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"The China Syndrome: SE" --- A Personal Review

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#1 of 9 OFFLINE   David Von Pein

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Posted November 15 2004 - 04:15 PM


Posted Image

My Rating: Posted Image out of Posted Image


"The China Syndrome" first appeared in theaters around the USA on March 16, 1979. In an almost unbelievable coincidence, just twelve days later, on March 28th, the worst nuclear accident in United States history occurred at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The real-life incident at Three Mile Island was, in many ways, identical to the plot of the movie. An incorrect reading of equipment at Three Mile Island made the plant's operators THINK, in error, that there was more water covering the core of the power plant than there actually was -- just exactly what we see unfold on the screen in "The China Syndrome".

Another extremely eerie "coincidence" between the real event and the motion picture is a line of dialogue that was written for the film, and is one of the most chilling lines in the picture, where a nuclear expert is explaining that, if an explosion had occurred at the fictional "Ventana" nuclear facility, it could have "rendered an area the size of the state of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable". Rather remarkable that the filmmakers chose the state of "Pennsylvania" for their catastrophic "example" here, huh? When just days after debuting it would, indeed, be that exact state facing potential disaster.

"The China Syndrome", which grossed over 35.7 million dollars in U.S. theaters, is an outstanding drama starring Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda, and Michael Douglas. The tense script keeps you on tenterhooks throughout the film, despite the lack of any musical score or background music of any kind. The only music in the whole film resides at the beginning (as the credits roll). The ending credits roll silently -- with only dead silence accompanying them (which is, quite possibly, even MORE powerful and effective here, given what we've just seen in the movie, than if a rousing musical theme were to have been utilized at the end of the film).

"The China Syndrome" was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Actor (Lemmon) and Best Actress (Fonda). Neither of them won. Lemmon was bested by "Kramer vs. Kramer's" Dustin Hoffman; while Fonda was beaten by Sally Field ("Norma Rae").

I've always thought that this film should have not only been nominated for Best Picture of 1979, but it should have won that honor as well. But it was "Kramer vs. Kramer" that took home the prize that year. A shame, too -- because I feel "The China Syndrome" was/is a far better film than "Kramer". But, hey, that's just my own view on the subject.

A fine companion video to this DVD is "Meltdown At Three Mile Island" (a 1999 documentary from PBS Home Video). After watching both the movie and that PBS documentary program, you'll notice even more correlation between the real-life Pennsylvania accident and the fictional film -- such as the amazing similarity in the look of the control room. The REAL Three Mile Island control room looks just exactly like the control room we see in the movie. The filmmakers obviously did a very good job when it came to replicating the details of a real nuclear power plant.

This single-disc DVD "Special Edition" was released by Columbia Tri-Star Home Entertainment on October 26, 2004, and comes complete with a good-looking Anamorphic Widescreen transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital audio, plus some nice special features to boot. The inclusion of the 5.1 audio is nice, but it seems a bit wasted on this film, which contains virtually no music or sound effects whatsoever. However, when toggling between the original Mono track and the newly-created 5.1 audio, the 5.1 *does* sound richer and "fuller" (esp. during the film's one musical sequence at the beginning, when Stephen Bishop's "Somewhere In Between" is playing).

The picture quality really sparkles on this SE. Colors look very good and natural. There's a nighttime party scene which exhibits particularly richly-detailed and bold colors. This DVD transfer looks rock-solid to my eyes. The previous (1999) non-SE version of this film on DVD was also an Anamorphic transfer (plus it had the dreaded FF version on there too, on a 2-sided platter) -- so I can only *assume* that this 2004 SE edition is more-than-likely the same video transfer. I have the old DVD as well; and they look pretty much identical to me. Both have good PQ.

Here's a rundown of the Bonus Features on this disc ......................

>> Two excellent documentaries (lasting nearly one hour combined) on the making of the movie -- "The China Syndrome: A Fusion Of Talent" (run time of 27:33) and "The China Syndrome: Creating A Controversy" (29:31). These bonus programs were written, produced, and directed by Laurent Bouzereau. Generally-speaking, I enjoy Mr. Bouzereau's DVD documentaries very much, and these two done for "The China Syndrome" are two good ones, in my opinion. Filled with little-known facts and data.

New interviews with Michael Douglas and Jane Fonda (and some others) are included here, with some really interesting behind-the-scenes tidbits being revealed during these two bonus programs. Plus some discussion of the relationship between the film and the Three Mile Island accident that closely followed, which made the film's popularity skyrocket.

In addition to Fonda and Douglas, two other actors from the film are interviewed on the documentaries -- Peter Donat (who played station owner "Don Jacovich") and James Karen (who portrayed "Mac", Fonda's boss). These two senior citizens look terrific in these interviews, too. Karen, in fact, was 80 years old when he did this Bouzereau piece; he's got a very distinguished Alec Guinness-esque look to him here. Mr. Donat's not far behind -- he was 75 or 76 when he recorded his interview segments.

