Countdown: The Sky’s on Fire (1998)

Here we have a made-for-TV disaster movie that rips from the headlines (of 1998, we don't care anymore) a story about how man's folly will destroy the world. It's also apparently about whales, mullets, jet fighter planes, race relations, pigeons, subsidized medical care, and Italian leather shoes (though not in any particular order). I wish I was making that up.

Let's get it on!

We open somewhere off the coast Southern California with a Cessna full of douchebag frat boys and bouncy-chested co-eds on the way to Mexico to drink beer. Suddenly, the sun's rays begin to hammer the plane! The skin on their hands melt, their vision goes blurry, and they complain about being really, really hot. The plane then disappears from radar.

Oh, no, not the frat boys!

A dashing young National Guard helicopter pilot puts on his leather bomber jacket and his CHiPs sunglasses and goes out to look for them. His name is Racer (no, seriously) and he's played by Ben Browder, who most of my readers will know as the Farscape guy (awesome show, shame on you if you haven't seen it).

Racer (no clue if this is just his nickname or if his parents hated him).

Racer flies out alone in a civilian Jet Ranger (uh, why not a Cali ANG Blackhawk, wasn't he called up by his Guard commander for this?), and it's predictable that he's the one to find the crashed plane out in the desert. While they survived the crash, the kids perished after being "baked alive" by the sun (see those red faces and hands, but try not to see those pale white necks and arms). A hot wind starts blowing as he radios in, causing him to squint his dreamy blue eyes as his hair is ruffled and the pages of the script are lost to the sea (explains a lot). Suddenly, the radio's out, and instead of staying with his helicopter until help comes (or, God forbid, flying away in said helicopter), Racer decides instead to wander off into the desert alone, searching for enlightenment, I presume. When eventually rescued, he's suffering from "first degree burns and dehydration", which left him lying moaning on a rock until they find him (to be honest, his "symptoms" don't sound any worse than what I got yesterday playing in the park with my kids, but what do I know). Of course, the fact that Racer kept his leather jacket on the whole time he was dying of heat stroke probably didn't do him any favors.

Racer in peril!

Meanwhile, a dozen humpback whales have beached themselves in downtown LA in the middle of the day. A small gaggle of Angelinos, each either holding a surf board or a bong, stand and point at where the director said they would later digitally insert a bad matte painting of beached whales. Organized Media Is Bad, we learn here, as only one television camera crew bothers to show up. Right, because a bunch of whales washing up dead on an LA beach isn't going to be front page news for a month (does this sort of thing happen a lot there, or is LA just a really jaded city?).

Whales on shore.

Into this scene appears a Reporter, disgraced by past indiscretions and looking for redemption, who digs for The Truth, fighting against his reluctant editors and the humidity's harmful effects on his curly hair-do. While his time on screen is short, the Reporter is the Voice of Honesty and Truth, as he alone seems to care enough to try and figure out what's up with all the dead whale carcasses lining half a mile of LA's prime beach real estate.

The Reporter gets the scoop.

The Reporter talks to oceanic scientist Elisabeth from the "National Oceanic Bureau" about these beached whales. She says that something is "not quite right" out in the oceans, and uses her on-camera forum to hammer home the very-real fear of humans poisoning our oceans with chemicals and nuclear sludge and McDonald's wrappers. Elisabeth comes across here as a smarmy knowitall, because she's The Only One Alive Concerned About The Oceans! The Reporter even goes to her lab (don't they all have labs?) and she continues to paint a dire picture about the state of the oceans. As well, she's somehow managed to do an autopsy on one of the stranded whales, run a complete biochemical analysis, and have the results back in about three hours (amazing, a human hospital can't give you blood test results in less than a week!). She says that the whales "starved to death", and that their immune system was almost completely destroyed. She thinks that "something" killed the krill and plankton that the whales ate, forcing them to beach themselves in starvation (huh?). She further blames it all on ozone depletion, but why didn't the whales just, you know, swim to where the radiation wasn't killing their food? It's not like whales have to stay in one little spot no matter what.

