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Even though it was released over twenty years ago, THE CHINA SYNDROME ($15) remains a potent thriller about the dangers of nuclear power. Just twelve days after the film's theatrical release, the message of THE CHINA SYNDROME took on even more importance, because the accident depicted in the film was shockingly similar to the real life events that took place at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility. The China Syndrome of the film's title refers to what would happen if the cooling system in a nuclear reactor failed and the core material became dangerously superheated. Like digging a hole to China, the heat of the nuclear core has the potential to bore a hole right through the Earth and come out the other side of the planet. Realistically, this couldn't happen because as soon as the core made contact with ground water, the violent reaction would send the nuclear material exploding out of the hole, where it would rain down, contaminating a large portion of the surrounding countryside.

THE CHINA SYNDROME stars Jane Fonda as television news reporter Kimberly Wells. Kimberly is dying to do hard news, however the executives at her television station trade upon her good looks, assigning her to human-interest stories. While working on a special assignment that includes coverage of a nuclear power plant, Kimberly and her cameraman manage to film an accident that takes at the nuclear facility. Of course, the plant officials deny that an accident took place at the facility. Without corroboration, the television station refuses to run the footage of the accident, for fear of being sued. However, Kimberly and her cameraman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) won't allow the matter to drop. In fact, they continue to pursue the story without the knowledge of the TV station.

Unfortunately they are unable to tell the real story, until the plant's chief engineer Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) begins to raise his own concerns about the safety of the nuclear facility. THE CHINA SYNDROME is a slow and deliberate thriller, with almost no action until the film's final few moments. Co-writer and director James Bridges effectively builds tension throughout the film, keeping the viewer riveted to their seat. The three star performances are terrific, with Jack Lemmon and Jane Fonda picking up well-deserved Oscar nominations for their work. The cast of THE CHINA SYNDROME also includes Scott Brady, James Hampton, Peter Donat, Wilford Brimley, Richard Herd, Daniel Valdez, Stan Bohrman and James Karen.

Columbia TriStar Home Video has made THE CHINA SYNDROME available in both full screen and wide screen presentations on opposite sides of the DVD. Other than being compositionally incorrect, there are no major flaws in the full screen version of the film. However, I have to recommend the anamorphic enhanced wide screen version of THE CHINA SYNDROME over compositionally challenged counterpart. While the new transfer is superior to all previous video presentations of the film, there are certain limitations in the film stocks of 1978 that keep this DVD from looking as good as a 1999 production. Still, I remain impressed with the level of clarity found in the transfer. Carefully lit interiors are sharp and well detailed, while the less well lit interiors and some of the outdoor shots take on somewhat softer in appearance. The color scheme of the movie is indicative of the period in which it was made, and for that reason, saturation isn't as intense as that of a newer movie. However, flesh tones are very natural looking and provide all of the actors with a healthy countenance. Black are deep and true, plus the image has smooth contrast.

The thing that truly dates THE CHINA SYNDROME (other than its costumes) is its soundtrack. THE CHINA SYNDROME was made on the cusp of the Dolby Surround era, so the Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack, while clean and accurate, isn't overly involving. Dialogue reproduction is quite good, although the limitations in the lower register keep some of the natural resonance out of the voices. A Spanish language soundtrack has also been encoded onto the DVD. Subtitles are provided in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean and Thai. The interactive menus are standard issue, offering access to the scene and language selection features. A theatrical trailer, as well as cast biographies/filmographies are also available through the interactive menus.


The China Syndrome (1979)


DVD reviews are Copyright 1999 THE CINEMA LASER and may not be copied or reprinted without the written consent of the publisher.
THE CINEMA LASER is written, edited and published by Derek M. Germano.



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