One interesting hunk of trivia concerning star Jack Lemmon that came out in the "Fusion" featurette that I'd never realized is that Jack had apparently put some other movie roles "on hold" for well over a year in order to finally begin work on "The China Syndrome" (which started filming on January 16, 1978).

Also revealed is a tidbit about how Jack Lemmon was very upset about having some of his scenes cut out of the movie. Which took me by surprise, based on the "deleted scenes" we find on this DVD. Because, based solely on just the two deleted scenes involving Lemmon that we find here, I cannot imagine how Jack could have been THAT upset by these omissions. Each cut scene lasts about a minute, and adds nothing of major substance to the flow of the picture. So, I'm guessing that there must have been a few more scenes left to rot on the cutting-room floor besides just these two throw-aways we find on this disc.

Another fun part of the "Controversy" documentary is a humorous outtake showing Jane Fonda trying to run while wearing those shoes with the seemingly mile-high heels (which we see her wearing in several scenes during the film). She had trouble running from one place to another in this outtake, and ultimately trips over her own feet while declaring "I'm like a cripple!" Posted Image

We also learn that all of the external shots of the "Ventana Nuclear Power Plant" were actually the result of matte paintings blended in with the live action shots. They did a nice job mixing the fake pics in with the real filmed footage, IMO, because I always thought the big "cooling tower" we see in the film was the real deal. But, it is not. And considering this movie was made years before any CGI type of effects came into play, the "matted" shots, blending real stuff & fake stuff, look quite well-done. I certainly couldn't tell some of these shots are manufactured.

Another piece of info gleaned is regarding the music (or lack of) for the movie. There *was* originally a musical score written for the film. But Producer Michael Douglas, and others, quickly learned that the movie would be much better served by completely eliminating any music score -- and simply have the "real sounds" of the power-plant control room serve as the film's "music" (in a way). We hear the clicking of dials, the beeping of alarms, horns blaring their warnings, and the sounds of the computer's printer as it prints out the info the power-plant workers need. All of these "real" sounds took a back seat to the music, and it was soon discovered than the music "ruins the reality of the film" (a quote from one of this DVD's supplemental programs). Therefore, the filmmakers decided to take a chance and scrap the idea of any music in the picture. A wise move, too, IMHO.

These Making-Of features also could serve as a "Photo Gallery" of still images. Many behind-the-camera pics are shown throughout these well-put-together bonus programs.

The two mini-documentaries are shown in the Full-Frame aspect ratio (1.33:1), and feature English-only Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo sound and subtitles in Japanese only. (Why they chose only Japanese subtitling here, I have no idea. Perhaps the film was a huge hit in Japan or something. Posted Image)

>> 3 "Deleted Scenes" (total time = 3:52). As mentioned earlier, none of these short scenes adds much of anything to the story at hand. It's understandable why they were cut out. A "Play All" option is included here. .... One of the three deleted scenes shows Jane Fonda pushing the over-sexed anchorman (played by Stan Bohrman) into a swimming pool. I found it interesting to learn (on my own, not via the DVD) that "Syndrome" was the only film Bohrman ever made. He's very convincing, too, IMO. He has that announcer/anchorman type of voice.

>> 3 Theatrical Trailers ("Previews"), but not one of them is for "The China Syndrome". This seems especially odd (and disappointing), because the previously-released DVD of this flick *does* include the film's trailer. But, instead, this "SE" disc offers up three trailers for other films: "The Fog Of War", "Fail-Safe", and "Secret Window". However, a portion of one of the original 1979 trailers for "The China Syndrome" is included in the "Creating A Controversy" documentary on this disc. But not the full trailer.

>> Text-only Filmographies for Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas, and Jane Fonda --- and Director James Bridges. Strangely, though, the previous 1999 disc's "Biography" text pages are missing from the SE. But it's nothing to really weep uncontrollably about. Posted Image

Additional DVD data concerning "The China Syndrome: Special Edition":

Video -- Widescreen only (1.85:1 aspect ratio); enhanced for 16x9 televisions.

Available Audio Tracks -- Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English), Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English), and Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French).

Audio Commentary Tracks? -- No. .... Too bad too. Because a multi-person Commentary Track (with Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas, and writer Mike Gray) would have been quite interesting I have a feeling).

Subtitles -- English, French, Chinese, Japanese, and Thai. ..... Thank GOD the "Thai" subtitles are on here! Couldn't live without those! *smirk*

Main Feature Running Time -- 122 minutes.

Number of Chapter Breaks -- 28.

Paper Enclosure? -- Yes, a one-sheet (two-sided) insert. But it does not contain a Chapter List. Just ads on the back. .... If you happen to have the older DVD edition of "The China Syndrome" (released in May of 1999), you can use that disc's 4-page booklet as a Chapter Guide for this newer "SE" version. Both DVDs have the scenes divided up in the same places throughout the movie (and the descriptive titles/blurbs for each chapter are identical on each disc). In addition to including a Chapter Listing, the older disc's mini-booklet insert also contains some informative Production Notes and backstory concerning the film.


