (Man, we always
get screwed.) Because, you know, of the heat wave. Now, I know that
Mayors of even big cities get caught up in small matters, but a
request for six thousand dollars? I mean, Los Angeles must have
an annual budget running into tens of billions of dollars. And he’s
concerned about six thousand dollars?!
- I know all the good scientists, the ones who care about The Truth,
work in the same underbudgeted lab as Thorne. But are you telling me
that no one in Schiffren’s office is even expressing concern about
the data they’re collecting?
- If Schiffren is a bureaucrat rather than a scientist, why isn’t he
acting like one? Rather than utterly ignoring the situation, wouldn’t
he be setting things up so as to cover his ass if the worst should
happen? He should be issuing vague press releases that are cautionary
but reassuring at the same time, so as to have a paper trail to fall
back on no matter what happens. Instead, he keeps definitively telling
those in authority that nothing bad’s going to happen. Even after
the city’s entire bird population goes completely nuts (although,
why would they then stop acting weird?), he still flat
out says that it’s not connected with the ozone depletion. This is
not how one climbs the bureaucratic ladder.
- Watch the scene where Thorne rags out Schiffren for caring about
money while the world goes to hell. With his stoic acting style,
monotone voice and gigantic sense of moral superiority, it’s
apparent that Corbett is turning into Steven Seagal. He even, with his
long face and long hair, kind of looks like him.
- OK, let’s assume that everyone on this featured fishing trawler
could bake to death before returning to shore. But what, they didn’t
radio in what was happening?
- Regarding the scene where the birds goes nuts: Wouldn’t a
full-fledged panic occur after such an event? And why were the birds
able to smash through the Mayor’s windows? I’d think that Mayor of
Los Angeles’ office would sport bulletproof windows.
- OK, again, how is it possible that no one other than Thorne’s
people can tell that this ozone hole is moving towards the city? This
is probably the biggest running flaw in the movie, as it just seems
- Schiffren, the heroes lament, will never admit what’s going on
when "half his funding is coming from the same people who caused
this problem in the first place." First, if he’s this
well-known corporate lackey, then why are we constantly being reminded
that government offices like the National Weather Service and NASA
keep deferring to him on this issue? And why would the implied Dark
Sinister Forces (i.e., corporate America – no, not the film and
television industries, the rest of corporate America) have such a
complete nitwit in their service?
- Pike, Thorne’s boss/colleague, explains that foreign scientists
from around the world agree that the ozone hole isn’t going to close
up before disaster strikes. (Why didn’t anyone mention these guys
earlier?) So, I guess the only stupid and career oriented scientists
are here in the States.
- Talk about Deus ex Machina! See, Pike and Thorne had once
worked on a device called the ORB; Ozone Replenishing Bomb.
(Personally, I’d think even scientists would have enough PR savvy
that they wouldn’t call an environmental tool a ‘bomb,’ but
there you go.) By "destroying" the chorine that eats through
the ozone layer, it allows holes to close themselves up. (Wouldn’t
removing the chlorine more likely just halt further damage?) Now, if
they could only get the abandoned, nearly completed prototype to work…
- If you were wondering why they hadn’t pursued working on this
wonder device, you haven’t been paying attention. Why, because Schiffren
shut them down, of course, "days" before they were to test
it. Who else? After all, the last thing his Evil Masters would want
would be a device that would allow them to minimize ecological damages
as they pursued their industrial goals and…uh, wait, could you run
that by me again?
- OK, I’ve figured it out. The reason Schiffren’s Evil Masters are
against such a device is because he works for Hoggish Greedly and the
other villains from Captain Planet.
- Actually, the people most likely to be against the ORB would, in the
real world, be hardcore Leftist ‘environmentalists.’ There are
many such whose real agenda is a hostility to industrialization, or,
more to the point, Capitalism period. The last thing they’d want is
a device that would encourage the masses to believe that industry is
environmentally sustainable. As an example, there are those who don’t
like fuel-efficient cars because they believe -- correctly -- that
they reduce the likelihood of private ownership of cars being
abolished overall. Of course, they don’t exactly go around parading
these motives when they appear on Meet the Press to argue that
rising gas prices are in fact a good thing. ("Gas prices are much
higher in Europe," they’ll say with a limpid gleam in their
eyes, as if that’s an argument for anything.) Needless to
say, though, adding such grays to the palette of stark Blacks and
Whites with which the script is sketched would be unthinkable.
- In an effort to lend tension to the ORB concept, Thorne resists
having to use it because if it doesn’t work, it might make the ozone
hole bigger. Huh? This concept is being introduced at about the forty
minute mark, out of the two hour (with commercials) running time. In
other words, we now know exactly where the film is taking us for the
next hour and twenty minutes: People will debate whether using the
bomb is wise, the effects of the ozone hole will become more severe,
they will decide they must take the chance, and the ORB will work.
There, you can turn off your TV now and do something useful.
- Expository Question Asking Guy points out that the ORB could be
delivered via a missile fired by a high-altitude jet. Pike confirms
that NASA would be glad to provide the plane. Hmm, now if they only
had access to a pilot…
- So they go to the storeroom (!) where the almost completed ORB
rests. Thorne mentions that they’ll have to make sure it’ll work,
alerting us to stand by for a boring Race Against the Clock to get the
device functioning before *yawn* it’s too late. Gee, I wonder
if they’ll make it.
