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."
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!" a 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.
Up in the sky, two pilots in a very cool-looking four-engine plane play tag with the storm systems and try to follow the progress of the twisters and the hurricane below them. One of the pilots is particularly uneasy; his wife is way down below on the ground and as pregnant as pregnant can be. She and one of her eccentric apartment neighbors get into a freight elevator to escape the flying glass from shattering windows in their building, and at that moment, wouldn't ya know, Chicago's electrical systems break down and the city is plunged into a blackout.
What's next -- dinosaurs coming back to life and lumbering ashore from Lake Michigan? For all the hyperbole of the premise, "Day of Destruction" never seems absolutely implausible, perhaps because we now know that almost anything terrible can happen. And that blackout may not be the result of natural disasters, since we see a pair of mysterious hands operating a slick-looking transparent computer keyboard just before the lights go out.
The nasty weather gets plenty of ballyhoo -- more even than on Storm Center 4 or Doppler Radar 7: "The storm's going to be massive," says one expert. "Unlike anything we've seen before," echoes another. "A lot bigger than anyone ever expected," says a reporter, and Dennehy exclaims, "This one's off the chart" when it comes to potential power. Quaid as the storm-chasing climatic cowboy is nevertheless having a ya-hoo good time: "I got triplets!" he shouts. "Two monster storms colliding right over the city of Chicago," plus the power blackout.
The last we see of Quaid, he's doing a noisy yet somehow touching tribute to Slim Pickens at the end of "Dr. Strangelove," zooming off into the distance as if on a giant yo-yo with the longest string of all time.
Writer Matt Dorff and director Dick Lowry keep the movie whirling and racing -- spiraling, but not out of control. Only a few of the special effects were finished in time for the version distributed to critics, but they looked like doozies. Alas, no airborne cows go mooing by as in "Twister," unless a computer had yet to insert them when the critics' print was made. Maybe a couple of airborne critics will go mooing by; that would be a nice touch for a change. How about Roger Ebert and that other guy?
The film borrows liberally not only from "Twister" but also from "The Perfect Storm" and dozens of other disaster blasters. It has a thrill around every corner and a seemingly endless supply of corners, and even if its combination of coincidences may be scientifically unlikely, no one can say with authority that it absolutely positively could not happen. And watching it happen may not only turn millions into white-knuckle viewers but also make them more ecologically conscientious, for whatever that's worth.
So batten down the hatches, me hearties; poppen up the popcorn, uncorken the Coken and enjoy a good old-fashioned hoot of a movie -- one that explains why, if Frank Sinatra were alive today, he'd have to revise the lyrics to one of his big hits: "My kind of town, Chicago was, my kind of town . . . "
Category 6: Day of Destruction airs tonight at 9 and Wednesday at 8 on Channel 9.