Nature Unleashed: Earthquake (2004)
Good day to you all, today I'll be reviewing a relatively recent late-night cable disaster movie about a nuclear reactor in peril from an earthquake (and the women who love it). This was one in the series of "Nature Unleashed:" movies churned out in 2004 by the fine folks in Canada and Eastern Europe, quickly made with d-list actors and minimal script editing to cash in on what was surely a rampant un-met need for crappy disaster movies in that year (I guess, I can't remember last week, let alone 2004). Other movies in this group were N.U.: Fire, N.U.: Volcano, N.U.: Tornado, and N.U.: Avalanche. I have all these on DVD, but after watching Nature Unleashed: Earthquake, I'll be darned if I watch the others without a large gun to my head.
On to the show!
We open at the "Kasursk Nuclear Reactor" somewhere in Russia (a made-up name, google gives you nothing but links to this film). To save money, our movie was filmed in Belarus and Lithuania, both former members of the old and crusty Soviet Union. It must blow to live in Eastern Europe or Russia these days, what with all the rampant corruption, poverty, and decay making day to day existence miserable. In a lot of ways I bet many people wish for the return of the old authoritarian Soviet rulers, if only because the trains ran on time and vodka was cheaper. But hey, at least they have the internet now so they can sell their daughters to rich American perverts!
Kasursk Nuclear Reactor.
Let's meet Rachel, an American safety expert working on a major remodel of the Kasursk reactor plant. Rachel is played by 40ish Jacinta Mulcahy, who has done exactly nothing worthwhile in the acting trade, but she is fairly attractive and has pretty hair and looks cute in a blouse and suit (smart women both titillate and frighten me). She will prove to be our movie's Strong-Willed Female Lead (who, of course, will show a propensity to completely cave to the whims of whatever man is around during a crisis situation) and gets most of the best lines in the script (which isn't saying much).
There are earth tremors in the area (as is really the case with much of Asia) and we see a mild one shake, shimmy and cause things to fall over in the plant. Rachel picks herself up after the tremor is over and calls around to see if everyone is fine. They are, but it's clear that the plant is not built up to code, so to speak, and we have ominous signs that it's not a wise move to put your life savings into Kasursk Reactor Inc. stock. All this, mind you, even though the Russian plant managers insist that their building was designed to withstand an 8.5 on the Richter scale, which just seems preposterous. "This is Russian engineering!" they boast to Rachel (but, then again, so is the Zaporozhets car, the Tu-144, the Lefortovo Tunnel, and t.A.T.u's second studio album).
A guy hides in a hole as the tremor subsides (or maybe he's just hiding from this movie).
Off now to Los Angeles, California to the corporate offices of the company that is remodeling the Kasursk reactor (oh, yeah, the plant is owned by Americans, because, like, we do stuff better with money and stuff). We now meet Josh, who is the corporation's enforcer, so to speak, who they send to projects that are lagging behind schedule or are over-budget (or both) and fix it. Josh is played by Finton McKeown, a Scot who I've never seen before (and judging by his imdb resume, I'm glad I haven't suffered that bleeding-out of my senses) and whose sole claim to fame may be an absofuckinglutely awesome name that just screams groggy Scottish golfer in a kilt.
Josh is sent to Russia to do some fact finding on the slow remodel and bust some heads if needed. It's said that he has the full weight and power of the funding corporation behind him, so whatever he says is straight from God. However, other than his first scene in the reactor, it seems like Josh doesn't use his authority at all, and even seems like he's powerless to dictate to the plant managers (don't they have cellphones or email or anything that Josh can use to call in the dogs on these recalcitrant Rooskies?). Right from the airport Josh meets the Plant Manager, who looks and acts like Mister Burns from The Simpsons.
Josh and Rachel meet in the control room and there are instant sparks. In an extraordinary coincidence (yawn), they used to be married! After an acrimonious divorce and surely lots of child support checks later, Josh is a beaten-down man but is still secretly pining for Rachel (yawnyawnyawn! Crap! Why can't there ever be a movie where the ex-married leads just hate each other and don't secretly want to get back together?). Oh, and how the heck did Josh not know she was here at this plant in Frozen Monkey, Russiastan? He was sent here specifically to "check up on the progress of the remodel", but he never bothered to look up the name of the person in charge of the remodel? Don't you think her name would have been somewhere in some file he would have to read? I hate this movie.
Josh and Rachel talk about stuff and things, like how much she wants to push him under a bus.