Elisabeth (in a rare moment of non-preachiness).

The only man who knows THE TRUTH is Atmospheric Scientist Evan Thorne, one of the world's leading authorities on ozone depletion. Thorne is played by lunky hunky John Corbett, he of the eternal scruff and shaggy hair. I will always have a soft spot for Corbett from his years on Northern Exposure, which is probably in my top five most favorite shows, but it's clear that he saw Countdown: The Sky's On Fire as little more than a series of weekly paychecks to cash and a chance to catch some surf time in between re-shoots.


Thorne is one of the oldest movie character types, a Maverick Scientist Working Against The System To Help Save A World That Only He Appreciates And Loves. He's the "established expert" on ozone depletion, of course, because "he wrote the book on it at the university…" Holy fuck, what does that even mean? The book on what? The only book on ozone depletion? A quick search on shows 174 books on that same subject, why is his any better? And if he's such a well-known author and the point-man in his field, why is he slumming around in wrinkled Dockers and actually making eye-contact with grad students, and not sipping Merlot and hobnobbing with political action committees?

He never should have dumped Carrie Bradshaw.

Thorne has a lab full of pointless minor characters who provide exposition, fawn over his awesomeness, compliment him on his hair, and get him coffee (in environment-killing Styrofoam cups, mind you…). Where is the funding for this lab coming from? University, corporate, or government, who is underwriting all this research and paying for all these Dell desktops and pocket pencil protectors? And why is it that all "movie labs" where the hero works are always cluttered like a flea market in Alabama? These are all (supposedly) professionals with PhDs, you'd think they'd clean the place up a bit. Predictably, later we see the labs of the Corporate Sell-Out Scientists are all clinically clean, austere places that look like Star Trek sets with nary a half-eaten Subway sandwich or a picture of Einstein's head photo-shopped onto Claudia Schiffer's body to be seen. Pam, what's your lab look like? [Editor Pam: The labs I've worked in have been kept pretty clean and uncluttered because a) you want space to work in without knocking anything over, and b) you don't want to spill acid on your laptop or your notes from last week's experiment. It looks as though it would be hard to gain access to some of those instruments if you actually wanted to use them, and that dewar sitting out in the middle of the floor is just asking to be tripped over. I don't see why the "established expert on ozone depletion" can't afford to have office space separate from his lab space, anyway. On the other hand, immaculately clean labs are also a bit unrealistic.]

The lab.

Thorne is called in by the lab to explain some freaky computer readings showing what appears to be a big-ass ozone hole off the coast of Southern California. Their data shows a massive increase in gamma rays and x-rays and Tampa Bay Rays and everyone at the lab is sure this is something potentially horrible. Thorne, showing a reserve that he loses by the next scene, is still unsure and demands several re-calibrations of the instruments, but the data still says they have a big problem. "That thing's headed straight for us!" one Pakistani lab tech warns, while a nerdy girl moans, "Skeptics have no use for data!"

Computer image, we get a number of these and they're pretty good.

Thorne's Sister just so happens to be an aide to the Mayor of LA (predictably, she couldn't work at a gas station or anything). We meet her at a council meeting where the topic is the recent heat wave in LA (never sure if this is supposed to be foreshadowing for the approaching ozone death, or just a typical summer in Southern California). We listen to the Mayor as he shoots down a request for (an outrageous) $6,000 for electric fans for the library. Fucking librarians, always think they own the world.

Thorne's Sister (Hey, it's Jane from Melrose Place!).

