Found Footage 101: ‘Without Warning’ (USA, 1994)

❉ We continue our look back at the found footage films that lead up to ‘The Blair Witch Project’, as death comes from the skies in ‘Without Warning’.

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Plot Teaser

Following three meteor strikes in remote areas, the media reports the imminent destruction of the human race as more asteroids head for the planet.  Or are they…

You’ll Like This If You Like…

A more ambiguous ‘War of the Worlds’, rolling news and the thought of rapidly approaching death from the skies.

Spoiler-Free Review

If you’ve not seen it, then look for a copy – on first viewing this is great.  It moves at a hell of a pace and builds to a great climax.  If you’ve seen it before, then don’t bother: it doesn’t stand up to repeated viewings because that’s when you’ll notice how little sense it makes.

SPOILERS BELOW!

Location

This one’s global – we have reports from Lourdes, Moscow, Beijing and most other places.

Enemy

Probably aliens.  It’s never really answered, but that’s the most likely.

Why Are You Still Filming?

Given that it’s live TV, no one asks that and at no point does the viewer wonder.  There is one point where the sheer dedication of foreign correspondents seems unbelievable, though.

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Review and Analysis

On first viewing this works brilliantly.  Opening as a bland TV movie which is interrupted by a news flash to say that three meteorite strikes have hit the earth, things move so quickly that it’s impossible to not be drawn in to the plot.  As the news station is global we are able to cut from reporters all over the world as the complex story begins to unfold.  Earth is in either  huge danger from asteroids, or we’re misinterpreting first contact with an alien species.  Throw in references to SETI, abduction, speaking in tongues and a delightfully recognisable cast (if you’re an American TV fan this is a treat: Malcolm’s mother interviews both Bill Buchanan from CTU and God-like being Q, while Philip Baker Hall works for NASA) and this really is a treat.  Events never pause long enough for you to think about them, instead leaving you to pick up the small clues being offered and allow you to paint your own picture while even more information bombards the viewer.  Once it becomes clear that the military have cocked-up first contact, by shooting down a particularly large meteor about to hit the north pole (which may not have been a meteor after all) three much larger asteroids are sent hurtling at major cities (Washington, Moscow and Beijing) before the military somehow shoots them all down just in time.  The film closes as NASA reveal in a blood-curdling moment that thousands of asteroids are about to hit us and we start to hear the various stations around the world go out in bursts of static, before we too are consumed by the biggest hail storm the planet has ever seen.

It’s a chilling ending, which, given that this was originally shown on Halloween, does the trick nicely.  It’s scary, bewildering and exhilarating in equal measures, and it’s very slickly edited.  It’s also a loving homage to Welles’s radio ‘War of the Worlds’ which caused a panic (the American meteorite even hits the small town of Grover’s Mill).  Naturally, this also caused a panic.  Despite casting deliberately recognisable faces, many viewers failed to realise that this was just a holiday treat, and instead were more than a little concerned that they were about to die horribly.  Perhaps casting a real life (albeit retired) news anchor as the news anchor, and a very recognisable reporter as a reporter may have been a casting decision too far – it lead to ABC instituting a policy that no news crew could even play themselves – or even fictional equivalents – on TV in future.

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The problems begin on second viewing.  Now, I’m no exobiologist, and I realise that aliens – if we ever finally do meet them – will probably be very different to us.  On the other hand, I certainly don’t think that they would be so incredibly enigmatic that their mysterious greetings would make no sense at all.  Like the earth, the viewer is bombarded with information to stop us questioning what’s happening, because nothing that is happening makes the slightest bit of sense.

It doesn’t help that the writers don’t seem to understand how space works (there’s no way these asteroids could so suddenly appear; even at the speed they move, they’d be seen months away.  The general assumption here is that these massive objects can suddenly appear out of nowhere because space is famously black and hard to see in) whilst their second mistake is to confuse the Voyager 1 and 2 probes with the Pioneer 10 and 11 probes.  If the writers didn’t even understand how things like this work, it’s hardly likely that the aliens would be able to either, which perhaps explains why they manage to balls things up so completely.  They broadcast signals (if that’s what they are – it’s never explained) which cause air traffic to crash and then throw bloody great rocks at the earth.  There’s a vague sort of suggestion that this might be the aliens establishing homing beacons so that they can land safely, but given their ability to produce asteroids out of thin air and then target them very carefully at the planet, one wonders why they would even need a landing beacon to start with.  It should also be noted that this singular method of contact could easily be misidentified by the locals as either a natural disaster or a hostile act, so shooting any more down would seem eminently sensible.

For once in such a film the military response seems highly sensible, yet the aliens (if there are indeed any aliens) simply decide to end all life on earth with more meteors so vastly huge that one wonders why no one saw them coming earlier.  (Perhaps the aliens had asteroid-generating capacities in their spaceships.  Their spaceships which must presumably be quite big, but somehow can’t be seen by any radio telescope.  Unless their ships are the asteroids, which would make even less sense.  But then, what do I know?  I gave up trying to work it out on second viewing and just marvelled at the stupidity of it all.)

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To top it all off, the retired anchorman plays a news anchorman with all the dignity a non-actor can bring to a part that requires him to act.  That’s none.  Wooden throughout, and clearly reading his lines off an autocue rather than pretending to say them spontaneously, he brings whole scenes to a shuddering halt as we see him pontificate blandly (his closing line from Shakespeare, seconds from death, really causes one to wonder what was going through his mind.  Or perhaps the poor guy just really didn’t want to do it, but it was too late because his agent had already agreed.)

It’s a shame, because there’s a very talented cast here and a well-paced story, just not a particularly well-plotted one.  With a strict re-write this could have been great.  As it is, it’s great if you watch it the first time, but never again.

Availability

Released in the early ’00s in the USA, the DVD has since been deleted and commands silly prices on eBay and Amazon.  It was never released anywhere else, although it is available on YouTube.


❉ Next week in Found Footage 101: ‘Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County’ (USA, 1998).

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