We meet Rachel's two kids (also Josh's) who live with her in Russia, attending the "American Academy of Russia". The 18ish son is Dylan, a lanky pretty boy who starts out concerned more with getting laid and riding motorcycles and ends up being the Swoony Hunky Action Hero of the film. The 15ish daughter is Cherrie, who is all Gothy and angsty, wearing pale make-up and insisting that everyone call her "Raven". Oh, and Dylan has a black friend named Muddy, who speaks with a horrid fake Jamaican accent and dresses like Ziggy Marley, who provides completely unnecessary comic relief. Trust me, Nature Unleashed: Earthquake is not a movie that needs unnecessary comic relief (it needs a mercy shot to the back of the head).
We need to somehow connect with the Josh and Rachel characters, so we can feel their pain, understand their suffering, hear their fast-beating hearts as they fight and love, struggle and rejoice. Though, let's be real here, we don't give a damn about them. Anyone who is watching a movie called Nature Unleashed: Earthquake on a late-night cable station on a Tuesday at 11:30pm is fully aware of what utter crap they are watching. I would bet that maybe one half of one percent of viewers tuned in to watch the emotional development and relationship renewal of the lead characters, the other 99.5% of us just want to see earthquakes destroying cities and stuff blowing up (and hopefully some nekkid chicks). If I'm off base on this, if you really watch these made-for-SciFi Channel movies for the characters, then please correct me, but I don't think I'm wrong. That said, this movie does put an enormous amount of time (though not really an equal amount of effort) into making us care about Josh and Rachel and their busted/simmering love.
They also have (more pressing) problems at the nuclear plant, which is a shoddy-built death trap run by uncaring, incompetent fools with horrid Yakov Smirnov accents. [Editor Pam: That part is somewhat accurate, from what I've been told by nuclear engineers who've been to real Russian nuclear plants, but they're not as bad as this one.] Josh and Rachel find numerous grave safety issues (including that "the foundation is disintegrating", which strikes me as important) but Mister Burns wants to go ahead with his own arbitrary timeline for reactivation. They try and warn Mister Burns, but he just scoffs off their concerns and slicks back his oily hair and adjusts his ill-fitting cheap suit. Again, why doesn't Josh have authority to override his decisions? He just seems to shrug his shoulders and say "oh well" after putting forth minimal effort. He needs to find a telephone, they have those in Russia, right?
Checking out a foundation crack.
And since the title of our movie includes the word "earthquake", it comes as no surprise that we now have an earthquake. Not wanting to disappoint the audience (who didn't come here to see people talking about divorce and alimony payments), we have some long, long, brutally Bataan-like long, long scenes of the quake smashing through the region. It's a mix of unconvincing camera-shaking while people fall down and stock footage of buildings being demolished, spiked with insert shots of under-budget CGI and fuzzy-edged blue screens, and it goes on forever (and ever). We've all seen earthquake movies, bigger and better than this, and there is nothing here that strikes me as unique or new to the genre. And why is it that only old crappy 1960s cars crash into fissures or fall off shattered bridges? Why not that brand new Mercedes there? Oh, yeah, that would break the film's meager on-location budget (already stretched thin by the director's frequent trips to the "unsavory" areas of Vilnius).
1967 Chevy truck, hope he has earthquake insurance.
After it's over, the dust settles and we have a chance to reconnect with our cast. Josh is fine, his hair was barely mussed and he's now in the control room of the reactor. Rachel was trapped on a collapsing elevated walkway, but thanks to the miracle of stuntwomen and composite special effects, she was able to pull herself up and make it back to the control room (after saving some dude's life to show us how awesome she is). Dylan was at school, he's ok, but Raven was out skipping school when she was caught by her Hot French Teacher (who is pretty cool about it, though I wonder why she's not in school either). They were on a subway train when the earthquake flattened the tunnels, and now they are trapped.
There are a fair number of handy translation cards, as the locals all speak Russian dialects.
Now things are really bad at the plant. The earthquake caused a runaway reactor core, which will melt down in about an hour and explode in a nuclear fireball that will make Chernobyl seem like a firecracker in an anthill ("100 times worse", says Mister Burns, though he has no data to back that assertion up). The cooling system is damaged, the emergency cooling system is also broken, the emergency double-emergency cooling system wasn't installed correctly, and there is no way to cool down the reactor in time!. Various men run around shouting things like, "The coolant basin must have run dry!" and, "Safety backup has failed!". Rachel is the only one who knows "the new codes!", but she's hanging from a ladder over a chasm of flaming masonry and steel! Oh snap! [Editor Pam: Um, no. Granted that the Russian nuclear reactors are not the best in the world, they are still designed to shut down automatically in case of an earthquake. I could go into lengthy and boring detail about how this is done, but I'm guessing nobody started reading this review hoping to learn about nuclear engineering.]