The Mayor doesn't have time for rebels like Thorne because he's all about his scientific advisor, Shiffren, the ultimate Corporate Scientist Guy. This guy used to work with Thorne back in the old days, but has now Sold Out To The Man And The All-Mighty Dollar (boo-hiss!). Corporate Scientist Guy runs the "Council on Atmospheric Research", who are the big boys on the block in the science community (apparently). We just know Corporate Scientist Guy is evil because he wears tailored suits and power ties, while pure-as-the-driven-snow Thorne wears flannel shirts, corduroy jackets, shaves infrequently, and has his hat on backwards, the standard uniform of all Loners Working Against The System (you know, the same System that provides 100% of his funding…). Corporate Scientist Guy is only concerned with profits and publicity, which is bad because, you know, science doesn't need publicity to get funding, people just naturally want to hand over huge chunks of budget to geeky guys in lab coats who work in underlit basement labs. But this movie's message is that Big Science Is Bad! Clearly, any scientist who actually wants to make a living, put his kids through college and have a nice house has Sold Out His Principles! A true scientist would be willing to risk it all to Expose The Truth. Yawn.

Corporate Scientist Guy.

And the truth in question? That a dreaded and much-feared ozone hole is approaching! And no one but Thorne and his crew of plucky lab geeks knows about it. Uh, how come no one else sees this? And does this hole have definite borders and structure, is it like an actual column of empty air stretching up through the layers of the atmosphere? Does it keep expanding? Why is it moving at all, with the lower-band winds, with the upper atmosphere's gravity-pulled swirling? How are NONE of the world's dedicated atmospheric/weather/radiation satellites detecting this? Oh, we know that Corporate Scientist Guy knows the truth surely, but he will hide the facts to save his reputation and the profits of his corporate backers. They (THEY! I point accusingly!) are all about keeping the global economy intact, hoarding resources, enslaving children, microwaving puppies, and deliberately suppressing NASA reports that show that humans are destroying the ozone with their wicked ways (how are they doing this to a government agency again?). Bastards.

Heat wave or no, if this was my commute every day, I'd go nuts.

The Mayor meets with Elisabeth and Thorne (who've become quite the buddy team) and Thorne tells him that the hole is a 100-mile wide window that lets solar radiation come right down like a searchlight (ok), and it's currently moving at 500 feet per minute across the Pacific, just three days from LA. The Mayor isn't that concerned, because Corporate Scientist Guy told him not to worry, and Thorne threatens to go public eventually. Hello, he should anyway! Jesus Christ man, how can you sit on this information when so many lives are at risk? Pick up the phone, call every news outlet in America, send an email to everyone in your inbox, stand on a freaking street corner with a sandwich board, something! It's criminal that Thorne just wants to sit in his lab and pout, whining about how Corporate Scientist Guy/The Man are holding him down and no one respects him. This goes for the twenty guys in Thorne's lab also, all of whom know about the hole coming, how can all of them just sit around and do nothing, saying, "Uh, well, Thorne struck out, so we might as well just go back to playing World of Warcraft until he tells us to do something."

Thorne meets with the Mayor (and he better have taken the bus to this meeting and not driven his car, hypocrite).

And what caused this ozone hole anyway? Are humans really to blame, as Thorne so vehemently states? Is Al Gore right? Have we caused this with our CFCs and our aerosol cans and our BMWs? How can this movie hammer us with guilt for our wasteful ways without explaining all the wasted energy and created refuse used to make this movie in the first place? Imagine the massive amount of public utilities expended to make Countdown: The Sky's On Fire, the electricity, the trash, the hairspray for the actresses, the diesel trucks for trailers, the chemicals for film stock, zillions of gallons of mineral water in plastic bottles, millions of Starbucks lattes in Styrofoam cups, hundreds of production crew and cast driving their cars around LA burning gasoline and leaking antifreeze. The total budget of this crappy movie could have been spent to make an actual difference somewhere, clean up some Super-Fund site, dig a hundred wells in Namibia, fund some actual real world lab doing ozone research for years. I digress.

On a positive note, Thorne's lab employs a cute Korean chick.

