With Halloween coming up in just over two weeks, a number of film critics have been recommending their favorite horror movies; I thought I might as well jump on that bandwagon and recommend my favorite Halloween treat, “Without Warning,” a 1994 made-for-TV movie. It may not have scary monsters with dripping slime, but I think it offers a good Halloween scare nonetheless; and to top it off, it gives you something important to think about too.
First, however, a little history lesson. On Halloween eve of 1938, Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air presented what is perhaps the most infamous radio show of all time. As a Halloween treat, they adapted the Science Fiction novel War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells (no relation to Orson) into a radio play and, through the style of a fake newscast, told the story about how Martians were invading Earth. Because it was done so realistically, an estimated one million people believed it was really happening.
Inspired by this event, 56 years later, CBS made “Without Warning” using several of the same techniques, and aired it on television on October 30, 1994. Just like the original “War of the Worlds” radio play, “Without Warning” begins with what seems to be regular programming, but it is soon interrupted by a special news bulletin. It’s announced that an asteroid has hit the Earth, broken up into three fragments, and landed in France, China, and Wyoming, USA. They briefly return to regular programming—in this case a tacky horror film with Loni Anderson (in an uncredited cameo)—and then back to the news for more information. The rest of the film continues as if it were an actual live news broadcast with cutaways, loss of feeds, and sudden breaking new developments.
As further information comes to light, more and more people begin to speculate that these asteroid fragments are not natural and may be the vanguard of alien contact. If so—and that’s a big IF because it’s far from accepted opinion—questions arise: are their intentions peaceful or hostile? How should the earth respond? Scientists, government officials, and even author Arthur C. Clarke (as himself) offer opinions on both the possibility of alien life and the real threat of asteroids possibly hitting Earth.
Director Robert Iscove takes what has the potential to be as boring as the MacNeil Lehrer News Hour and turns it into something really quite exciting. As he introduces more facts and opinions about the story, he builds the tension well. He uses little details—like a fake network logo in the lower right corner, and confusion about which reporter to go to—to create a very realistic newscast; but he also knows something about dramatic pacing and introduces serious further developments at just the right place to heighten the action and keep the plot moving.
Iscove made another interesting decision to have actual TV journalists, such as Sander Vanocur, Bree Walker, and Ernie Anastos, interacting with unknown and famous actors including Jane Kaczmarek (“Malcolm in the Middle”), John de Lancie (“Star Trek”), and Philip Baker Hall (“Magnolia”).
The best performance, though, is by Kario Salem, who plays a NASA scientist associated with SETI (the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence). His character is kept in the background throughout most of the film, but toward the end, he emerges, after a dramatic resignation from NASA, and finally tells the press the shocking news of what’s really going on. In my view, that’s the best scene in the film. Except for possibly the final moment which so aptly quotes Shakespeare that it almost seems as if the whole picture was written for the sake of that quote.
It’s not a perfect movie. There are a few flaws. For one, Sander Vanocur doesn’t play himself all that well; a shame since, as the anchor, he’s one of the main characters. Also, some of the sets are a bit disappointing. The supposed White House Briefing Room doesn’t look a thing like the actual Briefing Room which we’ve all seen hundreds of times. And the Johnson Space Center control room seems pretty minimal. Even the anchor desk set somehow lacks substance.
The strangest thing in the film is a minor subplot of a small town near the Wyoming crash site which suddenly vanishes. 3000 people just disappear and it’s never explained. Were they attacked by aliens? Or might this possibly have something to do with a supernatural fundamentalist Christian belief? If so, it sends the film in an entirely different direction that’s never picked up again. This idea wasn’t well developed. Iscove would have done better to just delete that scene and leave it on the cutting room floor.
Despite that though, “Without Warning” is a great Halloween treat that ends with a really scary “boo!” It’s a fine tribute to the original “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, and also deals with important themes about human nature, fear, politics, and appropriate military response. Themes which, despite references to events of the mid-90s, still resonate strongly today when you examine how the early 21st Century uses military force as a reaction to fear.
It’s a frightening story, but it’s also worth pondering.