The Chain Reaction Review
Heinrich (Ross Thompson) is a scientist working at WALDO, the Western Atomic Longterm Dumping Organisation, where nuclear waste is stored. An earth tremor causes a radiation leak and Heinrich is given a fatal dose of radiation. He escapes and he finds his way to the home of Larry Stillson (Steve Bisley) and his wife Carmel (Arna-Maria Winchester). Meanwhile, the authorities are keen to cover up the incident, and Heinrich, Larry and Carmel find their lives in danger...
The Chain Reaction, shot in 1979 and released in 1980. is a thriller which picked up on then-current fears of nuclear contamination, the same fears that The China Syndrome (1979) also tapped into. Both films became unexpectedly topical due to the Three Mile Island accident in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on 28 March 1979. Since then, of course, Chernobyl has become the byword for the dangers of nuclear power. The Chain Reaction uses these concerns as part of a conspiracy thriller. Ian Barry wrote the script after reading stories that Australia might have to take back nuclear waste from the uranium it sold overseas. The working title was The Man at the Edge of the Freeway, but producer David Elfick thought that rather high-flown and likely uncommercial, so The Chain Reaction it became. There was some negotiation with Hollywood, as a film in development also had that title, but that film later changed its title to Silkwood. The present film is nothing to do with the 1996 Keanu Reeves-starring film of almost the same title.
Barry had been a film editor (including the cult biker movie Stone) and had made some well-regarded short films, one of which, The Sparks Obituary, is an extra on this disc. The Chain Reaction was his first feature film, and the second big-screen feature for producer Elfick, who had previously produced Newsfront. However, the production ran into difficulties from the outset. At an early stage, the Australian Film Corporation cut the budget, not good news for a complex production involving car stunts and special effects. Barry was a meticulous director, but the time taken on some complex sequences put the film behind schedule from the outset. At the time, Mad Max had been made but not yet released, and Elfick invited George Miller on board as an associate producer, and Miller also directed the car-chase and stunts sequences. Another Max connection was Steve Bisley as the lead actor in The Chain Reaction...and Mel Gibson, with a small speaking role, bearded and uncredited, as a car mechanic. (Some advertising for this film had Gibson as the star of the film.)
Further problems came with the shooting location, the former mining town of Glen Davis, New South Wales. The town was rumoured to be the site of an Aboriginal massacre and reckoned to be cursed, and there were accidents among the crew. The town was isolated, at the end of a long dark road, and the telephone exchange shut down at night. When Miller ran out of time due to his other commitments, Elfick stood in and completed the second-unit work. The film went over budget, ending up costing about what it was originally projected to (around A$600,000).
The film was picked up in the Cannes marketplaces by Warner Brothers for distribution outside Australia, including the USA and UK. The Chain Reaction was the first film with Australian government funding to sell to an American major studio, which put it into profit straight away. At home, it was the closing night film of the 1980 Sydney Film Festival and went into commercial release with solid results. It was taken up by genre enthusiasts, and more recently by Ozploitation cultists. These elements other than the car stunts include some gratuitous nudity, particularly in a decontamination scene, though at least it’s equal-opportunity, with Bisley disrobing as much as Winchester.
The Chain Reaction is something of a mixed bag, with the thriller elements sometimes conflicting with the anti-nuclear theme. This was no doubt a commercial consideration, with the action disguising as best it can a rather downbeat storyline. Steve Bisley was and is a leading Australian actor, but – like Bryan Brown, say – you can see why he didn’t become a bigger star internationally, unlike some of his contemporaries. There’s a definite blue-collar vibe to his role here, very much the Aussie larrikin type. There’s an interesting class subtext here, with nurse Carmel married to car mechanic Larry, but Bisley and Arna-Maria Winchester convince as a couple and give the film grounding it somewhat lacks elsewhere. Ross Thompson struggles with a heavy German accent, and a subplot of his amnesia (he thinks it’s 1957, not 1977) doesn’t really go anywhere. Ralph Cotterill makes for an effective blond sadist, but the storyline is cluttered with extraneous characters, particularly on the villains’ side. Lorna Lesley steals scenes as shopkeeper Gloria, and received the film’s only acting awards nod. Russell Boyd’s cinematography gives the film a striking look. Andrew Thomas Wilson’s synth-based score rather dates it.
The Chain Reaction was nominated for six Australian Film Institute Awards, for Lorna Lesley as Best Supporting Actress, and for sound, production design (Graham Walker, later billed as either Graham “Grace” Walker or simply Grace Walker), costume design (Norma Moriceau), Editing (Tim Wellburn) and Cinematography (Russell Boyd). It won none of them: the big winner that year was Breaker Morant. Ian Barry has continued to work as a director, much of the time on television. Arna-Maria Winchester died in 2008 from cancer, aged fifty-nine.
Umbrella’s Blu-ray release of The Chain Reaction, in its Ozploitation Classics line, is encoded for all regions. The film has the advisory M rating: in the UK it had a AA certificate (fourteen and over) in cinemas and a 15 on video, and is not likely to be any different if it were resubmitted to the BBFC now.
The Blu-ray transfer is in the intended ratio of 1.85:1. The film was shot in 35mm and this transfer does indeed look like a 35mm print of the time might well have done (though I haven't seen this particular film in a cinema), with the colours intentionally unslick and plenty of grain, especially in the darker scenes.
Dolby Stereo wouldn't arrive for Australian films for another couple of years, with Mad Max 2, so The Chain Reaction was mono in cinemas worldwide, and mono it remains on this disc, rendered as DTS-HD MA 2.0. The results are well-balanced between dialogue, sound effects and music. English subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing.
There is no commentary track on this release, but the other extras certainly make up for it. They begin with interviews conducted by Mark Hartley for his 2008 documentary Not Quite Hollywood (64:10), with, in order, Steve Bisley, Arna-Maria Winchester, Ian Barry, associate producer Ross Matthews (who had to keep the troubled production in order), Russell Boyd. Bisley and Winchester are both critical of the film, pointing out Barry's inexperience as a feature director. On the other hand, Barry gets by far the longest running time, and he's clear-eyed about the issues he had while making that film, some of which (as Boyd also says) he might not have now given that he is now far more experienced.
Mark Hartley is also the maker of Thrills and Nuclear Spills (32:56), a making-of featurette carried forward from Umbrella's previous DVD edition. Interviewed are Ian Barry, David Elfick, Steve Bisley, Russell Boyd. Needless to say, with three participants in common, there is inevitably some overlap between this and the previous item, but all the contributions are worth listening to.
Next up is Barry's short film The Sparks Obituary, which runs 24:50 including a 1:30 introduction. It's a science-fictional story of the film director of the title, blinded after an accident, and experiments in visualising what is in his head. It's transferred from a video source, other than Barry's introduction, and is presented in 4:3, which seems correct.
Also on the disc are deleted and extended scenes (8:35), theatrical and VHS trailers (3:40 including an Umbrella logo and 2:20 respectively) and a TV spot (0:33). The latter is stretched to 16:9 from 4:3. An early cut of the film, under the title Man on the Edge of the Freeway, is also included. At 93:56, it's a little longer than the final version (92:25). Again transferred from a video source, there are no credits, with the title appearing electronically at the start. Finally, there is a self-navigating image gallery (2:58).