Movies you might have missed: Miracle Mile, Steve De Jarnatt’s bleak magnum opus

This off-kilter romcom rapidly transforms into one of cinema's best ever depictions of the end of the world

Anthony Edwards, later star of ‘ER’, is excellent in this fine and fascinating 1988 movie
Anthony Edwards, later star of ‘ER’, is excellent in this fine and fascinating 1988 movie

We live in an age of uncertainty with the threat of nuclear war seemingly as palpable as it has been for decades. One can choose to block out such worrying thoughts and engage with art purely as escapism, a means of inhabiting a world less dangerous than our own. The other option is to embrace the chaos, read The Stand by Stephen King and prepare for the apocalypse.

Those inclined to engage with the fear head on could do a lot worse than check out Miracle Mile (1988, available on Netflix). Steve De Jarnatt’s magnum opus begins as an off-kilter romantic comedy with a pre-ER Anthony Edwards playing Harry, meeting and falling in love with Mare Winningham’s Julie at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles.

The pair arrange a date for the same evening but a power cut means Harry misses his alarm and an innocent nap might just have cost him the girl of his dreams. Nevertheless, he makes his way to the proposed meeting point in the middle of the night, tries to phone Julie from the pay phone outside (ask your parents) and, just after hanging up, the phone rings. A voice on the other end of the phone suggests nuclear war will break out in about 70 minutes.

What follows is one wild night to rival Martin Scorsese’s After Hours.

It took the filmmaker eight years to get this made and he fought hard to maintain the bleak tone. American Film magazine named Miracle Mile one of the 10 best unmade screenplays years before it was filmed, but Warner Brothers wanted something larger-scale and didn’t feel they could trust a first-time director with such an endeavour.

The script was at one stage touted to be part of Twilight Zone: The Movie (a previous subject of this column) until Steven Spielberg joined that particular project.

De Jarnatt has not made a film since and one has to wonder if the sheer pessimism on display here was simply too much for some to take. Edwards is superb in the lead, a role that was nearly taken by Nicolas Cage.

It looks stunning, and the nightmarish quality of LA in the 1980s is perfectly evoked by cinematographer Theo van de Sande (who would later work on Volcano in a similar vein). This is one of the best evocations of the end of days ever committed to film: not too shabby, given a meagre budget.

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