- We cut back to the hospital were Racer went. Apparently Dr.
Hellstrom is also going to be a running character. Here we start
seeing the true ramifications of this dire situation. Literally twos
and threes of extras sporting burn make-up flood (in a very limited
sense; ‘moisten’ might be a more appropriate term) the emergency
room. After examining a patient for about zero seconds, she orders
"ten cc’s of morphine! Stat!" Needless to say, this
impenetrable medical jargon makes the scene come alive.
- In the film’s greatest lapse of taste, as opposed to its more
normal transgressions against intelligence, John’s boss watches a
news report on the dead fishermen as shown earlier. Noting the mildly
baked condition of the bodies, he notes "It’s like they went
back in time, to Hiroshima, 1945." No, actually, it isn’t. And
whoever wrote that line is a sick bastard. Screw you, sir, and the
horse you road in on. Your grotesque attempt to tart up your stupid
little movie with such a comparison reveals you to be insensitive
creep of the highest order.
- For absolutely no reason we can discern, in the middle of this
crisis and with her hospital purportedly jam-packed with victims of
the ozone hole, Dr. Hellstrom drops in to visit the recovering Racer
at home. Doesn’t she have anything better to do? And why is she
wearing a suit jacket? In fact, in almost every scene, someone’s
wearing a jacket. Despite this putative heat wave they keep prattling
about. I mean, Racer was wearing a bomber jacket (!) when he collapsed
from heat stroke. And it’s supposed to be north of 110º out! On top
of that, how come no one’s sweating?
- Anyway. She’s coming, I guess, to demand answers about what’s
happening. When he was brought in, Racer had mentioned the dead plane
passengers. This has aroused her suspicions, as there’s been zero
news coverage on this. I think they’re implying a news blackout on
the story, but by who? And if ‘They’ are trying to keep things a
secret, what about the just previously shown news coverage of the dead
fishermen? HELL-OOOO!!! And why is she asking this guy, anyway? What
would he know?
- As the news finally breaks, with everyone following John’s lead,
of course, Thorne is referred to on air as a "renowned
environmental scientist." A what? I always wonder why
there are so many more ‘famous’ scientists in movies than in real
life. Let’s see. Stephen Hawking. Uh…
- Thorne is quoted as saying that the animals affected by the hole
will "present humankind with horrors that are beyond the
imagination." (Not in this movie!!) Oh, but don’t panic or
- In one of the film’s more hilarious moments, which is saying
something, stock footage of a traffic slowdown on the expressway is
shown. This is meant to portray unprecedented frenzy as people
stampede out of town, or something, but I’ve seen worse traffic
while driving into Chicago after during rush hour. And I mean, much
worse traffic. Everybody’s moving at a nice steady clip here.
- Now come some riot scenes, or as much as they can do with the two or
three thousands bucks they’ve evidently been afforded here.
- The governor tells the Mayor that he’ll send in the National Guard
and also call the Pentagon, as this is "a national
emergency." How the hell is an ozone hole over Los Angeles a ‘national’
emergency? And do governors directly call the Pentagon in any case? It’s
under civilian (federal) command. Wouldn’t you call the White House,
and *they’d* call the Pentagon?
- Yawn, as if they haven’t dragged things out enough (and
running-time wise, I guess they haven’t), they give the Mayor an
obdurate advisor – a white guy, of course – to argue against the
ORB, even though he doesn’t know what it does. The Mayor agrees to
hear out Thorne anyway, but notes that Schiffren must take part, as he’s
"still the voice of authority." Now, considering that events
have proven him dead wrong, how could that possibly still be the case?
And since he presumably works for a NGO (a Non-Government
Organization; since we’ve heard his funding comes from commercial
concerns), who made him so? Wouldn’t NASA and The National Weather
Service, now wearing large quantities of yolk on their faces, have
stepped in directly by now?
- I’ll mostly skip over the boring "will we perfect the
device in time?" testing sequences, but there are a lot of
them, and they’re really boring.
- Now comes a mysterious sequence. Bees are invading the city, as
shown in a couple of really bad matte shots. Strike that, they use the
same one twice. They change the foreground but you can see the smudge,
er, bees, twice flying past the same buildings, minutes apart. Cripes,
what kind of shoestring budget did they shoot this on, anyway?
- Anyway, Elizabeth is in her car, which is stuck in the traffic jam,
and bees start pretty much spontaneously pouring through her a/c grill
(?). Oddly, we don’t see any bees outside, other than in the two
(well, one) matte shot(s), so I guess they’re all in her car. She
freaks and becomes the only person to try to drive out of the jam,
again, I guess, because the bees are only bothering her and aren’t
in anyone else’s car, or outside anyone’s else’s car, for that
matter. (If you look real close, you can see a couple of black dots on
the picture, which look like they were drawn in with marker. They do
show some pedestrians running around, but again, Elizabeth’s the
only one in a car being effected.) She drives into a horizontal metal
beam on a truck and decapitates herself in her panic. If I’m getting
this right, I think we’re supposed to ‘care.’
