Blast from the Past (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In the autumn of 1998, New Line Cinema opened Pleasantville, a thoroughly delightful fantasy about a couple of modern-day kids thrown back in time to a world of wholesome family values where everything is (literally) black and white. Now, less than six months later, the same distributor has released Blast from the Past, a movie that, at least in its core idea, is an inverted version of Pleasantville. In this case, a refugee from the early-'60s culture is dumped into the late 1990s, and, just as the characters in Pleasantville changed the world around them, so too does the protagonist in Blast from the Past, albeit on a smaller scale.

The "fish out of water" story is nothing new to actor Brendan Fraser. This is, after all, his third exploration of it. One of his early films, Encino Man, cast him as a thawed caveman coping with life in modern-day California (unfortunately, since it featured Pauly Shore, it was virtually unwatchable). Several years later, he was George of the Jungle, a Tarzan wannbe taken out of his familiar green surroundings and plunked down in San Francisco. Now, he's Adam Webber, a 35-year old man sealed away from society since birth.

Blast from the Past opens in 1962, when the Cold War is at its chilliest. Calvin and Helen Webber (Christopher Walken and Sissy Spacek) are regarded as eccentrics by their friends and neighbors- and that opinion has been formulated by people who don't know what's buried beneath the Webbers' backyard. In a paranoid era when many affluent Americans are constructing their own personal fallout shelters, Calvin has taken things to an extreme. He has replicated his entire house underground, complete with an astroturf backyard and a mock grocery store with provisions for 35 years. It's a marvel of engineering and architecture.

On the fateful night during the Cuban Missile Crisis when President Kennedy announces to the world that he is drawing a line in the sand, Calvin and Helen elect to play it safe and spend some time in their underground habitat. At the precise moment when they enter the shelter, a small plane falls out of the sky and crashes into their house. Heard from underground, the impact sounds like a massive explosion. Convinced that a nuclear holocaust has begun, Calvin seals himself and his pregnant wife in. The locks on the shelter will not open for 35 years - the time Calvin has calculated that it will take for the surface to become habitable again.

Those three and a half decades pass quickly (in 20 minutes, actually), and, by the late 1990s, Adam Webber, Calvin and Helen's grown son, is ready to venture forth into the world and find a wife. Considering his sheltered upbringing, he is ill-prepared for the pitfalls of making his way around present-day Los Angeles, but, when he hooks up with a young woman named Eve (Alicia Silverstone), he believes that not only has he found a guide and companion, but possibly a mate as well. Eve, who is being paid to help Adam, views things differently.

While it's possible to see Blast from the Past as a fairly traditional romantic comedy with a somewhat unique backstory, the film is really more than that. It's a slick, clever satire of American culture, both as it exists today and as it was more than three decades ago. Unlike much of what comes out of Hollywood, this movie was not put together carelessly. Director Hugh Wilson (The First Wives Club) invested a great deal of thought and consideration into designing the look of the fallout shelter and the portion of 1998 Los Angeles into which Adam first emerges. For those who care to notice, there are numerous background sight gags. Although the script (by Wilson and Bill Kelly) isn't airtight, it is smartly written and has the kind of internal consistency that facilitates a willing suspension of disbelief. And the relationship between Adam and Eve is a little more substantial than just boy-meets-girl; it's about finding the middle ground between two radically different cultures.

Fraser and Sliverstone slip comfortably into their roles, creating appealing personalities and generating the kind of old fashioned, winning chemistry that has saved more than one romantic comedy. With his work in 1998's Gods and Monsters, Fraser forcefully announced that he's more than a pretty face, and Silverstone has the wattage to take over for Meg Ryan as the romantic comedy queen (if she is so inclined). The supporting cast includes Christopher Walken in what for him is a subdued role, Sissy Spacek, and Dave Foley as Eve's gay best friend.

Blast from the Past is arguably a little too ambitious. A subplot involving a religious cult isn't well-realized (although it does offer a few amusing moments) and a segment featuring a social worker is poorly integrated (it feels like what it is - an obvious plot device). Those are relatively minor hiccups in an otherwise frothy and enchanting motion picture. Blast from the Past is not the best film I have seen during the first six weeks of 1999, but it's one of the two or three I have enjoyed the most. As a date movie or for a solo night out, Blast from the Past offers more than standard romantic comedy fare.

Blast from the Past (United States, 1999)

Director: Hugh Wilson
Cast: Brendan Fraser, Alicia Silverstone, Christopher Walken, Sissy Spacek, Dave Foley, Scott Thomson
Screenplay: Bill Kelly and Hugh Wilson
Cinematography: José Luis Alcaine
U.S. Distributor: New Line Cinema
Run Time: 1:46
U.S. Release Date: 1999-02-12
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1