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'Category 6': CBS Opens a Storm Window

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 14, 2004; Page N01

There's nothing like the end of the world to liven up a Sunday evening. Actually, "Category 6: Day of Destruction" limits itself mainly to the obliteration of Chicago and a large surrounding portion of the nation, but the convincingly apocalyptic special effects give the impression of all hell breaking loose: heat waves, dozens of tornadoes and a hurricane so big it doesn't even fit on the hurricane scale.

Clearly, the culprit for this commingling of natural disasters in the nation's heartland -- and appendix -- is that old bogeyperson, Global Warming. "Something out there is changing our climate," warns Brian Dennehy as Andy Goodman of the National Weather Service. "We'd better start dealing with it."

Tornadoes wreak havoc in "Category 6," much to the delight of Randy Quaid's climatic cowboy, left. (Above: Cbs; Left: Allen Fraser -- Cbs)

Dianne Wiest, pretty and plump, plays the secretary of energy, who does her fretting in Washington. "It's about civilization," she says of the crisis, "[and] whether we'll have one in 20 years." Some of us wonder whether we even have one now, but that's a subtlety for another movie.

The film airs in two parts, making it that gala rarity that used to be commonplace, a Sweeps Month Miniseries. To make it harder to watch, CBS scheduled Part 1 for tonight at 9 (on Channel 9) and Part 2 for Wednesday night at 8. There are a lot more viewers up for grabs on Sunday nights, so maybe CBS doesn't care how many will tune in for the two-hour conclusion.

As Part 1 opens, it's 8 a.m. in Chicago and the temperature has already reached 102 degrees after four weeks of daily readings in that neighborhood. Kiddies splash around in outdoor fountains, though even that seems to be getting tiresome, and residents are implored to ration electricity so the power doesn't fail. Chicagoans, understandably, are starting to get cranky.

Among the other major characters with particular interests in the advancing storms is Nancy McKeon as a pushy young reporter who runs around lecturing everybody about the insufficiency of the electrical system and tries to investigate secret skulduggery by power-mad electrical executives. Nancy's boss at the TV station tells her to put a lid on it because people don't like to hear gloomy news. That makes her realllllllly mad. Some of the movie's comments about "the dumbing down of local news" have a bit of bite, which is mildly ironic since tonight the movie will be the lead-in to local news on CBS affiliates in dozens of markets throughout the country.

The cast isn't as bland as is usual for these disaster things. In fact Randy Quaid, who chewed some gigantic scenery in the magnum opus "Independence Day" in 1996, has a high time playing Tornado Tommy, a gonzo weather-watcher who makes his living driving tourists around Oklahoma in search of twisters. Quaid was a nutty crop-duster who became a hero in "Independence Day" and is, just as believably, a nutty storm-chaser who becomes a hero in the CBS movie. Quaid has a career as long as people keep making these movies.

Isn't it at least a little surprising, now that we mention it, that people do keep making these movies? You might think that after the unspeakable horror of 9/11, the audience would quickly if temporarily lose its appetite for films showing U.S. icons under attack and crumbling to the ground. In the CBS film, the famous St. Louis arch, buffeted by competing storms, warps and wobbles and then breaks into pieces and becomes just so much garbage.

A commonly uttered comment in the wake of 9/11 was that at times it looked like a disaster movie, albeit one with all the banality replaced by obscenity. A new era in high-tech terrorism had begun, and it was easily worse and more monstrous than anything Hollywood had whipped up.

But if the audience lost its taste for destruction on the screen, it wasn't for very long. "The Day After Tomorrow," a summer crash-bang-boom that got mostly negative reviews, still managed to do more than $185 million at the box office and came in as the fourth-biggest movie of last summer. The villains in these films have been changed from terrorists -- even terrorists from outer space -- to our neglect of the environment and the deaf ear we turn to global warnings.

Tornado Tommy doesn't need any global warming, since his twister-spotting business appears to have been thriving for some time. On the day the movie begins (captions such as "Day 8 of 11" are pasted on the screen at various points), some Japanese tourists have signed up for Tommy's tornado tour, and they end up getting more than their money's worth. First they hear that Las Vegas has been virtually leveled by a whole pack of testy twisters that ganged up on the town and spun it silly.

That famous slogan "What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas" is temporarily suspended since much of the town has been blown out into the desert. In fact a little old couple living north of town are pleasantly surprised when a roulette wheel rolls through their back yard, followed by money flurries -- the night sky filled with fluttering bills.

In Oklahoma, Tommy and his charges go mano a mano in their little clunky van with a tornado whirling right down the highway in front of them. Unfortunately, no one shouts "It's a twister! It's a twister!" à la Ray Bolger in "The Wizard of Oz."

Back at Storm Central, people curse the darkness and the storms brewing in it. Of all the darn luck, Chicago is being approached by that tough gang of tornadoes from the west and, from the southeast, by a hurricane! It's a hurricane so awesome, nobody even takes the time to name it.

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