The Chain Reaction arrived on the heels of the first Mad Max (1979) film – including chase scenes supervised by George Miller himself – and, on initial release, was enthusiastically linked to it by critics demanding a vigorous genre cinema in Australia, free of the obligation to be sedately naturalistic and earnestly meaningful like so many films of the '70s renaissance.
Although seldom cited with such ardour in the intervening years, it now deserves to be rated as one of the richest and most appealing Australian exploitation features.
Writer-director Ian Barry (whose subsequent career sadly did not follow the path signposted by this film) seems to know both the narrative structures and aesthetic mechanisms of the various action genres very well indeed.
The film economically ties together a number of classical plot devices: a race against time; loss of memory; imminent catastrophe; the clash of innocent bystanders with a sinisterly ubiquitous State system – all configured around the central premise of a leak in a nuclear power plant.
The innocents are colourfully played by Steve Bisley and Arna-Maria Winchester, incarnating amid the explosive mayhem various typically Australian attitudes and reactions (such as anti-authoritarianism) that work to customise an American film model to a local sensibility.
The film's cinematic style is rigorous and consistently inventive, full of attention-grabbing visual and aural effects. In the images there is a well thought out use of slow tracking shots, Gothic shadows and a play between foreground and background spaces; and on the soundtrack, a multi-functional synthesized score that mixes conventional music, the treated sounds of objects within the fiction, and a range of intermediate sound effects that disorientate and intrigue the viewer.
Predictably, the film was criticised for its shallow, functional characterisation – in fact, perfectly suited to the aesthetic needs of a genre movie – and for its sensationalist treatment of a topical political issue. As in so much exploitation cinema, the Big Theme (here, the nuclear question) indeed functions as a mere pretext, a device for generating thrilling structures and effects.
And yet the aura of Gothic menace and paranoia that the film exudes is surely not an entirely inappropriate artistic response to one of the principal terrors of our age. In retrospect, The Chain Reaction looks to be not only a cinematically exciting but also culturally apposite expression of collective dread.
© Adrian Martin May 1991