The caprice of fate pulls Harry (Anthony Edwards) in every direction at the beginning of Miracle Mile. Touring the La Brea Tar Pits, he meets and charms Julie (Mare Winningham), who spends the afternoon with him and arranges a date after she gets off work that night. But an equally random event thwarts Harry’s stroke of luck by knocking out his alarm clock and causing him to oversleep. Rushing to the diner where they were supposed to meet, Harry’s fortunes take yet another turn when he accidentally intercepts a call from a frantic soldier in a missile silo, who informs him that nuclear war has begun and that rockets will strike the United States in 70 minutes.
The latter revelation abruptly upends what had been a slightly offbeat, if still generic, rom-com and turns it into a mash-up of paranoid thriller and disaster horror. The ambiguous veracity of the message entrusted to Harry casts doubt on his attempts to warn people and rescue Julie, but he nonetheless generates fear on massive and personal levels that snowball into citywide pandemonium. That Harry learns of the possible attack at four in the morning helps to modulate that panic. The first people the protagonist can alert are the various freaks and night owls who litter 24-hour diners like Edward Hopper tableaux vivants. The sparse human interaction that dots the film allows the terror to escalate gradually, making the most of the compressed running time. By the same token, the relative calm around Harry also means that millions of people sleep away the night, unaware of the nightmare that may be headed their way.
It took Steve De Jarnatt a decade to get his script on the screen, but his refusal to let anyone else direct it was justified. A screenplay this strange and tonally inconsistent would be butchered the second anyone else was allowed to touch it, but de Jarnatt fearlessly maintains the lurch from winsome romance to apocalyptic reckoning as if this sort of narrative sucker punch happened all the time. He also preserves the film’s many subtle observations of human response to impending doom, like Julie’s long-estranged grandparents (John Agar and Lou Hancock) silently reconciling and leaving the two young lovebirds to flee without them so as not to slow them down. Visually, de Jarnatt matches the slow-burn energy of his screenplay, letting reaction shots of the people Harry alerts linger for a second or two too long, letting their immediate dismissal betray a flash of mordant, terrified reconsideration. In the final stretch of the film, when word finally gets out and the city devolves into chaos, the director uses hazy red filters to give Los Angeles a Martian tint, forecasting the cataclysm that panicking citizens cannot escape.
There aren’t many reference points for this film; it shares some of the nocturnal frenzy of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, L.A.-as-radioactive-nightmare trip of Repo Man, and the future-retro style and earnest theatricality that marks much of Joe Dante’s work. De Jarnatt’s film goes even further than those touchstones in countering a decade of entertainment founded upon artificial cheer, yet it never stops being a romantic film. Miracle Mile plays out the Kubler-Ross model on a social scale, but the final stage, acceptance, can only be shown on an intimate level. Harry and Julies meet cute may only give them a partner to watch the end of the world, but in its own way, the film finds value and affection in this as much as a typical Hollywood film does long-term commitment.
If Miracle Mile has little in common narratively or thematically with other films of the ’80s, it does share the prevailing plastic look of the decade’s cinematography. Kino’s Blu-ray adequately recreates the softer pastels of the opening, day-lit scenes, as well as the harsher, grayer palettes of Harry’s nighttime flight. No visible print damage or aggressive clean-up can be seen, and black levels remain consistent throughout the many exterior night shots. The lossless stereo track is similarly clear, and the trademark hum of Tangerine Dream’s simultaneously trancelike and tense soundtracking drives the film as much as the vibrant color schemes and propulsive movement.
Walter Chaw, critic for Film Freak Central, led the charge for resurrecting the film’s reputation, even penning a monograph released in 2012. So it’s only fitting that he should be involved with the Blu-ray, moderating a commentary track with Steve de Jarnatt. The two have a friendly chemistry, and Chaw balances his more enthusiastic observations with guiding questions that get plenty of good anecdotes and information from the director. De Jarnatt also shares another, more technically oriented track with cinematographer Theo van de Sande and production designer Chris Horner. The disc also includes deleted scenes and bloopers, a cast and crew reunion, an interview with Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham, and an alternate ending that interprets one of the more poetic final lines too literally. Finally, the disc comes with trailers for both this film and de Jarnatt’s prior feature, Cherry 2000.
Miracle Mile is one of the most fascinating curios of the ’80s, a disaster movie that turns the decade’s optimism back onto itself. Kino’s Blu-ray highlights this forgotten gem for reappraisal and comes with an informative batch of extras to make that case.