- Much like the birds earlier, the bees for some reason launch an
attack and then just go away. Their job here, I guess, is done.
- More very low-grade ‘riot’ scenes. Yawn. I like the bit when the
National Guard jumps from their convoy trucks, right out of The
Blue Brothers movie. Then, for some reason, a guy with a stolen TV
set runs right in front of them, which doesn’t seem an optimum
- They use video here to add a cinema vérité sort of feeling, but
more likely it was to save a couple of bucks. They obviously ran out
of money at some point. This montage goes on for a while and never
looks other then really fake.
- Jenny goes to visit Schiffren, apparently to try to get him on board
for using the ORB. Still proving to be a complete ass, Schiffren notes
that the device could "cause more harm than good," something
they keep having people say in a vain attempt to explain why the idea
is controversial. How could it hurt? Anyway, you can only laugh when
Schiffren continues that "I would no more encourage its use in
this situation than I would an atomic bomb!" Uh, yeah. Meanwhile,
he’s still pushing the ‘no hole’ thing, making the character
look unimaginably dumb. Claiming that "you’ve been lying so
long you don’t even know what The Truth is anymore," (yeah,
that’s the way to get the guy on your side), Jenny then smugly
accuses him of "selling your soul to the Devil," i.e.,
presumably, to *gasp* Big Business.
- How cheap is this movie? OK, we cut to some more riot stuff. If you
look close, you can see events occurring now that we earlier saw being
broadcast on a ‘news’ report in the Mayor’s office!
- Now comes another highlight scene. Jenny goes home and eventually --
got to build suspense, you know -- finds that a (sorta) huge mess of
bugs are all over where they clearly weren’t just a minute ago.
Apparently UV rays turns bugs into Ninja commandos. (Reminiscent of
the teleporting spiders that would appear underfoot the second the
camera cut away in Kingdom of the Spiders.) This is portrayed
in a series of escalations; there’s a spider on the counter, then a
worm in her coffee mug, then a bunch in a kitchen cabinet and then
lots of them on the floor. This is followed by the pièce de
résistance, where she moves a credenza and discovers bugs
literally pouring through an air vent. I mean, they look like they’re
being extruded from a prototypical Giant Play-doh™ Bug Factory.
Meanwhile, backing the tape up confirms that no bugs were visibly
present when the scene began one minute earlier.
- OK, I want you to think about this. You enter your house. Seconds
later, thousands of bugs magically appear all over the place. Even
ignoring their mystical properties, what would you do? If you answered
"leave through the front door I just came through, which is all
of three feet away," you’d be wrong. No, you’d hide in a
nearby closet and try to barricade yourself with a jacket under the
- Now, I don’t want to be mean. But who wrote this crap? I mean, in
less than ten minutes of screentime, the writers put one of the two
female characters in a car ‘filled’ (sorta) with bees. Does she
get out of the car? No. Counterintuitively, she attempts to drive away
from the bees (in her car) and dies. A bit later, the film’s other
female character finds her house ‘filled’ (sorta) with bugs. Does
she get out of the house? No. Counterintuitively, she attempts to hide
in the closet from the bugs (in her house) and is trapped. Can you
say, "Out of ideas?"
- OK, they cut back to the lab, where on the TV we see, I swear, the
same attack on the same store for a third time. Perhaps you’re
saying that "Well, Ken, maybe this is a replay of that vandalism
as caught on camera earlier." So then I guess it would be
nit-picky to point out when we saw the crime in ‘real’ time (quite
a while after we saw it on the Mayor’s TV), there were no news
- When Expository Question Asking Guy asks Thorne if the device will
work in this round of tests, he answers, "It has to work. We’ve
adjusted the chemical mixture, and now we need to create the right
aspersion rate." Uh, how does that second bit add up to "It
has to work"?
- Apparently having Jenny tell him off worked, because all of the
sudden Schiffren has a change of heart and starts helping out with the
ORB. I believe this is meant to be nuanced characterization, but
instead it just seems imposed by the script. Nothing we’ve seen or
been told about Schiffren would indicate the potential for this
transformation. Before he was a two-dimensional bad guy, suddenly he’s
a two-dimensional good guy. Whatever. Thorne, meanwhile, acts
increasingly like a petulant baby as the movie progresses. And why
does he keep sounding more and more like Steven Seagal? It’s getting
a little creepy.
- Schiffren has a high-altitude F5 jet to offer, he reveals, all
perfectly tricked out for this mission. (That’s convenient.) The
only thing he doesn’t have is a pilot for it. But, hey, Racer,
hanging around the lab, is an F5 pilot. (That’s convenient.) Of
course, earlier he was flying a rescue helicopter. Apparently, much as
movie scientists are conversant with all fields of science, movie
pilots are conversant with all flying machines. (That’s convenient.)
- Somebody mentions the temperature, which unsurprisingly leads to one
of those "Of course!! That’s the answer!!" Light
Bulb Moments™. "We change the temperature of the atmosphere
with the dispersion blast," Thorne realizes, "so we have to
put that in the test!" By George, it just might work!
