movie review by
Gary Johnson


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Blast From the Past
In the '50s and '60s, as tension mounted between Russia and America, suburban Americans planned on surviving nuclear war. Schools taught children to "duck and cover," and many families built fallout shelters in their own backyards. Most of these shelters were simply concrete bunkers that could sustain a family for only a few days.

However, Calvin Webber took the Russian threat very seriously, so he built a spacious eight-room, underground facsimile of his family's San Fernando Valley tract house--complete with a fish farm, a contained air system, and a food pantry as large as a small grocery store. One evening, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Calvin and his wife Helen retired to the fallout shelter, certain the atomic bombs would soon begin falling. And then an explosion rocked the shelter.

Believing the explosion was a nuclear blast--in fact it was an airplane crash--Calvin and Helen waited underground for 35 years (the half-life of nuclear contamination). During those years, Helen even gave birth to a son, Adam, who received a steady diet of Perry Como ("Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive") and I Love Lucy (courtesy of a nifty film projector that cast an image inside the Webber's television set). But now after 35 years, the time locks have finally turned back. It's time for the Webber's to return to the world outside.

That's the premise of Blast From the Past, a sweet and funny comedy from director/screenwriter Hugh Wilson (who also directed The First Wives Club). The story itself owes more than a little to The Truman Show. Both movies delight in presenting us with heroes who know little of the outside world, heroes who have blissfully positive views of human nature. However, unlike Jim Carrey's Truman Burbank, who is horribly sad and confused, Adam is quite happy in his limited experience. The movie even makes the case that he is better off in some ways because of his isolation: he has good manners and he shows people respect. He's completely forthright and honest. The rationale here is a little suspect. I can't help but believe that someone raised underground with only his parents as friends for 35 years would be horribly screwed up psychologically. But, hey, this ain't no documentary.

Even if the premise is as light as a feather, it's still fun to watch as Adam stumbles around Los Angeles, with his baseball card collection under one arm (now worth thousands) and a silly grin forever plastered on his face. What makes us care about Adam and his mother and father are the performances. The filmmakers could have easily cast character actors in the roles of Calvin and Helen Webber; instead, they cast the roles against type by giving us Christopher Walken and Sissy Spacek. Walken usually plays psychos nowadays (and Calvin is definitely a bit of a nut case), but in Blast From the Past, Walken is warm and enthusiastic. It's Walken's manic-yet-controlled performance that makes us believe a family could survive in a fallout shelter for 35 years. Calvin hardly notices the family's isolation; he's in awe of the subterranean world that he created. "When we go up," he says, "I'm gonna miss this place." Meanwhile, Helen feels the pressures of isolation. She begins secretly taking swigs of the cooking sherry. In her first completely comedic role, Spacek makes us believe in Helen by expertly mixing Helen's disappointment in her underground lifestyle with her respect for Calvin. She becomes a perfect Eisenhower-era wife who begins to crack a little bit under the pressure. But for her family, Helen resists the temptation to fall apart completely.

The real pressure for whether or not Blast From the Past succeeds or fails rests on Brendan Fraser, and he's remarkable as Adam Webber. He gives us a completely na´ve and innocent character. Adam has never seen the sky or ocean. He has never heard a curse word. He prefers Perry Como to rock'n'roll. Brendan Fraser is so charming he makes us believe in this absurdly pleasant and respectful character. "My mother says good manners are how you show people that you respect them," Adam says.

The filmmakers keep the emphasis on the lightweight banter between Adam and the woman (aptly named Eve) that he immediately meets and befriends after he leaves the fallout shelter. But occasionally the filmmakers peek behind Adam's bemusement and reveal the profound revelation that Adam feels, such as when he sits outside and watches raindrops cascade from trees leaves, oblivious to his own drenched condition. "My father said everything is a miracle," he says and suddenly he understands what his father meant. Everything that we take for granted becomes beautiful and remarkable to Adam. In moments like this one the movie moves to a completely different level altogether. (However, these moments are rare, and when they do occur the filmmakers always quickly rush away to something less serious.)

Alicia Silverstone plays Eve. She's a streetwise woman whose personal life is in shambles. She protects herself with a cynical, wisecracking exterior. Eve's attracted to "hair and butts" and therefore she ends up with guys who are hopelessly shallow. When she meets Adam--the first considerate, kind, respectful man to ever enter her life--she thinks he should be committed to a mental hospital. After her gay friend Troy (Dave Foley of TV's News Radio) eloquently points out the irony of her reaction to Adam, she begins to think of Adam differently. She knows he is smitten with her, but can she really love someone who is gentle and naive?

Blast From the Past is a lightweight but tremendously enjoyable comedy. Every scene with Christopher Walken and Sissy Spacek is a delight. In comparison, the scenes with Brendan Fraser and Alicia Silverstone occasionally veer a little too far into cutesy territory, but director Hugh Wilson enlivens their scenes with a healthy dose of absurdity, as when Adam gets to show off his dance moves in a Los Angeles dance club. And yes Adam does have dance moves--his mother gave him a dancing lesson every day of his life!

Blast From the Past is a surprisingly disarming comedy filled with optimism and hope. While most comedies nowadays give us anti-heroes who break rules through blatant insensitivity and stupidity, Blast From the Past gives us a hero we can respect. The change is refreshing.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]