DEFCON-4/Def-Con 4/Defense Condition 4 (1985) **
The glorious flowering of post-apocalypse movies that began in the mid-1970ís and peaked in the early 80ís had just about burned itself out by 1985. For one thing, itís awfully hard to keep coming up with new visions of the end of the world for ten solid years, and for another, encouraging changes like the reform-minded Mikhail Gorbachevís ascension to the General Secretariat of the Soviet Communist Party that year gave solid new reason for hope that the world as we knew it might survive the 1980ís after all. Sure, the post-apocalypse subgenre had a couple more years of life left in itó Steel Dawn didnít see release until 1987, while Cherry 2000 and World Gone Wild both came out as late as 1988ó but when even a Mad Max movie ends on a faintly optimistic note, you can tell that the times are changing. DEFCON-4/Def-Con 4/Defense Condition 4, Canadaís belated contribution to 70ís and 80ís apocalypse mania, features some surprisingly fresh ideas considering its late date, but it lamentably falls squarely into the category of promising films that completely fizzle after the halfway point.
We start strong, with one of cinema historyís better cost-conscious nuclear holocausts. 407 days into their 21-month tour of duty, the crew of the top-secret American nuclear missile-launching satellite Nemesis learns that a group of Libyan-financed Islamic radicals have hijacked a US Navy transport ship that was carrying eleven BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles, each equipped with a 1-megaton nuclear warhead. Worse yet, one of those missiles has just landed, albeit undetonated, in a town some 30 miles south of Moscow, and the Soviet government is understandably peeved. The diplomatic crisis worsens steadily until, two days later, Nemesis crewman Lieutenant Commander Cecil Howe (Ghost Storyís Tim Choate) picks up the exhaust plumes of a massive Russian ballistic missile strike on his infrared scanner. The space stationís doctor, Eva Jordan (Kate Lynch), insists that the Nemesis fire its missiles at once, but commanding officer Captain Walker (John Walsch) is adamant that they must wait until the Pentagon declares DEFCON-1, or full-scale war, before launching. In a remarkably tense and effective scene, the three astronauts watch as the major cities of the world are vaporized one by one while they wait for word from NORAD headquarters. It never comes, and 45 days later, the Nemesis crew is in orbit around an apparently dead world, their weapons still sitting, unused, in their silos.
The crew has apparently been waiting for the worst of the fallout to settle, while simultaneously seeking to determine which parts of the Earthís surface are still capable of supporting human life. Howe is especially eager to return to the surface, because he has received a transmission from his wife in Portland, Oregon, to the effect that the city has survived, but will not last much longer in the face of the radioactive contamination drifting in on the prevailing winds. Dr. Jordan, too, thinks the Nemesis should land, but Captain Walker is having none of it. Before the three astronauts can settle the issue to any of their satisfaction, a signal from Earth somehow sets in motion the stationís landing protocols, and the onboard computer makes the decision for them. Walker orders all the missiles launched, so as to prevent them from being detonated by either the heat of reentry or the impact of landing, and Howe fires them off after setting them to explode in 60 hours. One of the missiles has a faulty launch system, however, and it remains within its silo as the Nemesis plunges earthward. Those of you who think this might be important later get a gold star for the day.
The landing is not a soft one. All three crewmembers are knocked about a good deal when the ship makes landfall on a Canadian beach, and Dr. Jordan spends the next several scenes laid up with a concussion. Not only that, the Nemesis control module set itself down in such a way as to bury the only hatch leading out under several feet of sand. In a way, that last part could be counted as a blessing. When Walker and Howe make their first attempt to dig themselves free (after hearing a series of knocks on the Nemesisís hull), someone or something up on the surface seizes the captain the moment enough of him protrudes from the ground to grab hold of, and slaughters him messily. Howe wisely seals the hatch back up and waits until a good six hours or so have passed before attempting to leave the ship again.
When he does, it takes him little time to stumble upon Captain Walkerís killers, a gang of half-mad, radiation-poisoned cannibals who immediately begin trying to fit Howe into the food chain a link or two down from themselves. Howe escapes only by getting caught by somebody else. This somebody else is Vinnie MacKinnon (Maury Chaykin, from The Vindicator and Of Unknown Origin), and though Vinnie is none too impressed with Howeís claims of being a NORAD lieutenant commander just returned from a secret mission in outer space (perhaps Vinnieó unlike the filmmakersó realizes that there are no lieutenant commanders in NORAD), his ears perk up at Howeís mention of the four monthsí supply of food stashed in the Nemesisís hold. Vinnie frees Howe from the trap that caught him, and takes him back to his cabin.