Anyway, out now to the strangely placid Pacific where a fishing boat's crew has apparently forgotten how to walk down the ladders belowdecks, because they all seem to have just stood there on deck and let the sun kill them. Uh, so radiation exposure kills that rapidly? And just what is the penetration factor of this radiation? Earlier Thorne told us that we'd be ok if we just stayed indoors out of the sun, is that true (surely he wouldn't lie to us)? But before, we heard Elisabeth say that the radiation was able to kill all the deep-living plankton to starve the whales, suggesting an amazing penetration capacity that would make hiding in your double-wide trailer in Compton seem pretty pointless. There is no consistency in this movie.

Dead fishermen.

To the Mayor's office where Corporate Scientist Guy is once again playing wet blanket to Thorne's Chicken Little, still saying that, even if the hole exists, it will only cause "a few days of discomfort". Corporate Scientist Guy's organization seems to have total power over health warnings, evacuation orders, dissemination of data, basically anything remotely scientific in the entire state of California. Corporate Scientist Guy seems to have almost rock star status as well, known to everyone, and even the Mayor believes that he can't do anything until Corporate Scientist Guy tells him to. Suddenly, a swarm of badly-generated CGI pigeons start to crash through the windows! The solar radiation is causing the central nervous system of the birds to go haywire, just like Thorne predicted. Now the Mayor is a believer!

Bird attack! Thorne's Sister is here, just to have something to do.

Location shoot now in a hospital in LA where the emergency room is flooded with scads of people suffering from heat stroke, sunburns, occluded vision, even several severe cases of overactingitis. Listen as a nurse screams down the hall, "We're going to need skin grafts!", distracting the extras with their smears of red face paint and their spray-bottle sweats from their assigned roles. An unattractively gaunt ER Doctor gets some screen time and a lot more meaningful dialogue than you'd expect here, even if she is giving out full-dose injections of morphine to anyone who shows even a slight sunburn (best doctor ever!).

ER Doctor (on right).

For some reason this ER Doctor now leaves her swamped hospital, fights insane traffic across town, and comes to visit Racer at this house! All to ask about him about those kids in that plane crash from the first scene. And she's wearing a miniskirt and has done her hair down and put on make-up (seriously). "Tell me what the hell is going on so I'm better able to take care of my patients!" she hollers at him, but Racer is called away before the conversation can take the next logical step ("take off your pants!"). The Mayor has declared a "full-scale solar emergency" and the citizens of the LA basin are in a panic. Why are we being led to believe that this hole would for any reason "hover" over LA for any length of time? Why wouldn't it move eastward with the atmosphere, just like it was moving across the Pacific at a steady clip before it made landfall? For that matter, where did this hole "start", if that's even a term that applies here? Prevailing atmospheric winds would suggest SouthEast Asia or Australasia, but nothing about its origins is ever mentioned. It's just like this hugeass hole just appeared off of LA with a poof.

Talking with Racer.

Anyway, the television station now releases an interview with the "reknowned scientist" Thorne, wherein he basically says we are all going to die. The city freaks out and starts a mass every-man-for-himself evacuation. The Mayor is chugging antacids, the National Guard is called out, and the Governor is "going to give Washington another call", as apparently the first time he called, Washington was in the john. Drama! Suspense! LA is cooking, riots are exploding, cars are stalling, it's mad! And it goes on forever, maybe 15 straight minutes of grainy stock footage of riots, ominous music, and scale-earning extras running around like chickens. In a classic shot, a mullet-head redneck runs out of a looted store with a big TV as the cops chase him down. Why do people always steal TVs in riots? They're big and heavy, and really don't provide you the return on effort expended that smaller, more expensive items would. You can only carry one TV (worth $200 at the pawn store), but you can carry several bags full of iPods and digital camcorders (collectively worth at least five large), and it's vastly easier to evade baton-wielding cops with a smaller load. Just sayin'.

Stealing a TV (hope he also grabbed the remote).