- Cue dramatic music as they (sloow-ly) test Thorne’s theory.
And guess what, it works. There, I didn’t want to keep you on edge.
- Racer gets home, calls out for Jenny, and within twenty seconds is
looking in the closet (?). It can’t be because she made a noise,
because she’s found lying unconscious, covered with non-poisonous
wolf spiders – OK, one non-poisonous wolf spider -- and with
make-up blotches all over her. Racer grabs her. Of course, he doesn’t
leave the house, because humanity in this universe didn’t evolve
with that gene. Instead, he lays her on the bed three feet from the
closet, where luckily there are no bugs. For some reason, the bugs don’t
bother them anymore after this point.
- Rather than calling the hospital, Racer phones his buddy at the
National Guard hanger and tells him to send a "med-evac
unit." While he doesn’t say so, I think he wants that ‘stat!’
Of course, this appropriation of military equipment is breakin’ all
the rules (wow!), but that what friends are for.
- Actually, when we get to the hospital, someone does indeed say,
"Get in the ER, stat!" Man, that’s verisimilitude.
- The halls are jammed with what must be almost twenty extras. I hate
to say this, but they did a better job of the ‘victims clogging the
hospital’ thing in Steven Seagal’s The Patriot. You know
you’re doing something wrong when you come in second to that movie.
- Thorne gets a call regarding his sister, setting up an Emmy Clip™
moment for the stoic John Corbett, who goes so far as to appear mildly
bummed out. Bravo! Bravo!
- Then it’s Racer’s moment. Leaning close, he softly tells his
comatose fiancée, "Please, Jen, don’t leave me like this. Not
now. Not now." Hey, while you’re passing those Emmys around,
save one for the scriptwriters!
- Schiffren is signing off on the ORB thing, and we again go through
the "it’s not really a bomb" thing. Well, guess what then,
brainiac. Don’t call it one! The word ‘bomb’ tends to be a red
flag for a lot of people. Why are they subjecting Schiffren to this
third degree anyway? They’ve been telling us for the entire picture
that this has been his call and his alone.
- So they send a helicopter to get the ORB team. Only it’s so windy
they can’t hardly land. And time is so short! (This goes on
for almost a minute.) Will they make it? They do! Only…why then do
they easily take back off thirty seconds later, and with nary a
- OK, let’s cut to the chase. We’ve got about twenty minutes left.
(Reporter John shows back up here – he’s always around when
something important happens, like little Kenny in the old Gamera
movies.) First they milk the ‘preparing for the mission’ stuff.
Then it’s the ‘will they find and hit the ozone hole’ thing. The
shots of the jet climbing, by the way, are some of the shoddiest
effects of recent memory. I’m talking Clutch Cargo stuff
here. Considering this is the kind of thing they pull off in Gillette
‘Mach 3’ commercials only adds to the embarrassment. This all eats
up well over ten minutes, with the actual flight detailed at
excruciating length. Then we get the ‘the mission is successful, but
did Racer and Thorne make it out?’ bit. Needless to say, yes. (Sorry
to blow the surprise.) Then it’s the ‘cut to the hospital, Jenny’s
going to make it after all’ coda. Believe me, it’s a lot
more boring watching it than reading it.
- There are highlights, though. When John pops up in the control
tower, an understandably surprised Schiffren (who’s calling things
on the ground) growls, "How the hell did you get in here?"
John replies, "No way I’m gonna miss this. I was here at the
beginning, I’ll gonna be here at the end, no matter what."
Despite the fact that this in no way answers the question as posed –
I guess we weren’t supposed to notice that – Schiffren basically
just shrugs his shoulders rather then have the guy kicked out on his
- The jet has to fly higher than it’s rated for because, and I
quote, "The hole must be bigger than we figured. To get a proper
fix, we’re gonna need more altitude." If I’m deciphering this
correctly, the hole is harder to find because it’s bigger
than they thought. Huh?
- By the way, since they’re so close to the hole, why aren’t they
frying like those who earlier baked to death way down at sea level?
- Ah, it’s so nice when they save the best for last. And here they
do. So the ORB works, and the chlorine that’s sapping the ozone
layer has been neutralized. Now, we’ve been told, the layer can
"replenish" itself. And how long does it take the
hundred-mile-plus wide hole to close? By my count, roughly forty-five seconds.
Yep, it’s just that easy
- As Schiffren looks for the plane after the explosion, he holds his
binoculars in the most peculiar fashion. He hooks his thumbs under
each side, then holds up and fans out his fingers. I kept expecting an
announcer to say, "Cats…Now and Forever!"
- Why are the radio calls to the airplane also being played over the
base PA system? Oh, I guess that’s to explain why a bunch (sorta) of
extras come running out in celebration after they land.
- We end with a couple of text cards that inform us that there’s no
scientific reason that ozone thinning couldn’t in fact appear over
the continental United States. Well, duh. Oooh, how ominous. Besides,
why should we be worried? One quick flight and zap! the hole’s
quickly filled in. Thanks for that ORB thing, guys!
Apostical Insights (a.k.a.