All these numbers are bad, right?
Once Rachel is saved, Mister Burns tries to kill off that pesky safety-loving bastard Josh by trapping him down below in the reactor when he goes to check on the core. Oh, don't worry, Mister Burns gets his comeuppance later as Rachel punches him in the eye and a chunk of I-beam falls on his car. Josh and a few guys manage to escape certain death by using a blow torch and a fire extinguisher to shatter some fireproof glass (a McGuyverish trick which even Josh amusingly admits, "I did not think that would work").
Falling I-beam exacts cosmic revenge on the bastard plant manager (Karma's a bitch).
The planet is about to get a lot more radioactive! Ah, but then they realize that they can divert water from a nearby reservoir (zillions of gallons of icy cold water should do the trick). The subway system in town runs right to the reactor complex, and they plan to use it as a watercourse. Rachel tells a flunky at a computer to "Pull up the subway schematics." And he does so, in like five key strokes! Seriously! I can't find my ass on Google in less than an hour and this guy pulls up a subway map in a tenth of a second. The reservoir is 10 klicks away, and it will take just 5 to 6 minutes for the water to reach the reactor (which is now at 470 degrees and climbing, just 45 minutes until ultra-boom!). As soon as the subway tunnel is cleared they will open the flood gates and save the world.
Subway schematics, looks like DC.
Down in the crushed subway tunnels, Raven and the Hot French Teacher have a heart-to-heart girl talk about just what the holy fuck is wrong with Raven. I don...er, the Hot French Teacher doesn't understand the twisted appeal of the whole Goth thing, the shitty livejournal poetry about how no one understands them, the arrogance towards anyone who is popular or who wears pastels, the maxed-out credit cards at Hot Topic, the 50 pounds of chains and piercing, and the lack of interpersonal skills. Seriously, who can we blame for the Goths? The Sisters of Mercy? Siouxie and the Banshees? Sid Vicious? England? Horace Walpole? Someone we can take out back and shoot in the face?
Two chicks? Two dudes? A chick and a dude? None of the above? Help?
Moving on, we see a gas station in the center of the city as people run around like crazy, a pump is spewing gasoline out onto the ground, where it runs down into a nearby drainage grate. Wait, the gas is just coming from a single nozzle left unattended on the ground? The streets are crowded with cars and trucks fleeing the city, we see them in the background, but no one needs gas? No one is at this filling station to flip the emergency cut-off or just pick up the damn hose? Russia sucks. Anyway, the gas leaks down through the sewers to miraculously come gushing down exactly over the spot where Raven and the Hot French Teacher are hanging out. A fire starts, they have to move, and thus they are left behind as the tunnels are declared clear.
Sumabitch, just pick it up!
Meanwhile, Josh and two random Russian flunkies are still down in the impacted bowels of the reactor, trying to work their way up as aftershocks rattle the area and cause the camera to jiggle and sway. Because this is a cheap disaster movie using the dog-eared playbook from The Towering Inferno, we have the obligatory "elevator shaft scene" (so so old...), where they have to climb up the sides of the shaft to escape. Predictably, the elevator car becomes unstuck and squashes one flunky, but Rachel arrives just in time to save Josh and the other guy (named Viktor, of course, because according to Hollywood, all men in Russia are named either Ivan, Viktor or Vladimir.).
In the shaft.
Dylan shows up at the reactor on his motorcycle with report of sister Raven being trapped in the subway tunnels (an earlier insert shot showed him being told as much by a transit cop with a near photographic memory for faces and a complete lack of scale). Josh and Dylan must race to save her as the countdown ticks down to the moment when they will have to open the flood gates or the reactor will nuke out. Rachel is beside herself, but Josh says to trust him. She yells at him, "Trust you? Like you used to say before you left us!?!", which may be true, but doesn't really matter at this point and seems rather dumb. Josh yells back, "I won't let you down! Ever!" Family drama!
The tension has me at the edge of my seat!
More drama as Rachel hovers over the "release the water" button, watching the clock as it ticks down to the "moment of no return", when she has to flood the tunnel no matter where Josh and the kids are. She must weigh this loss of her family against the certain deaths of millions and the contamination of most of the Asian landmass, a heck of a lot of pressure for anyone to make. Would I decide any different? Would you? Has anyone in history had to make this choice?
