The China Syndrome

Two events at a nuclear power plant involving component failure and human error.

There is an excellent running analysis of certain institutions or systems, a TV news studio, a public hearing, the plant, its parent company, and the people involved.

The contractor’s fakery, when discovered, provokes a response that is treated as a security breach. The hearing is deprived of material, and so forth.

These systems all have limitations and “backups to backups”, in the event of failure there is an automatic shutdown at the plant, for instance.

The title refers to the bottom falling out of a nuclear reactor, which does not happen in the film.



The script is a magician’s patter, which nevertheless exposes the popular misconception of the Heisenberg principle, among other things. The real story is in the pictures Bridges invents, the targets being John DeLorean, aerobics, and the press. The odd subtlety is to be seen in Jann Wenner’s appearance as his own alter ego, Curtis’ rendering of the type of performance Ginger Rogers gave in Howard Hawks’ Monkey Business (where she acts one scene while balancing a paper cup full of water on her forehead as she bends over backward to the floor and back up), and Travolta in the early scenes parodying Warren Beatty in The Parallax View (dir. Alan J. Pakula). There’s a little echo of Billion Dollar Brain (dir. Ken Russell), and a fine collapse of the whole edifice at the end.