[This article was written for and appeared in the May-June 1979 issue (Volume 15, Number 3) of Film Comment.]
“The China Syndrome is a moderately compelling thriller about the potential perils of nuclear energy, whose major fault is an overweening sense of its own self-importance. Superior performances by Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas (who also produced) in the lead roles, accentuated by ultra-realistic production values[,] should propel the Columbia Pictures release to some b.o. success, but the message ‘overload’ is going to scare off other patrons.”
—Poll., Variety, March 7, 1979
“Douglas boasts that ‘you won’t be able to distinguish our presentation of the news from your own evening viewing.’ … He has a premonition, he says, that ‘a lot of what’s in this picture will be reenacted in life somewhere in the next two or three years.”
—Michael Douglas, quoted in Reddy News, Jan.-Feb. 1979
“That thing in Pennsylvania is just too much of a coincidence.”
—anonymous patron, Northgate Theatre, Seattle, after the 9:15 show, March 30, 1979
The China Syndrome opened nationally on March 16, 1979. Advance interest ran high. The casting sounded exciting, talkshow drumbeating had been provocative and selectively closemouthed at the same time, and the title had a ring even if, as the promo spots kept repeating every half hour, “only a few people know what it means.” A lot more people wanted to find out, which suited Columbia Pictures just fine.
The subject matter proved to have nothing to do with our new kissin’ cousins on the Chinese mainland or, as the preview art may have suggested, more sci-fi sperm from outer space. Nuclear energy supplied the narrative battleground—nuclear energy, its inherent dangers, the likelihood of catastrophe at a specific power plant. More precisely, the specter of nuclear catastrophe raised the narrative ante on the real subject: the collaboration of greed, stubbornness, bureaucratic obfuscation, job paranoia, perimeter-protecting, institutional loyalty, and native stupidity in aggravating an already perilous situation, virtually confirming us in disaster.
“The China syndrome”? That’s the technosardonic designation of what could happen if the nuclear core of a reactor became drastically overheated, melted down, burned its way through the concrete floor of its containment tower, and kept on going—hyperbolically speaking, all the way to China, or until it hit groundwater and exploded radioactive steam and waste over several hundred square miles.
Interesting. Less than two weeks into its run, The China Syndrome had grossed $11 mil. Then came a crooked smile of serendipity that transformed the picture from just another top-grossing flick into a news event, and eerie prophecy.