I like symmetry. It might be an OCD thing, but I don't care. So when I was randomly watching videos on YouTube the other day and came across a copy of a TV movie I saw in the mid to late-90s, that just so happened to share the same name as the film I most recently reviewed here, I pretty much knew I was going to be reviewing it as well. So welcome to the 1994 made-for-TV movie, Without Warning, which is a completely different film from the 1980 film Without Warning. (Don't worry, it won't get too confusing.)
A TV broadcast of a thriller on October 30, Without Warning, is interrupted by a special bulletin. Three earthquakes registering 8.5 on the Richter Scale have been reported in three different places on the planet more or less simultaneously. These earthquakes are quickly revealed to have been caused by three meteor strikes, all happening in rural, supposedly unpopulated areas, although two survivors are quickly found - an 8-year-old girl at the impact site in Wyoming, and a French skier at the site in Lourdes, France. Both are badly injured and babbling incoherently. The third site in a remote area of China, is too difficult to reach to check for survivors. The news broadcast stays with this story as things continue to unfold - scientists from NASA and SETI are brought in for secret consultations and a strange hum begins to emanate from the impact sites which disrupts air traffic communications and some broadcast signals. Then comes the news from the White House that a fourth asteroid is on an impact course at the North Pole. Air Force planes armed with low-yield nuclear missiles are launched to try to destroy this asteroid before it impacts and causes a potentially extinction-level event, but even as this is happening some are questioning and pointing out the bizarrely perfect geometry of these meteor strikes, which to them can only mean there is an intelligence behind them. As the clock counts down, the news broadcast and everyone watching around the world waits to see if they will survive this, and whether it is just a natural phenomenon or some sort of extraterrestrial contact...
Without Warning is a mockumentary-style TV movie that was inspired by the infamous 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast play by Orson Welles. There's even a couple of nods to that broadcast in the date that this is taking place on and in the mention of a place called "Grover's Mill" near to the impact site in Wyoming (Grover's Mill New Jersey was where the first alien cylinder landed in the radio play). Perhaps ironically, it also caused some of the same panic when it was first broadcast, as even though it had both text and a voice-over at the start of each segment telling people it was an act of fiction, people were still distressed enough about it to complain. One of the main reasons they believed it was real was because of the presence of veteran news anchor Sandor Vanocur, who played himself - a similar reaction to the one the viewers of BBC One's Ghostwatch, who believed it was legitimate because of the appearance of household names like Michael Parkinson and Sarah Greene. As a result, CNN issued an order that its reporters and news anchors were not allowed to play themselves or any other role in a fictional movie, and as far as I am aware, the film has never been shown again on American TV, although it is now available on DVD (and YouTube).
The film follows a remarkably tight narrative structure, as it gradually reveals more and more information as the events unfold. It even contains a moment of Chekov's Voyager recording which they wait until practically the last minute to reveal. Paying attention while watching, however, reveals that rather than being a real-time mockumentary, the movie actually condenses several hours of news footage into 88 minutes - the better to keep the narrative flow moving without showing long periods where nothing is happening, as would probably have happened if this was a real news event. The final quarter of the film is perhaps a little too aggressively preachy with its message - yes, humanity's tendency to react to most unexplained events with violence is probably going to come around and bite us on the ass eventually - but at the same time it's still a valid moral.
Don't try to follow the science too closely in Without Warning, however. It's one thing to accept that an advanced intelligence would maybe direct meteors and asteroids at the Earth's surface with pinpoint accuracy, but once nuclear weapons get involved then things get rather more erratic. At one point near the film's climax, the light from an incoming asteroid (reported to be two miles wide) is visible on the news camera filming the event, and the news reporter even throws himself backwards fearing an impact before the nuclear missiles obliterate it. At that low of an altitude, you're going to nuke the city as well as the asteroid, not to mention the fact that there is no debris whatsoever from the obliterated asteroid. But I probably shouldn't be getting too frustrated with inaccuracies like these when it's the message of the film that's the important part.
One of the executive producers of Without Warning was David L Wolper, who had been in TV since the 1960s and had produced several other mockumentary-style films through the decades, including The Hellstrom Chronicle and The Man Who Saw Tomorrow. Clearly the man had an eye for dystopian mockumentary scenarios. And Without Warning is quite bleak, at least at the end when the whole situation is revealed and we realise how badly things have been messed up. As I said, it's very tightly paced and narrated, and keeps the audience's attention throughout with its slow feeding of plot points to keep us on edge. The fact that it was originally a TV movie means that a lot of people have probably missed seeing it, which is a shame as it's considerably better than some Hollywood movies released before and after.
Amazon UK (region 1 only)