This guy, who may be Paul McCartney, can't help Rachel make her choice, no one can.
Finally the moment arrives and she has to make the choice and the water comes rushing down the tunnels from the reservoir. Rachel needs to open doors to containment unit to let water in, however, but there's a computer malfunction! "Reset the mainframe computer!" someone yells, which apparently is as easy as pulling out the circuit board and randomly touching things. Some sort of resistor has fried and they need to "bypass it" with something metal about an inch wide! And here we learn that Rachel has kept her wedding ring hidden on a chain around her neck all these years (awwww, love conquerors all!) and she uses it to bridge the circuit in the nick of time. The containment unit doors open, the water floods in and the temperature drops precipitously. Crisis averted! And apparently Mother Nature decides she's done screwing with Russia and stops the aftershocks instantly.
Using her ring to save the world (I keep my old ring in a box in my closet).
Meanwhile, Josh and Dylan are off after Raven and the Hot French Teacher, racing against time. You've seen this before. We have dark, murky tunnels, we have flashlights and flickering emergency lights, we have guys shouting alternately, "We can't go on!" and "We have to!", we have suspenseful rock music on the soundtrack and frequent foleyed-in crashes and creaking, and we have enough jump cuts and quick edits to give lab rats seizures. Just as the waters come rushing in, the guys pull the gals out of the wrecked subway car and to safety.
Saving the women from the tunnel.
The ending is wall-punchingly predictable, with everyone reconnecting and hugging and gazing wistfully and all that furious rot. Raven decides she wants to be normal again, going back to "Cherrie", wearing more earthy khakis, putting all her Fields of the Nephilim CDs on craigslist, and replacing her Robert Smith posters with Justin Timberlake posters. Dylan just wants a new motorcycle (kids!). Josh and Rachel kiss and get back together, of course, walking off hand in hand as the credits roll and my stomach churns with a queasy bowel earthquake of my own. It looks happy enough, but sadly, whatever problems caused them to divorce in the first place will surely come back and they will end up apart again in six months.
By the way, can you believe there is actually a short documentary film entitled Up Close with the Cast of Nature Unleashed: Earthquake? Who the heck would want to see the behind-the-scenes making of this turgid log? Other than me, that is.
[Editor Pam: Just a few points about the problems with the scenario presented in the movie:
How long has Rachel been at the reactor, anyway? If she's been there long enough to put her kids in school, she should have learned about the problems with the cooling systems. Even without an earthquake, with the cooling systems in as bad a shape as the movie says, it's a question of when, not if, serious problems will arise. Good practice would require her to order the reactor shut down until the cooling systems are repaired and work properly, and any other major safety concerns are fixed. If she can't get the order carried out, the best thing for her to do would be to document the problems, walk off the job, and head for her home office. No kidding, even if she doesn't care about the safety of the staff or the local population (or her own since she's right there), if something goes wrong, she's going to be the first to be blamed, and almost certainly her career is over. Nobody will want to hire a safety expert who let safety concerns of this magnitude slide.
Why is Josh being such a wimp about exercising his authority? The safe operation of the reactor should be of the utmost concern of the American company that owns it, because they are certainly going to get sued if people are injured or killed as a result of the reactor. I'm sure the company has heard of Bhopal.
Finally, it's only fair to say that this movie paints an overly-bad picture of Russian nuclear power plants. From what I've been told, the reactor designs are usually not inherently safe because often the primary aim was to design them to produce as much weapons-grade fissionable material as quickly as possible. The Russians also tried to save money when designing them, which is why the Chernobyl reactor didn't have a containment building. They are often shoddily built, which is typical of all Russian construction. The staff is frequently poorly trained, most of them knowing what buttons to push but not what they do. This poor training is what actually caused the Chernobyl accident, when the staff carried out experiments that violated approved procedures for operating the reactor, not knowing that what they were doing was dangerous. But problems of the magnitude shown in this movie were not tolerated, as far as I know, and certainly nothing like this ever happened.]
Bonus!: A quick scour of the internet via the all-seeing eye that is Google provides further proof that living in Russia nowadays is not for me...
You know, maybe I've been a bit too hard on the fine Slavic folks who live in the nations of the former Warsaw Pact. Perhaps there are indeed some reasons why I would move to live there myself...
Oh. Hell. Yeah!
Yep, I could live there.
Written in May 2009 by Nathan Decker and edited by Pam Burda.
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