The Chain Reaction (1980) poster

The Chain Reaction (1980)


Australia. 1980.


Director/Screenplay – Ian Barry, Producer – David Elfick, Photography – Russell Boyd, Music – Andrew Thomas Wilson, Special Effects – Reece Robinson, Art Direction – Graham Walker. Production Company – Palm Beach.


Steve Bisley (Larry Stillson), Arna-Maria Winchester (Carmel Stillson), Ross Thompson (Heinrich Schmidt), Ralph Cotterill (Grey), Hugh Keays-Byrne (Eagle), Lorna Lesley (Gloria), Richard Moir (Constable Piggott), Laurie Moran (Sergeant McSweeney)


At the WALDO nuclear facility, Dr Heinrich Schmidt goes to deal with an emergency, only to receive a fatal dose of radiation exposure from a flooded containment breach. He is placed under medical quarantine but makes an escape. Mechanic Larry Stillson and his wife Carmel go off to spend a weekend together at a small Australian Outback town. Their idyll is then interrupted by the arrival of the amnesiac Heinrich. At the same time, sinister mercenaries employed by WALDO arrive in the area to stop Heinrich before he lets it known to the public that irradiated material from the plant has leaked into the local water table.

Not to be confused with Chain Reaction (1996), the Keanu Reeves techno-thriller of the same name, The Chain Reaction is an interestingly obscure Australian thriller. The film seems like a collusion of two films that had come out just the year before – The China Syndrome (1979) about an attempt to cover up a nuclear power plant accident gone wrong, and Australia’s own Mad Max (1979), a car chase film that also featured a man driving for his life. (Indeed, Mad Max director George Miller also serves as associate producer of The Chain Reaction and the film features two actors from Mad Max – Steve Bisley and Hugh Keays-Byrne).

The Chain Reaction has largely been construed as a car chase film with a smattering of trendy anti-nuclear protest. Director Ian Barry clearly comes from the Australian car culture and demonstrates a love of pumped-up muscle cars. The car chase sequences are conducted with a reasonable degree of kinesis (although one fails to see how car tires could screech when a car skids on a dirt road).

Radiation-suited mercenaries in The Chain Reaction (1980)
Radiation-suited mercenaries

However, as a thriller, The Chain Reaction works far less effectively. It takes a long time to get to the main set-up. Moreover,it is set up wrong as a thriller. Ian Barry makes the mistake of unveiling the main surprise – the nuclear accident – at the start and then allows nearly an hour for the characters to arrive at the information that we already know from the outset. This revelation, as well as the unfolding of the mystery about Heinrich, what his memory loss is about and why he is being chased, would have worked far more suspensefully if we had arrived at these revelations as at the same time that the characters had.

Ultimately, The Chain Reaction is a film that is not interested in the political issues beyond the extent to which they can be wielded as part of the action movie formula – in all respects, the nuclear accident is no more than a McGuffin to hang an action film from.

Trailer here

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