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The China Syndrome (1979)

Today, only a handful of people know what it means... Soon you will know.

Rating: 9/10

Running Time: 122 minutes

US Certificate: PG UK Certificate: PG


I might not be supposed to tell you what “The China Syndrome” actually means – but I’m going to anyway. It’s when the water shield at a nuclear power plant reaches such a low level that all the nuclear hoo-ha becomes exposed and the whole lot of it plummets through the floor, supposedly right through the centre of the earth to China. In practice, of course, it wouldn’t actually happen that way: instead, there’d just be a giant nuclear explosion, large enough to send a substantial proportion of the surrounding area tits-up. In other words, it would be the sort of error that saying “woops” just wouldn’t cover.

The threat of such a terrifying gaff looms large throughout this flick, kicking off with underground rumblings at a plant in California and leading to what would appear to be a major cover-up on the part of the authorities. Jane Fonda and producer Michael Douglas (in a role originally planned for Richard Dreyfuss) play the TV journo and cameraman who smell an extra-large rat when they witness staff scurrying around twiddling with knobs like their lives depend on it, and Jack Lemmon is the company man who gradually comes to realise plant life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

It’s great stuff, with the tension building slowly over the course of the opening 90 minutes before bursting into a riveting edge-of-the-seat climax. Sure, realism tends to make way for more generic Hollywood elements as the film hurtles to a close (politics is replaced by gun-toting and car chases), but it’s all just so well put together that you won’t be able to take your eyes off it. As for the performances: Fonda and the beard-faced Douglas are both solid, but it’s Lemmon who invariably steals each of his scenes with a performance that grows in both importance and strength as the flick progresses. Lemmon is a man who produced many a riveting display in his nigh-on 50 years as a Hollywood actor, but this one is right up there with the very best of them.

It's Got: A vibration. And we all know what that means – that’s right, T-Rex is coming!! Run for your miserable lives!!!

It Needs: A bunker. Just in case.

DVD Extras This package suffers from ‘The Crap Extras Syndrome’ – all it has is a trailer and some very basic filmographies for the three leads. Version reviewed: The China Syndrome (1981) (Widescreen) DVD Extras Rating: 2/10


A powerful movie about a powerful – erm – power. ‘The China Syndrome’ is a must-see.