There’s a phrase from the mid-90s that described the explosion in use of the Internet (specifically Usenet forums) at that time: “Eternal September”. Before this, with internet access primarily available in universities, new users had only appeared at the beginning of each academic year, in September. But in September of 1993 America Online began its massive campaign to offer people internet access from their homes, and so the new users just kept coming, and coming, and coming. September never ended.
As these new users poured in, there were unexpected cultural consequences. One of these was a vast increase in the reach of conspiracy theories and general fringe thinking, a mistrust of the government and the establishment that had simmered on the edges for decades but had never had a chance to ferment. It’s no coincidence that one of the most iconic TV shows of the decade is The X-Files. And it was into that atmosphere, in July 1996, that Chain Reaction was released.
The conspiracy theory behind Chain Reaction is typical of the time, in a pre-9/11 era when it was the heady San Francisco mix of anarchic socialism that dominated the field. It’s sometimes called the “Free Energy Suppression” theory: the idea that numerous non-polluting forms of energy creation exist, but because they cannot be made profitable they are suppressed by the big energy corporations.
This theory was stoked by the “cold fusion” debacle of 1989. In March of that year researchers claimed to have observed results that indicated hydrogen atoms were being fused together, generating heat, in a reaction occurring at room temperature. This would, if it were possible, allow for nuclear power to be generated without radioactive byproducts and from a readily available fuel source. By April the claims were coming apart, and they were soon roundly debunked. This was, of course, extremely good news for the existing energy industry.
By 1996 the “Free Energy Suppression” theory was as mainstream as conspiracy theories got, with inventors like Stanley Meyer claiming to be able to run cars on water. (His death two years later was naturally considered to be an attempt to suppress these inventions.) It was mainstream enough for Hollywood to build an action movie around it, one created by the writer-director team behind Under Siege. Both had plenty of cachet in Hollywood even before that: director Andrew Davis had recently brought The Fugitive to the big screen, while writer JF Lawton was best known for the box office blockbuster Pretty Woman.
The film opens with a speech about the environmental impacts of fossil fuels, followed by the introduction of a group of scientists in the the Chicago industrial district (led by the scientist who gave the speech) who are researching into “clean energy”. The film sensibly has just enough science to lend it a veneer of reality without trying to go too deep into fiction. Their solution to the problem is an unspecified method of breaking water apart into hydrogen and oxygen through a self-sustaining “chain reaction”, with less input energy than they will gain by burning the hydrogen. (Hydrogen burns to produce water, making it the ultimate “clean fuel”.)
The issue is that their reaction is unstable, a problem solved in a realistically accidental way by machinist Eddie Kasalavich (played by Keanu Reeves). He’s machining a part and notices the effect the noise made by his lathe has on a small test reactor. Eddie records the noise, and it turns out those frequencies are key to stabilising the reaction.
Reeves was in a lull in his career at the time. Hits of the early 90s (like Point Break and Speed) had been followed by disappointments like Johnny Mnemonic and A Walk In The Clouds. It would be a few years before The Matrix sent him into the stratosphere again. His co-stars in the film are Rachel Weisz and Morgan Freeman. Weisz plays Lily Sinclair, one of the scientists working on the reactor, and this was her first major role. Three years later, her role in The Mummy would make her a household name.
Morgan Freeman was already a household name, having been working in film for 33 years at that point. He had three Oscar nominations (eight years later he was nominated again and finally won); along with a Golden Globe and a string of appearances in box office hits. He plays Paul Shannon, the man who is financing the reactor research, as the head of a mysterious “foundation”. Well-known character actor Brian Cox rounds out the cast, along with Fred Ward as an FBI agent who gets pulled into events.
Naturally as the scientists are celebrating their success, dark forces are moving to suppress their reactor. The lead scientist is murdered and the reactor sabotaged, with only happenstance leading Eddie to discover the crime before the reactor explodes. Soon he and Lily are being framed for causing the explosion, and need to go on the run while investigating the conspiracy.
It’s fairly standard 90’s action fare, filmed on location through Chicago and Wisconsin (with Wisconsin also standing in for Washington in places.) In places it does feel similar to The Fugitive, which was one complaint critics at the time had. On the other hand it’s very different from similar movies today, which makes it seem more original. The setpieces seem subdued by modern standards, but are on a par with contemporary hits like Broken Arrow and the first Mission Impossible.
Competent action setpieces weren’t enough to save the film at the box office, though. Critics damned it with faint praise, saying it had “swell photography and exciting chase scenes” but that it failed to really communicate its plot well. It had a similar lukewarm performance with viewers, and while it didn’t bomb it did fail to break even. Reeves, Weisz, and Freeman all went on to bigger and better things. Andrew Davis went on to basically similar things, directing a string of mid-level star vehicles over the next ten years before basically retiring. JF Lawton created the TV series VIP (which starred Pamela Anderson as a bodyguard, and ran for four seasons until 2002). He also co-wrote the underrated movie adaptation of the videogame Dead Or Alive.
Nowadays, Chain Reaction sits among the forgotten action hits of the 90s, rendered obsolete by the likes of The Matrix, The Bourne Identity, and the later Mission Impossible movies raising the bar for big budget action movies. While its “too smart for its own good” plot might have made it a cult favourite years later (like Hackers), that was derailed by the seismic shift in “conspiracy theories” following the 9/11 attacks in the US. Shorn of its context, Chain Reaction now stands as almost a monument to a more innocent time. The environmental message that begins the movie rings more true than ever, though, and the film does feel surprisingly relevant in places. If nothing else, it’s still a stellar cast in a fun romp – and there’s nothing wrong with that.
All images via IMDB.