Deep Hurting Impact) :
Sent: Sunday, July 16, 2000 1:52 AM
To: Ken Begg
Subject: (The Sky's on Fire)
Following your request, I watched The Sky's on Fire.
Matter of fact, I've just finished it. Man, I wish I'd had a blank VCR
tape for this one.
Don't know how you envision a future Nugget from those of
us who are responding, and since I don't have a copy of this feature to do
a detailed analysis, here are a few observations you may find useful.
First, the Good News
Thank God Ben "Crichton" Browder [Racer] was in
this. His smooth, laid back delivery during some banal scenes made this
thing almost tolerable. Plus some of the lab scenes were OK. Not perfect,
but OK. Therefore, I can't honestly say this movie is all bad. But some
parts are awesomely awful.
The First Act, and Things Go Downhill from There
Let's start with the initial plane crash. What the heck
is this? A neutron bomb ozone hole? It destroys people but not, for
example, aircraft? It doesn't even seem to mess with the sensitive
electronics on an airplane.
When Animosities Attack
Jo and I watched this thing together. Jo, as you know,
is from New Zealand, where they have an ozone layer depletion problem.
However, their everyday lives are not interrupted by homages to Day of
the Animals (1977), The Birds (1963), The Swarm (1978),
and Squirm (1976). No, they just produce some kick ass sailing
teams, rugby players, and filmmakers. Perhaps the ozone hole over NZ has
been a good thing.
One of the ozone hole problems in Kiwiland has been
sunburns, with an extra chance of skin cancer. However, a lot of the
people in this movie look like they could use a little more sun anyway, so
no great loss.
Regarding the unintentionally hilarious pigeon attack
in the office. Is THIS the only office they decided to attack? Come to
think of it, what is it with disasters like this? The earth's surface area
is nearly 200 million square miles. Why do these things always head
directly for the big cities, which make such a small fraction of that
When the woman's home is invaded by about two gallons
of earthworms coming through a ventilator, we're asking, what the heck?
Was she living over a bait shop? When she's bitten and stung into
submission by various arthropods, we ask, if they were driven to
aggression, why didn't they just attack each other? (Shoot, I was having a
Frogs (1972) flashback.)
Mild in the Streets
Later, we are shown panic in the streets as the
residents of Los Angeles evacuate. Traffic on the crowded freeways slows
to a halt. Frustrated people begin to run among the motionless cars.
Isolated examples of rage develop. Looks like a typical LA afternoon to
And then we get the looting in the streets. It struck
me as a tad racist, but "tad" grew into "hugely" when
they showed a lone Asian man guarding his storefront with a shotgun. King
riots, anyone? They spent a lot of runtime on these scenes. I question the
wisdom of these selections for padding.
Many of these riot scenes looked like they were shot on
video. I can't tell. Did they chose this medium because they wanted this
sequence to look as real as a documentary, or did they originally plan to
make this whole thing look like a documentary but changed their minds
after they shot these scenes, or were they just too cheap to shoot this on
The scientists are initially thwarted by a scientist in
a suit. You can tell he's a bad guy, because he wears a tie. And it's no
surprise he's sold out to The Great Satan, a.k.a. Big Business, and that
it would take a renegade in need of a haircut to save everyone.
Deus Ex Ballista
Lucky thing for everyone there just happens to be an
ozone "patch kit" bomb in the LA area, and they just happen to
be able to kit-bash it into an air-to-air missile, and they just happen
know someone with an F-5 Tigershark who can launch it. (Who else were they
going to get? Admiral Nelson and the Seaview?) And, of course, this fixes
the problem in about a minute. Think about it. This huge thing would've
taken decades to form, and presto, gone in sixty seconds.
To call the acting and dialog in the opening scene stilted is to give
the people too much credit. For one thing it assumes they are actors.
Ultraviolet light does give you sunburn, but does it actually scald
your hands? And how did it get into the plane anyway? Glass is opaque to
"Lethal CFCs"? Obviously a scientific paper he's working on.
It's over 100 degrees and Evan [Thorne] is wearing a corduroy jacket.
He is the best in his field, assuming his field is dressing
I like how hard everyone explains what everyone should already know
just to establish that Evan is a good scientist.
It's kind of funny how the oceanographer [Elizabeth] would pick just
the right cause out of her hat when listing possibilities for the
beaching. Almost like she read the script or something. The reporter
even repeats it and then she dismisses it as "just a theory."
The pilot informs the base he thinks he's got something. It's obvious
from the air it is a crashed plane. How many crashed planes does he
think are in the area?
After checking the plane he uses the hand radio and ignores the
helicopter's radio. When the hand radio doesn't seem to be working he
gives up and wanders off on his own. Hey, stupid, at least try the
helicopter's radio. Actually, it's a bit odd he'd be using the handheld
at all, they don't exactly have great range (25-30 miles over water if
"Our data is nice, but skeptics don't have any use for it."
I've seen movies where the clues were ignored by the skeptics, but this
is the first time I've ever seen the hero give up before he even tried.
This is especially prophetic given how he will be trying to convince
everyone of the danger with gut instinct later.
