Blast from the Past
by Jon Bastian
How to take an old premise nowhere.
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Blast from the Past is one of those visitor from another time stories in which our hero, for one reason or another, spends a long while isolated from the world before being thrust into it. It’s a premise that’s older than Rip van Winkle, but comes with a built-in cliché. Inevitably, the only raison d’être for such tales is to present a fish out of water story whose main thrust is to make the audience think either, a) “Gee, things really do suck now” or b) “Gosh, people sure were quaint and silly all those years ago” or c) both. In the former version, you get dark tales like Time After Time or The Philadelphia Experiment. In the latter, you get comedies like Peggy Sue Got Married or Back to the Future. If you’re noticing a common element among three of those films, you’re right. None of them, except Peggy Sue Got Married, were just about a person out of time. One of them was a pretty bad film. Guess which.
Blast from the Past begins with a moderately interesting trick for getting its hero from 1962 to the present. Paranoid about the cold war, an independently wealthy scientist named Calvin Webber (Christopher Walken) has built a massive fallout shelter under his San Fernando Valley home. When the Cuban Missile Crisis heats up, he and his wife, Helen (Sissy Spacek) take refuge, tricked by an incredible coincidence into thinking that the big one has finally dropped. They lock themselves in for the next thirty-five years, during which time mom gives birth to Adam (Brendan Fraser), who grows up underground. The first third of the film is at least compelling, as we learn all the different ways Walken’s character has planned ahead for three and a half decades. Adam grows up well-educated, at least; he speaks English, French, German and Latin and is very well versed in history and geography. Of course, he also grows up into Brendan Fraser — we should all have it so bad. In case you’re wondering the same thing I was, “Brendan Fraser, thirty-five? Yeah, right,” at least this is explained plausibly in the film.
What I found implausible, though, was that he grew up relatively normal. Going in, we could easily buy that his father could get along without people, and mom turns into something of an alcoholic as the years wear on. But, here we have an adult who has known no one but his parents his entire life and whose only view of some kind of outside world has been endless re-runs of old kinescopes of The Honeymooners. That he turns out at least vaguely well-adjusted is stretching it a little bit. Okay, a lot. I mean, c’mon — what teenager could survive such conditions without offing his parents just after his sixteenth birthday and breaking out of the shelter? “Thirty-five years, my ass, I’m outta here.”
When the timed locks open, Walken makes the first foray outside, and in portraying the grittier side of the late nineties, the filmmakers do show us convincingly how he could easily believe he’d wandered into a post-apocalyptic world. But, when a very convenient heart attack — or something — waylays Walken back below ground, it’s up to Adam to go upstairs for supplies and to find a wife, and that’s when the film falls apart.
Whereas many films of this type go strongly in direction a) or b), above, Blast from the Past doesn’t go far in any direction. Adam doesn’t have very many run-ins with our world before coming across the too aptly named Eve (Alicia Silverstone), who starts things off by basically losing her job to keep him from being ripped off, and then treats him ambiguously until the (obvious) conclusion. Adam’s behavior is a little weird but not too strange, and why explaining his origins isn’t the first thing he does is totally inexplicable. After all, if he believes he’s in a post-World War III world, everyone should already know about it and not find his fallout shelter life all that weird. The fact that he never even mentions what he would have believed the defining event of the planet is also odd. The end result is that we wind up with two movies, in which the set-up doesn’t connect with the payoff. Adam could be strange for any number of reasons — escapee from a mental ward, space alien, awakened coma patient — and so the premise of the film gets wasted.
We’re left with Eve running Adam around town as he stockpiles supplies for his return home, despite having forgotten where home is. Any difficulty is avoided by (again, conveniently) supplying him with a fortuitously valuable baseball card collection — and why did he pack a suitcase for what was supposed to be a one day shopping trip, anyway? For that matter, why does Eve have such a flip flop attitude for this man? One moment, she’s ditching him as soon as possible, the next, she’s schlepping him everywhere, then she’s trying to get him to go away while she talks with an old boyfriend, then she’s absolutely jealous that he dances with someone else. Even a total naïf like Adam would probably finally forget her when she calls the county mental authorities to have him committed. And do I need to mention that, in LA, the idea that anyone could get anybody from the county to show up (in less than twenty-four hours) for something as innocuous as a man who claims to have grown up in a fallout shelter is ludicrous?
Brendan Fraser played this kind of character before, in George of the Jungle. Despite being a love story, that film was full of George’s difficulties with the world outside the jungle. Of course, that was because Jungle’s filmmakers bothered to create a character with ways of behaving before dumping him elsewhere. Blast from the Past doesn’t do much to create a character we can care about, then it dumps him in a world where there’s no real danger, just a lot of graffiti and the random homeless extra. Walken and Spacek turn in wonderfully quirky performances in the first part of the film, but then we’re left with Fraser to carry the picture. If you want to see him play the charming but naive right guy in the wrong place, rent George of the Jungle. If you need a forty-two minute nap, watch the first half hour of Blast from the Past, then snooze. Trust me, you won’t miss a thing.
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles and is a playwright and screenwriter who works in the TV trade to keep his dog rolling in kibble.
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