Parting Thoughts ................

"The China Syndrome" is one of my all-time favorite movies, and in my view one of the best thrillers/dramas in all of movie-making history. It has a mesmerizing storyline, great acting, a very good cast of starring and supporting characters, and a first-class, heart-pounding ending. I'd suggest reserving a slot on the shelf for this Special Edition DVD. Even if you've already got the old DVD version of this film, it's worth upgrading to the "SE" (IMO) for the one-hour's worth of documentary featurettes that are located on the new release.

Now -- if we could only get Michael Douglas to pronounce the word "nuclear" correctly. (LOL!) Posted Image He pronounces it "nu-cu-lar" at least a dozen & one times during the two DVD bonus supplementary features. Posted Image ..... Which is kind of interesting -- because you'll note that in the film itself, there's a scene where he has to say the word "nuclear" (during his tirade in front of the TV station's owner), and he says "nu-cu-lar" in that scene as well. I've always thought it was written in the script that Michael's character (Richard Adams) was supposed to mis-pronounce the word. But now I wonder if that verbal error was, indeed, in the script that way at all. Posted Image

#2 of 9 OFFLINE   Mark_TS



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Posted November 15 2004 - 07:26 PM

>>...so I can only *assume* that this 2004 SE edition is more-than-likely the same video transfer. I have the old DVD as well; and they look pretty much identical to me. --- I havent checked myself- but its been noted here that the VOB files are dated late August or early Sept of this year-which would suggest a new transfer.
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#3 of 9 OFFLINE   David Von Pein

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Posted November 15 2004 - 08:29 PM

OK, Mark. Thanks.

Is it usual (or unusual), then, for a brand-new DVD transfer to feature the Chapter Breaks in the *identical* places as the old DVD version (plus identical title names for the chapters and exactly the same number of scenes/breaks)? Because that's what has happened with the two China Syndrome DVD versions.

The same "chaptering" of the various scenes on the new SE was one of the reasons I suspected this SE was not a brand-new transfer. But, possibly this means nothing in the scheme of all things DVD. Can anyone shed a "chapter" of light on the subject? Posted Image

#4 of 9 OFFLINE   Paul_Scott


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Posted November 15 2004 - 10:27 PM

David, this is one of my favorite films too. but i'm a little apathetic on an upgrade. it would be interesting to see the Docs, but i have so much other stuff i need to get (to) first. besides- whether this is a new transfer or not- the original disc presents a picture that is just about perfect in my eyes. on my fp set up, it looks fantastic. i would be thrilled if every 70s catalog title i owned looked that good. and sadly, very few do.

#5 of 9 OFFLINE   Jesse Skeen

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Posted November 16 2004 - 06:31 AM

Subtitles -- English, French, Chinese, Japanese, and Thai. ..... Thank GOD the "Thai" subtitles are on here! Couldn't live without those! *smirk*

It's probably coded for regions 1 and 3. If it has Portuguese subtitles then it's also coded for region 4.
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#6 of 9 OFFLINE   BobH


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Posted November 16 2004 - 09:29 AM

This is interesting. When I lived in Oregon, one of my friends was an engineer at the Trojan Nuclear Plant there. He told me that Michael Douglas came to film views of their control room, claiming that he was making a film that was "friendly" to the industry. When "China Syndrome" came out, my friend was furious at the result. I assumed that the film crew used some of these views of Trojan and modeled their set after it. Having seen the theatrical release back then and having visited Trojan, I remember them as nearly identical. I suspect many of the same era plants are pretty similar (built by the same companies).

#7 of 9 OFFLINE   David Von Pein

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Posted November 16 2004 - 11:26 AM

Yes, that is exactly what they did. And the mini-docs on the DVD go into this fact. But, according to the DVD featurette, the filmmakers went to Oregon to take pictures of the plant/control room without letting the power-plant execs even know *why* they were taking the pics. They didn't "let on" they needed the photos for a motion picture. With the ultra-high security around such U.S. installations/plants, you wouldn't *think* such random picture-taking of the innards of a nuclear plant would be permitted under any circumstances. I'm guessing that in today's fearful climate, such activity would certainly not be permitted.

#8 of 9 OFFLINE   David Von Pein

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Posted November 16 2004 - 08:09 PM

Packaging says just Region 1. No mention of R.3.

#9 of 9 OFFLINE   Jesse Skeen

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Posted November 17 2004 - 09:10 AM

Yes, they'll put Region 1 on the cover, but if you check the disc in a multi-region player it will work on regions 3 and 4 as well. I have a region-selectable Pioneer machine, and on Columbia titles that do this it replaces the FBI and Interpol warning with different copyright warnings relevant to Asia or South America! Some Warner titles also do this, although the alternate copyright warnings are also viewable by Title select. Strangely, the "Diffrent Strokes" DVD set is coded for regions 1, 2, 3 and 4, but only shows the US copyright warning and doesn't have any subtitles or foreign language dubs.
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