When the rescue pilot finds the plane crash victims (how did he know
which way to go? Why did he abandon his helicopter anyway?) their faces
are covered with red splotches. Now, since we know the premise of the
film, we know they died of exposure to UV light, but what the hell
killed them? UV light can cause a bad sunburn, but a sunburn bad enough
to make your nose bleed? And why were the victims too stupid to get out
of the sun? We already know they were blinded, not a good state to be in
and wander off into the desert. I guess I can understand why the pilot
is near fainting though. It's over 100 degrees and he's still wearing a
heavy flight jacket.
Well, let's see, the mayor is black (i.e. a minority) so he must be a
good guy, and he's willing to joke with his aides about opening the
window (a regular joe) but he doesn't see the point in spending $6000 to
"cool a bunch of librarians." Either he's an insensitive prick
(librarians don't deserve to have fans in 100+ degree weather) or an
idiot (he literally does not see the point in making a library cool so
that people working there don't collapse from heat exhaustion). Either
way I have to wonder how he got elected.
"He's been telling people for years what a disaster it would be
if the Earth's ozone layer eroded completely." I just wanted to
quote that because it demonstrates some interesting oddities about this
universe. For one, most people have no idea what the ozone layer does,
not even other experts in the field. For another, people in this world
are so dumb they have to be told for years what many in our world jumped
on the first time they heard it. Hell, CFCs were banned before anyone
even actually made a firm connection between them and ozone depletion.
Go to any aerosol can in your house. If you look at the bottom of the
label you will see that they use hydrocarbons for propellant, and many
even specifically put a notice that CFCs are not used.
Here we are introduced to the villain of the piece [Schiffren]. Not
directly, instead the hero describes him for us. Oddly, in this universe
CFCs are still used. On second though, Evan never says they are used. He
does say that when he talked about the companies that make Styrofoam
(oops, Dupont trademark infringement here, he means polystyrene) and
aerosol cans, his partner (aka the bad guy "TBG") would get
bent out of shape. Perhaps because he knew CFCs are not used anymore.
Somehow they seem to have confused the ozone layer and the greenhouse
effect (gee, how could a Hollywood scriptwriter do that) since the
crashed plane victims were "baked alive". Um, how would UV
rays do that exactly?
The doctor seems to have some very plot specific procedures in place.
They want to check to see if Racer’s immune system is damaged, but
why? Do they do that with all sunstroke victims? And, aside from the
need to keep the plot moving, what doctor is going to risk a lawsuit by
letting a patient leave when she doesn't even know what's wrong with him
We finally meet the bad guy for real. Oddly, aside from feeling the
good guy is wrong he doesn't seem that bad. He even warns the reporter
that if he goes off with half a story there could be a riot as people
flee the city, and goes to check the radar data himself. Well, he does
have a very nice office . . . the bastard. [Editor Ken:
I have to interject here, because Kurt somehow failed to add that
Schiffren also sports a nice suit – further sign of his general
evilness. You know, now that I think of it, he’s always in his suit
jacket until he suddenly turns into a good guy, after which point he’s
only shown in his shirtsleeves. So much for our ‘joke.’]
Now, let me get this straight. This happened once before, but TBG
suppressed the report. Why? Evan seems to think he profited from it, but
I have no idea what profit that could possibly make. And apparently no
harm occurred because of this (he wouldn't speak so casually about
Evan's "alarmist friends" if people died) so maybe Evan is
being absurd even in this alternate universe.
Now I love this line. TBG says that if they called an alert every time
there was an ozone thinning the "world economy would collapse,
there would be chaos." Evan immediately says "Money! Money? Is
that all you and your cronies think about?" Err, how exactly would
crashing the world economy and starting rioting help people? And it's
not even like he was even worrying about his own stocks, he was talking
about the expense of transporting millions of people around every other
week. TBG’s response of laughing was completely reasonable.
Now, maybe they were trying to go for this image, but the scene where
Evan meets the mayor gives the impression Evan is a complete loony and
the mayor is unreasonably patient with him. The mayor points out how
difficult it is to evacuate 6 million people in three days (and to
where?) and that there is no evidence the ozone hole is actually
dangerous. Evan resorts to hyperbole and pointing out the window. BTW,
why not just tell people to stay inside?
Okay, so we have a boat full of sailors too stupid to use sun block.
They all die but one, who, instead of retreating below deck, stumbles
out in the sun and screams "somebody help me" at the ocean.
With a crew this dumb it was just a matter of time anyway.
Now apparently UV rays do everything imaginable to the body.
Hallucinations? Blindness? Central nervous system malfunction? Food
contaminated? With UV rays? Aren't they used to sterilize food?
Did the author know that a tanning bed produces UV light? How come
people aren't hallucinating and dying from infections every time they
visit the tanning parlor? What kind of an idiot is this
"scientist?" I'd have fired him too.
That's an awful lot of pigeons. It's almost like they knew it was the
mayor's office. Assuming the bird disturbance even covers just the
building, with over twenty birds hitting the two windows in the mayors
office that would be ten per window, ten stories, about five thousand
Now the ORB is introduced. It's the only hope. And of course they must
convince Evan to try it by stroking his ego. This is followed
immediately by a stroll through the hospital. The pathos!
