Countdown: The Sky’s on Fire (1998)
Directed by: Dan Lerner
Starring: John Corbett, Josie Bissett, Bradley Whitford, Ben Browder, Jo Anderson, Tom Irwin, John Billingsley
I like Bradley Whitford. He played Josh Lyman on The West Wing, which is one of my favorite TV shows ever. Along with the likeable John Billingsley and the reasonably charismatic John Corbett, he adds a touch of competence to the otherwise silly eco-disaster flick The Sky’s on Fire. (Which it isn’t, by the way. On fire, I mean. The sky. Now that would’ve been something!)
Whitford plays TV reporter John Morgan, who gets dispatched to cover the story of a beached whale – a “fluff piece” in his opinion. It turns out the whale is actually a whole bunch of whales, and John smells something big. He pesters an oceanographer who says the whales apparently starved to death, which would indicate that something killed off the plankton in the sea.
Rogue (aren’t they all?) atmospheric scientist Dr. Evan Thorne (Corbett) catches John’s whale story as it airs. Thorne thinks it might be connected to his own findings: that there is a huge hole in the ozone layer above the Pacific ocean. And not only that: the hole is rapidly moving towards Los Angeles. The unfiltered radiation from the sun hammering down on L.A. would of course mean complete disaster.
Thorne’s attempt to convince the mayor to evacuate the city fails, because the mayor trusts the government-appointed head of the acronym C.O.A.R. (Center of Atmospheric Research, perhaps?), one Dr. Aaron Schiffren (Irwin), who also happens to be Dr. Thorne’s nemesis and former boss.
As the ozone hole approaches L.A., weird things start to happen: fishermen at sea are burned to death, birds seem to lose their navigational senses and come crashing into the mayor’s office, bees appear from nowhere and attack motorists in downtown L.A., bugs of various kinds invade apartment buildings, and lots of people seek medical aid for blisters and burns.
And as things get bad, the good citizens of Los Angeles do what they always do in times of crisis: riot. The plot grinds to a complete halt for an inordinate amount of time while we’re treated to random scenes of looting and chaos, some of which appear to be archive footage.
Luckily, Dr. Thorne and his team realize they have a way to stop the approaching ozone hole. Before he got fired from the C.O.A.R., Thorne was working on the O.R.B., or Ozone Replenishing Bomb (only it isn’t really a bomb, it’s actually a “device”). If the team can get the prototype to actually work, and can find a way to launch it into the ozone hole, it can get the ozone layer to replenish itself and seal the hole. It’s got something to do with chlorine. I don’t know.
After being looked at disapprovingly by a secondary character, the evil Dr. Schiffren has a change of heart and decides to help Thorne and his crew. Thus a state-of-the-art fighter jet is suddenly standing by, ready to carry the O.R.B. missile into the ozone hole. Some clumsily composited flying sequences later, we arrive at the happy end and are treated to the poetic line: “My God, the ozone’s being replenished!”
The Sky’s on Fire is a treat if you’re into bad movie physics, plot holes and logical inconsistencies in general. Forget the fact that Our Heroes can fly all the way up to the ozone hole without being burned while people down on the ground get baked to death — the most absurd part of all is the final resolution when the ozone hole is sealing itself up in a matter of seconds!
While there’s some potential in the various animal attacks, those scenes are all rather short and lack any real energy, and the cheap-looking effects work doesn’t make them any better. Skimping on the disaster content while spending a boring ten minutes on anonymous people running around with looted TV sets was perhaps not the best directorial decision ever.
That said, I must admit I actually found The Sky’s on Fire more watchable than the above reveals (and certainly more than the script deserves). While this film is nowhere near being “good”, and descends into the downright ludicrous during the final third or so, the silliness of it all is kind of enjoyable. And as I indicated initially, some of the cast — at least Whitford, Billingsley and to some extent Corbett — actually deliver decent performances in spite of the material they have to work with. After seeing too many disaster movies full of people who couldn’t act their way out of a wet paper bag, I’m just glad to see anything resembling actual talent.