Friday 19 February 2016

Disaster Film Olympiad: This Is Not A Test

Where would you like to be when the Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles arrive? The wise among you will probably say 200 metres underground in a fully air-conditioned and ventilated concrete and lead-lined bunker complete with its own state-of-the-art filtration and waste disposal systems, plus fresh water, ample food, a reliable generator and varied types of communication technology. The more paranoid of you are already reading this from there. Hello, if you are. Playing the long game is admirable. You may yet have the last laugh, in addition to your agonising case of rickets.

No-one, surely, would choose to be stuck at a roadblock on an interstate highway in California. However, that is the exact scenario in which what one might loosely term the protagonists of This Is Not A Test find themselves; stuck at night in a sullenly over-zealous traffic policeman's dragnet. The object of this police attention is Clint Delany, a man on the run from the law for suspected murder. Aside from a brief skirmish with the wanted man, the group's attention soon turn to the police radio announcing the commencement of hostilities with the Soviet Union.

This comes as a real drag to our motley crew, most of whom had other plans that night. Among their number are a a dolly bird and her beatnik lover who seems to have secured their future financial stability by what were presumably dubious means; a hokey, oaky old grandpappy and his beloved (if shrill) granddaughter; a married couple on their way to holiday in Mexico; and the drivers of the Discount World lorry who had been unwittingly ferrying the hitchhiking outlaw to freedom.

Their truck has a large part to play in proceedings. It is somewhat misleadingly named: a British shop called Discount World would be filled with all manner of remaindered tat, California's Discount World is the kind of store where one might bump into Scrooge McDuck. Every single item of cartoonishly over-indulgent cuisine and couture imaginable is being ferried about in the trailer, seemingly without any irony. A shortage of alternatives leave our friendly patrolman to suggest that this trailer might be cleared out and used as an impromptu bomb and fallout shelter. As finessed plans go it is fairly weak, but it is the best one he has and besides, he's the one with the gun.

On many levels, in fact, this plod is quite the dick. His unrelenting blend of buttoned-down officiousness, intransigence and total lack of a sense of humour would be a major bummer in any situation, but in this particular one it quickly starts to seem like overkill. Literally, in the case of the small pet poodle of one of our protagonists: its respiratory needs deemed surplus to the requirements of a post-apocalyptic community of lorry-dwellers, it is duly dispatched at the bare hands of this lurching wall of malevolent gristle. It is comfortably the film's most affecting moment; the dog was the only character for whose ultimate survival I had any vested interest. I also suspect the police officer was probably also a racist, although the makers of This Is Not A Test did not diversify sufficiently during the writing or casting process for this hypothesis to be verified. But he didn't like animals. Always a red flag.

Still, there is an upside to the patrolman's truculence and intolerable heavy-handedness. Once the remainder of our heroes discover the contents of the lorry's trailer, all subsequent attempts at clearance are done with a belly full of caviar, pissed up on 100 proof bourbon and wearing a mink coat. Whether or not this clever subversion of the gravity of the situation was a carefully-planned psychological trick on the part of the policeman is unlikely to ever become clear. It is only partially effective, if so... the undeniable thrill of skulling a bottle of hooch with a crown on proves as fleeting only as each participant's individual ability to suppress the weight of their knowledge re. the impending commencement of global thermonuclear war.

By the film's denouement, our heroes have divided into several distinct groups. The huddled lorry-dwellers quickly turn on each other as the temperature rises and claustrophobia takes hold. Taking their chances in the outside world are the hokey old grandpa, his granddaughter and the first available man she was able to grab from the roadblock. Pops chooses this moment, a mere 10 minutes before curtains, to remember that just round the corner - presumably just 11 minutes round the corner - there is an underground cave with a fresh water spring. Thanks, gramps. Ten minutes is still enough time to put you in a home.

Our outlaw, too, sees a window of opportunity - albeit a rapidly diminishing one - to make good his escape. Unfortunately, his attempt to steal a car quickly ends in a contretemps with an pickup truck loaded with chickens. The sight of a frantic scofflaw retributively laying waste to the hens who have scuppered him would be a striking addition to any film; in one dealing with portending destruction it borders on the tragicomic. Look on the bright side, Clint - if this is the worst thing that happens to you today...

As nuclear disaster films go, This Is Not A Test is not particularly outstanding example. The budget was low, characters laden with stereotype and its cast of unknowns fairly wooden. Nevertheless it is, at times, an interesting study in the breakdown of human society in the face of the unimaginable. Within 73 minutes, we witness mob rule, faction forming, dog murder, extra-marital affairs, crown theft and a near-immediate descent into mass alcoholism. These scenes prove in stark contrast to the official Civil Defense films that the United States was making contemporaneously, where government was well-drilled and impervious, the populace calm and victims few and far between. In their defence, the majority of these films were only twenty minutes in duration: it is always the subsequent 53 which prove the real yardstick.

Ultimately, however, the characters on display in This Is Not A Test all display such genuinely unlikeablilty (in what were, admittedly, chastening circumstances) that when the bomb's arrival heralds the end of the film, it is a relief on a number of levels. This Is Not A Test gets 3 out of 10 disaster points.

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