Funny how UV has somehow turned into gamma rays.
Plot sensing television. Like they'd repeat the full news report
immediately after saying it.
Now the news people are going to release the tape. The question is,
what's going to happen. Hmm, a panic? Who could have predicted that? Oh
yeah, everyone but Evan and the reporter.
Actually, the "mass exodus" looks pretty orderly. Hell, rush
hour on the LIE, even when there isn't a panic, looks worse than that.
The mayor's assistant should win an award for overacting.
The CGI people forgot to draw in the bees. It's kind of funny seeing
all these people reacting to a swarm that isn't there. Also strange to
see that the only people reacting to the bees are those in the center of
the camera. Everyone else is just sitting around.
A fortuitously placed beam decapitates our first bee victim (well,
okay so she never showed anything more than annoyance at the bees).
I assume the National guard arriving on the scene was not supposed to
be an homage to the swat team arriving at the end of The Blues
Brothers but that's sure what it looks like (okay, so they shout
"go" instead of "hut").
These are, by far, the worst looters I've ever seen. The run right up
to the National Guard marching forward with rifles presented and the
looters mime pushing them. Surprisingly, this doesn't work.
(Um, my notes here got lost, so it's going to be sketchy)
Wow. Maybe the author realized that TBG was acting reasonably
throughout the entire film, and decided to have him reexamine the data
and offer assistance just in case the problem was real.
Evan's sister does not show the intelligence one would normally
associate with a mayor's assistant. The front door is about two feet
from the closet she hides in. And so far the insects have done nothing
more serious than look gross. And most importantly, uh, it's night
outside. Why would the UV be affecting them now? Perhaps this is the UV
contamination Evan had talked about before.
Just once in the real world I'd love to have someone make an off-hand
comment that resulted in my discovering the source of a problem. It has
yet to happen to me, but for some reason it happens every other day in
Why would a reduced immune system make a person more susceptible to
spider bites? Wouldn't removing poison be a job for the liver?
Now, why in the hell is Evan going up with the missile. Because he's
the expert? Not on missiles, and if something goes wrong he isn't going
to climb out and fix it. Well, in this movie maybe he is.
Why does he need to keep climbing higher to get a fix on the ozone
hole? TBG is directing him to it pretty accurately. Why stress the plane
for no reason and risk the only solution currently available?
Of course the hole closes. Surprisingly in about 30 seconds.
Okay, for some reason the radar stops working. Up until now they have
known the planes precise position, but suddenly the plane is spotted
visually without anyone seeing it on radar. And why didn't they respond
by radio until now?
I love this scene by the way: TBG picks up the binoculars and looks
out through them and jumps startled. A shot of the plane approaching.
TBG scans the horizon and suddenly stops, startled (again). A shot of
the plane closer. TBG looks hard though the binoculars and suddenly
jumps, startled a third time. What the hell did he keep jumping at? My
guess is he never saw binoculars before and was amazed by how they
Okay, the plane taxies in and a crowd forms jumping and shouting in an
unconvincing way while the two people get out. As the people walk away
the crowd stays around the plane still cheering. I guess they are
cheering the plane since any normal crowd would follow the people if
that were whom they were cheering.
-- Kurt vonRoeschlaub
So I’m working on this article and my friend and
comrade-in-arms Andrew Muchoney drops by. Since he’s there we sit down
to watch the movie at length, generating many of the above observations.
Then, when it was over, we were left with the same question we often are.
To wit, how is it even possible to make a movie this stupid by accident?
(I’m assuming it wasn’t on purpose.) It’s not that the film is
somewhat dumb, it’s actively, aggressively stupid. It’s not
like we’re expecting Citizen Kane here. But, yeesh.
I think this sensation was best summed up by in a
review by The New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael in regards to
1970’s Song of Norway: "The movie is of an unbelievable
badness; it brings back clichés you didn’t know you knew -- they’re
practically from the unconscious of moviegoers. You can’t get angry at
something this stupefying; it seems to have been made by trolls."
(Boy, I’d die happy if I ever craft one sentence that
perfect. Thanks to the Medved brothers for including the quote in their The
Golden Turkey Awards.)
So, is it inevitable that when crafting a low-budget
made-for-TV movie it need be this bad? The answer was provided the
following week on the same network, ABC, when they showed Ice,
another disaster flick. Was it great? No. Was it phenomenally smart? No.
But while it had a fair amount of flaws, they didn’t overwhelm the film.
Often, there were even surprisingly nice bits to compensate. In other
words, on its own modest terms, the film delivered. I couldn’t have
asked for a more apt rebuke to our primary object of attention.
Ice, as you might have guessed, is concerned with a
new Ice Age, brought on by a solar shift of some sort. This situation, we’re
told, will last between ten and thirty years. As most of the Earth becomes
more or less uninhabitable, we follow our cast as they try to escape south
from the remains of Los Angeles. (Again with the Los Angeles!)
Let’s start with the Bad Stuff:
- The irony of characters complaining about the California heat early
in the movie is a tad obvious.