Expendable Oceanographer/Casual Love Interest Elisabeth is killed in a car wreck during the chaos when she goes batshit crazy and drives into a garbage truck. She might possibly have been distracted by the swarm of angry radiation-mutated killer bees that wiggled their way through the air conditioning vents of her pimpin' Olds Eighty-Eight as she was driving along. Bees, mind you, that somehow picked her car at random out of the hundreds on the road around her to invade. In the end, hers is a pointless death, as she was maybe the one major character who could have been edited out before shooting and we wouldn't have missed anything.

Bees! Run!

Hey, did you know that Thorne's Sister is engaged to none other than Racer? I know, imagine the odds! Since she hasn't had much of a role in this movie so far (other than to look pretty and flip her hair in rage at Corporate Scientist Guy), we now go to the Sister's house for some drama. The radiation has apparently caused zillions upon zillions of bugs to converge on the Sister's house (nowhere else, it seems, just her house) and she's trapped inside. Somehow sensing this (radar love!), Racer comes running to save her (on a motorcycle, of course, you wouldn't expect anything less), managing to find her dazed and confused and bitten in a nearly empty house (where all the bugs go?). And why the bugs? Do they possess a central nervous system that could be fried by the radiation? What about fish, or tabby cats, or aardvarks, or even small children, would they be similarly affected? And why again did the bugs swarm her house and then just leave?

Bugs! Run some more!

Racer calls his "Guard unit" on his cell, and since they are just sitting around doing nothing, watching TV and eating take-out, they can just rush right over to her house in a fucking helicopter and whisk her and Racer off to the hospital. Of course, Racer runs right into the ER with her in his arms, past the seven-block line of people waiting to get in, run directly to a doctor and get help for her instantly. In fact, he manages to get a private room and personal attention by a doctor and several nurses, while the city burns down around them, remember, all just for what they themselves call "just some insect bites". "Please don't leave me, not now!" Racer fake-cries to the resting-comfortably Sister, while I cry with real tears, "I should have watched Iron Man on DVD tonight instead!".

It helps to be a movie star.

"The only way the hole is going away is if something makes it go away." is the sentence that sets the ball rolling on the solution. Thorne goes to get his old prototype Amazing Plot Contrivance Machine from the back storeroom where it's been collecting dust since Corporate Scientist Guy cancelled the funding for it years ago. It's technically the ORB, "Ozone Replenishing Bomb", a "light hydrocarbon detonating device" designed to catalyze a massive chemical reaction that would actually destroy the chlorine that is eating away at the ozone layer (seriously). The danger is that it could make the hole worse, but it could also work as intended and close the hole. "It's our only hope!" a dorky lab rat wails, clutching his slide rule to his chest. If Thorne is such an expert on all this, why did he stop working on the ORB? He's such a Principled Man Of Science, you'd think that just because Corporate Scientist Guy cancelled the funding right before field tests, he'd still finish the job. And what does that mean anyway, was Thorne working for Corporate Scientist Guy at the time? If so, the ORB is technically the intellectual property of whatever institution provided the funding for Thorne, right? Would they just leave it in a storeroom like that?

The ORB.

It's a race against time to get it working! Men run around, computer keyboards clatter, sweaty brows furrow, and the music is awesomely inspirational. "Doesn't look like much but the chemistry's sound!" "Adjust the chemical mixture!" "We have to change the temperature of the atmosphere with the dispersion blast!" Oh, hurry, hurry you lab-coated gods of alchemy and materials science, hurry! Even Corporate Scientist Guy shows up, he's changed his tune, and he's got the authority to requisition the US Air Force for a jet plane for Thorne (he says it's the best way for the ORB to get the job done).

Doctor Horrible's henchmen?

Thorne needs a pilot to fly it up into ozone hole with a "high-altitude aircraft"! That pilot just happens to be standing around the lab. Racer is not only a helicopter pilot, but he's also (or so it seems) the ONLY human being on the entire Pacific Coast that can fly a jet plane. The jet in question is said repeatedly to be an F-5, but it's actually a T-38 (tail code N638TC, which is currently for sale by Thornton Aviation, if you are interested). Their whole plan hinges on Racer's ability to fly this machine, though you'd think that the Air Force or someone would have a guy on the payroll for this. "Put the pylons back on!" the orders come down, and the ORB is wedged into a missile that is wheeled out of the hanger. The "missile" is clearly a gasoline drop tank with USAF painted on the side (and it's clearly half the size of the ORB prop that we've seen in the lab for the last few scenes), but it kinda sorta looks like a missile. In the dark. The heat wave doesn't seem to be affecting this airfield, by the way, no one is running around with their skin melting off or anything.

