5-Word 365 #151 – Def-Con 4

Before today, everything I knew about Halifax came from Barratt’s Privateers. I wish that was still the case, as on this evidence, the place is one grim corner of the earth.

Def-Con 4

I missed the first three.

It is the day after tomorrow (known more commonly ’round these parts as “Friday”). As part of a top-secret defense program, the good old US of A has placed a small craft in orbit. This craft holds three people and a metric shit-ton of nuclear warheads that can be targeted anywhere on the planet (but probably Russia). The current crew has been up there for 400 days when the unthinkable happens: nuclear armageddon. Some time later, the crew – pilot Howe, doctor Jordan and commander Walker – find their module being overriden from the surface and on its way down. Who is responsible for this? Where will they land? What will they find there? These questions and more will be answered, after a few hundred words of nonsense.

This is one seriously downbeat movie. Made by writer/director Paul Donovan in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1985, it is one of the most nihilistic post-apocalypse flicks I can remember. Hell Comes To Frogtown was pretty grim at times but at least it had an exploding cod-piece and amphibian strippers; all this has is Maury Chaykin in a kilt. But while it does have its flaws, there is a lot to admire here. Let’s do the list:

What’s good?

The tone. Def-Con 4 sets out its stall on Misery Street with the opening text crawl and it does not deviate from that one iota. The flick is essentially an ever-escalating parade of the depths that humanity can sink to. I don’t think there was a single relationship that could be described as a friendship. The three astronauts are the only characters we see before the bombs start dropping, and they don’t even like each other. There is not one single altruistic act committed during these 84 minutes. Whenever two or more people are working together it is nothing more than a tenuous partnership built on mutual benefit. Let me give you an example of how shitty this world has become: on finding out that the downed spacecraft has a female survivor onboard, a character we are supposed to sympathise with asks what colour her nipples are. What makes this moment even more uncomfortable is that the man being asked – the film’s nominal hero – doesn’t even query this; he just answers. While you can find that sort of commitment to the tone of a film in more movies of that era, it was still fairly rare and has only gotten more so in these days of focus groups and test screenings. Everybody wants the happy ending it seems, but not here.

Only in a post-apocalyptic wasteland would a powder blue tuxedo jacket be considered appropriate attire for a teenaged despot.

The film looks great. Wait, let me qualify that. The film looks right. Everything in the post-apocalypse world is covered in grime and has been knocked together out of whatever junk can be scavenged up, which is probably how most of the set dressing was actually acquired. This also comes under what doesn’t work, but I’ll explain that a bit more in a minute or two.

The cast is a bit of a mixed bag. Some of the performances veer ever so slightly towards the Joey Tribbiani school but others are surprisingly affecting, in particular the late Tim Choate as Howe, Maury Chaykin as Vinny the kilt-clad survivalist farmer and Lenore Zann as schoolgirl temptress JJ. Choate plays Howe as a completely broken man. The first we see him is when his wife is telling him (in a recorded message he’s watching from orbit) that she has already convinced herself to believe he is dead so that she can get on with her life. And this is before everything starts going boom. Things don’t really get any better for the poor bastard. I’m so used to seeing Chaykin as the “jolly fat guy” in movies like Mystery, Alaska so for me, his role here as the damaged, haunted Vinny was very much against type. You’d probably recognise Zann’s voice more than her name or face; she lent her dulcet tones to Rogue in the legendary nineties X-Men animated series (among others). The Australian-born actress is now a Member of Legislative Assembly in Nova Scotia, just so you know. Kevin King plays Gideon, the leader of the military junta (for want of a better term) that has taken power in this area. He is fiercely intelligent and a stone cold psychopath who rules through intimidation and a willingness to execute people for so much as looking at him funny. The most frightening thing about Gideon is not his ruthlessness or his undeniable charisma, but that he is barely out of his teens.

Finally, the flick has one of the greatest last lines of dialogue ever. And no, I’m not going to tell you what it is.

From the grime line, I’m wondering if he ever takes that hat off. It’s always the big questions that bother me the most.

So what’s not so good?

Not much, to be truthful. When I hit play on this flick I was expecting a bit of cheap exploitation; just another riff on the end of the world, maybe with a few severed limbs and the odd mutant or two. But what I got was a serious “what if…” kind of movie, from the Oscar-winning producer of Bowling For Columbine no less. I do have a couple of minor gripes though: first, the timing. When the ship crash-lands it is supposedly only 50 days since the bombs dropped. If that is the case, then shit got really bad really quickly. The world we get to see looks so lived in, it seems like it has been years since the big kahuna.

My other slight complaint is about the scale of the flick, but that would probably be down to budgetary as much as dramatic limitations. The entire story takes place in a tiny corner of the nuclear wasteland and it would have been nice to see more of this new world. The movie does have a sequel-ready open ending (of sorts) but unfortunately nothing came to pass on that front. Also, and this is really just nitpicking of the highest order, but Def-Con 4 means everything is basically fine. “Oh god, oh god, we’re all gonna die” would actually be Def-Con 1.

So there you have it. If you are five or ten years older than me (and/or Canadian) chances are you’ve already seen this. If not, and if you have an appreciation for this narrow but frequently entertaining sub-genre of the B-movie, then what are you waiting for?

Oh yeah, I promised you answers didn’t I? Ok: 1) Boomer. 2) Canada. 3) Crazy people.

Go ahead, punk. Make my day.

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