After a quick dinner (I donít know what that shit is, but civilization would definitely have to come to an end before Iíd seriously consider eating it), Vinnie negotiates with Howe: ďIíll make you a deal on the foodó you give it to me, or Iíll kill you.Ē Howe doesnít like that deal very much, but before his bargaining can get very far, somebody steps on one of the landmines in Vinnieís front yard, and the survivalist ties Howe to his chair and leaves the house to investigate. While MacKinnon is out, a young blonde girl climbs up out of the basement to raid the kitchen. This is J. J. (Lenore Zann, from Visiting Hours and Happy Birthday to Me), who ran afoul of Vinnie in much the same way as Howe did. The difference that accounts for her being locked up in the basement while Howe is forced to haggle for his life is that J. J., being female, is a valuable commodity in MacKinnonís eyes. Nevertheless, she isnít exactly happy with her current lot in life, and the moment she hears about Howeís stockpile of food, she cuts a deal with him to escape and sail away on a boat that she knows about. Vinnie comes back before the two conspirators can make good their plans, however, and Howe survives being discovered only because he accidentally mentions Dr. Jordan. MacKinnon is thrilled at the prospect of adding a second woman to his collection, and he takes Howe and J. J. on a little trip to the beach in the earth-mover he has converted into a sort of makeshift tank.
On the way there, the vehicle is attacked by Terminals, the contaminated cannibals we saw earlier, but theyíre the least of anybodyís worries. Far more dangerous are ďthose maniacs from Fort Lizwell,Ē who stage a more effective ambush at the Nemesisís crash site. Before they know what hit them, Howe, J.J., Vinnie, and Jordan (along with Vinnieís tank and the Nemesis itself) are being hauled off to Fort Lizwell, which turns out to be pretty much interchangeable with the campsite of any post-apocalyptic warlord. The surprise here is that Corporal Lacey (Jeff Pustil), the soldier who captured our heroes (and by the way, if Lacey is a Marine Corps corporal, why the hell does he have an Air Force airmanís rank patches on the shoulders of his flight suit?), is not the warlord. The master of Fort Lizwell is instead a teenage boy named Gideon Hayes (Night Schoolís Kevin King), who used to date J. J. before the world ended. Gideon, as we shall learn, is a navy brat whose now-dead father was high enough up in the ranks to know about the Nemesis project. It was Gideonó or rather, Boomer (Alan MacGillivray), the crippled electronics technician he has working for himó who sent the signal that brought down the satellite, because the Nemesisís onboard computer knows the whereabouts of the emergency bunkers the military had constructed for use in the event of a nuclear war. With more fallout blowing into Fort Lizwell all the time, Gideon is anxious to move his operation to a safer, cleaner location, and truth be told, thatís an idea that Howe and the others could probably get behind were it not for one little detail: they donít much care for Gideonís brutally dictatorial style of governance. The rest of the movie concerns the efforts of Howe, J. J., Jordan, and Vinnie to escape from Gideonís clutches and flee to safety on the boat that Gideon has prepared for his own escape. Meanwhile, that 60-hour delay Howe programmed into the fuse of the still-unlaunched nuke in the Nemesisís weapons bay is ticking steadily away, and that, my friends, isnít good for anybody.
Itís such a shame when a movieís creators fritter away a both great premise and a modicum of real talent. Right up to the point at which Lacey and his men surround Howe, J. J., and MacKinnon, DEFCON-4 looks like itís shaping up to be the last great post-nuclear holocaust movie. But alas, the story stops dead the instant the ďactionĒ moves to Fort Lizwell, and it never really picks up again until itís much too late. Even then, the climactic escape is dragged out over far too much time, and begins sputtering from overexertion long before most of the plot threads are wrapped up. Whatís more, the Terminals are completely wasted. This is a big problem, because everybody knows how important contaminated mutants are to an 80ís apocalypse movie! You can get away without using any, but once youíve introduced them to the story, mutants demand lots of attention and screen time. With a couple of Terminals to compare him toó even ones as briefly seen as these areó it becomes obvious what a sorry little twerp of a villain Gideon is, and the emphasis on him and his thugs to the complete exclusion of the Terminals becomes extremely annoying. But itís the boredom that does DEFCON-4 the most damage. My powers of focus are considerable (they have to be to get me through some of the crap I watch), but I found my attention wandering like a goddamned Bedouin all throughout the movieís second half. DEFCON-4 still merits a look on the strength of the first four reels, but itís pretty rough going from there on out.