The T-38 is a two-seat trainer, the F-5 is a single-seat fighter/attack jet.

Racer and Thorne take off in the jet to save LA, ohhh, I'm just chewing through my nails! Thorne has to come along to run the "spectro-phrotofuck-ocroleso-meter", which is some gadget that you'd think they could monitor just fine from the ground. For that matter, why not just shoot the ORB up with a weather sounding rocket or something? But we need our heroes to be heroic, so off they go. "We got one chance to get this right!" they yell at each other, and yelps of "Let's rock and roll!" and "Let's do it!" echo through the oddly deserted hanger.

Suiting up.

To add to my confusion, for some inexplicable reason Corporate Scientist Guy and the Reporter are in the airport's control tower. "Good luck and God speed!" Corporate Scientist Guy reads from his cue cards, before going off to his trailer to weep softy. Corporate Scientist Guy then takes over guiding the plane from control tower. So, Corporate Scientist Guy is also fully trained in the complex art of radar air traffic control? Well, as the movies teach us, all "scientists" are masters of every craft. Racer pours on the power, he has to "get close enough to the center to get its fix!" Why, what's range of this missile, why do they have to get ten feet from the center? And how can a column of empty air tens of miles high have a "center" to effectively aim at anyway? And why is it that they can fly into the hole and not get burned up? Thorne and Racer both have exposed skin showing and they are right in the middle of the thing, when before people on the ground, 60,000 feet below them, are burned badly by the radiation? How are the plane's electronics not failing, sending them flat-spinning down to a hellish death of shredded metal? Why or how has this "hole" maintained its size and shape for this long, does it have some sort of internal structure that keeps it from expanding or even dissipating in the violent winds of the upper atmosphere? And why did Princess Leia knowingly lead the Empire to the rebel base, even when she knew the Falcon was being tracked?

"I need SAG credits, so I'm just going to stand here, ok?"

The ozone hole is a rainbow-y CGI blur with enough lens flare to make JJ Abrams envious, and it's coming up fast. "Drop it and get the hell out of there!" implores a worried Corporate Scientist Guy. The missile is fired! Zoom, off it goes into the blurry optical effect. "Are you getting anything on your Dobson readings?" they ask, peering at their computer screens with frantic hope. To ruin the suspense, the bomb works and the hole closes up amazingly fast, like in under a minute. The NSA's satellite network confirms the "hole closing" and LA is saved (hey, where were these NSA sats before, you know, back when they could have done some real good?).


Racer hits the afterburners to outrace the explosion (explosion of what? Can you make chlorine explode this way? And even if you could, would it really create this huge, Death Star-dying, monster explosion that can be seen for a thousand miles?). Did they survive? Somehow radio contact is lost and the radar is down, as a frazzled Corporate Scientist Guy says, "All I'm getting is static!". So, why is the complete radar network down again, did the chlorine explosion somehow blind every electromagnetic frequency known to man? But if not for this, we couldn't have that Oscar-worthy dramatic moment as the jet is picked up visually flying in low over the desert. Corporate Scientist Guy exhales a long breath of relief, the Reporter says, "Yes!" and then wonders why his role was essentially "background extra" for the last two acts, a pretty radar technician smiles with the confident knowledge that she's by far the cutest girl in the movie, and everyone runs down to mob Racer and Thorne on the tarmac as they deplane (ouch, standing way too close to those should-be blazing hot turbojet exhaust ports, eh?).

Celebrate good times, come on!

The end.

Written in July 2009 by Nathan Decker.

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