- The hero, Robert, is a cop and ex-Navy Seal (for obvious ‘action
hero’ reasons). The bit when he chases Kelvin, a fugitive, through a
woman’s boxing match -- don’t ask -- and gets decked by them is a
lame piece o’ comedy.
- Robert visits his ex-wife Julie so as to see their son Max on his
birthday. Sure enough, Tyson, Julie’s new husband, is an obvious
wimpy intellectual type. How obvious? Cripes, the guy’s decked out
like Trotsky, complete with bad beard, sweater vest and eyeglasses.
The guy has even made Max a birthday tart (!) instead of a cake. He
also is fastidiously irritated by the barking toy dog that Robert
brought Max. Could they play this any harder? Oh, and Julie is a
defense attorney who naturally gets the scum Robert arrests back out
on the street. Oh, brother.
- The bit with panicked crowds at the airport after all the flights
have been cancelled due to weather is nice, but the guy who goes nuts
with a gun is too over the top.
However, here there’s also some Good Stuff:
- Weird character actor Udo "Johnny Mnemonic" Kier
plays Kessler, the scientist who first figures things out. While I’m
sure he’d prefer to be appearing in real movies (as he did early in
his career), his presence here ensures us some enjoyable
- The fact that the disaster is entirely natural in origin is an extremely
welcome change of pace, as we can skip all the overstuffed political
axe-grinding and pompous moralizing.
- When you take a close look at The Sky’s On Fire, not much
really happens. Here, almost the entire darn planet freezes over. Now that’s
ambitious. And if the matte paintings and miniature models used to
established this are sometimes obvious, well, at least they provide a
whole lot of them, including shots of snow-shrouded Washington, Paris,
Rome and London. They’re really trying to come through here.
- About three or four minutes into the movie and the odd weather has
already begun to make its presence known (although there’s a
progression, too, it just doesn’t start snowing out of nowhere).
Unlike The Sky’s On Fire, things here move at a nice fast
clip. Some of the storm shots as the initial front begins to hit Los
Angeles are decent, too.
- The bit where the cops and Kelvin stop in their tracks as snow
begins falling is modest, but nice.
- After the laughably convenient ORB device, it’s pleasing to hear
Kessler being asked "What can we do to head this thing off?"
and have him reply, "Nothing."
- I like the nonchalant way that Robert is told to sign for 50,000
body bags when on airport duty. They certainly aren’t pulling any
punches. (An on-location reporter is later noted as having died in a
building collapse soon after reporting hundreds of thousands of deaths
up north.) The introduction of a heavy all-terrain vehicle is a little
- As the President prepares to abandon the country to head south, he
mournfully looks upon a portrait of Washington and notes that at
Valley Forge they survived with rags and a few blankets. Not only is
this an actually apt historical reference, but you can see it being
made by the guy in this situation. Too bad they step on it with some
overly intrusive music, but still.
- Some extremely nice moments occur when the nearly-frozen Robert
shows up after the collapse of civilization at Julie’s
well-appointed house. Designed by Tyson, an architect by trade, the
place still has heat and electricity, and they are living as though
nothing much has happened. Robert’s reaction to the surreal aspects
of this situation are well-played. Especially well done is his
spotting, through the heavily falling snow, of Tyson swimming in the
house’s still-heated backyard pool. This is well enough filmed that
it does initially come off like a hallucination. Also, it’s just a
momentary bit, but I laughed when Tyson handed Robert a glass of wine
(misinterpreting Robert’s reeling sensation of how bizarre this
oasis is, he attempts to reassure him by nodding and noting "It’s
Merlot") and then tossed him a coaster when he started to put it
down on the table. This small gesture nicely summed up the unreality
of how they were living.
- Moreover, Tyson’s obvious nerdy qualities are set up to eventually
be subverted. With the party forced outside when the house’s power
fails, Robert eventually comes to term with the fact that the guy is
in fact a better husband for Julie and, if something were to happen to
himself, even a potentially good father for Max. This
better-than-usual characterization works across the board. Robert, our
hero, is occasionally a bit of an asshole. Even Kessler, who comes off
at first as your stock Mad Scientist, finally just emerges as an
extremely selfish prick. The characters have what seem to be stock
characteristics, but in the long run they aren’t purely defined by
them. They actually come off more like people than archetypes.
Anyway, at this point we’re less than an hour into
the picture and it’s already blowing The Sky’s On Fire away,
not that that’s much of a feat. In fact, the film is so good -- without
being great or anything -- that it’s use as a comparison piece began to
fade. I thought I could point to it and say, "See? Competent
filmmaking in this genre is possible." Instead, the film transcended
competent to become surprisingly good. Sadly, this might be because it was
originally telecast in Germany. Maybe their audiences demand better
schlock than we do. Also, to be fair, the film clearly had a larger budget
than The Sky’s on Fire. Not that we should read too much into
that. It still was obviously made for a fraction of what Volcano or
Dante’s Peak cost, yet it’s better than those flicks too.
Ultimately, you wonder if the people who produced our
main subject saw Ice and viewed it with any sense of embarrassment.
The latter shows that, even at this late date, it’s still possible to
churn out an interesting and well-crafted genre effort. Too bad nobody
connected with The Sky’s On Fire thought to do so.