Updated: Jul 1, 2018
Contributing writer Luke Worle takes the helm for this review of yet another overlooked '80s classic, Miracle Mile:
What can be said about an underground film that exceeds its cult status to firmly be planted as an iconic 1980s apocalyptic masterpiece? A film that rewards with repeat viewings and demands the attention of all your senses? If we're talking about Steve De Jarnatt's 1988 emotive thriller Miracle Mile, then I owe you a pot of hot coffee and runny eggs at Johnie's Coffee Shop.
My friend Dave and I oftentimes have a back-and-forth approach to cinema: He'll watch a movie I keenly suggest (sometimes against my better taste and judgment) and in return, I'll do the same. In the process, he's discovered cult classics like The Monster Squad, Night of the Creeps, Waxwork and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. (Okay, maybe we can strike that last one from the record!) Dave presented Miracle Mile to me way back in 2010. In fact, he first suggested it a few years before that, and I shrugged it off. Finally, I said ''Let's check it out.'' I knew Dave's tastes were similar to mine, and if it impressed him that much, odds were it would me.
He dusted off the original Hemdale VHS cover, and I sidestepped any lingering doubts about how an apocalyptic thriller would engage me. Then we started Miracle Mile on an ancient and rickety VCR. An hour and a half later, I emerged with a dumbfounded look. ''That was actually really great!'' Dave smiled, and I knew that one of those rare cinematic gems was uncovered, no longer dormant. So, let's talk a little about why Miracle Mile is so appealing, not just as a film, but as a moodscape with subtlety, nuance and atmosphere.
The film at its core is about two relatable people falling in love, as the onset of potential nuclear disaster rears its chilling head. De Jarnatt, who wrote and directed, sears his character's dialogue with the hot knife of witty banter, tense argument and even blips of humor, which all make sense without seeming melodramatic or out of place during the films day-long time span. There is no pompous highbrow intellectualism or dumb, “thrill 'em and kill 'em” narrative to the plot, development or climax. It's simply a love story at first, and an apocalyptic thriller later. This works splendidly, because enough breathing room is left to first engage with the two protagonists, Harry and Julie. The beauty of seeing these likable characters fall in love is first outlined, and then weighed against the sudden tension of when the film reveals that they may be in mortal peril due to a nuclear threat.
Along the way, we meet a host of characters that further enchant us, repel us and sometimes do a mixture of both. This is a vital stroke of genius, as we all know people we like, love or dislike. If such a crisis was looming, the behavior of the people on screen would faithfully replicate real life. This adds a sensation of realism to the film. As Miracle Mile rolls on, we go from a bicycle pace to a Formula-1 race that floors us. This is how the synthesis of these two emotional and narrative energies faithfully compliment each other. Like I said: Love story first, apocalyptic thriller second. We realize the grave situation unfolding and with every breath, we hope and pray that Harry and Julie will hold on to each other through the film's incredible twist and turns. I've opted to not flesh out the plot too much.
It's only fitting to say why this film stands head and shoulders above other 1980s attempts at apocalyptic drama-thrillers such as The Day After and The Manhattan Project.
The film artfully obliterates the bull's eye because it's scarily plausible. Nothing in the movie is far-fetched, superfluous or dragged out for cheap, gimmicky cash grabs. We have simple but honest characters as leads, not Rambo and Red Sonja, although I'd be up for such a pairing. Harry is the classic every-man, and in the awkward phases of my own quest for love back in 2010, his performance was something with which I could relate. I could see myself in Harry. He's played with such genuine charm and realism by the very gifted Anthony Edwards that you see a wide range of emotions without anything feeling saccharine. When Harry is called to be a strong lead in the presence of danger, there is no oily macho posturing. He is simply a man who must confront the elements that have suddenly come out swinging from all sides, and we see a very human hero.
The lovely Mare Winningham adds grace and a delicate, yet strong femininity to the sweet persona of Julie. Minor and major characters aside them in the film are a “who's who” list of players from some of your favorite '80s flicks, so I'll save them for a surprise. The atmospheric tension is the inherent pulse of the film: It unifies the mood of visuals, story-line and character. Like the 2011 '80s period piece Drive, the throbbing icy synths and percolating electronic score by the great Tangerine Dream weld everything we see and feel onscreen into an unreal trip. Miracle Mile has an exploratory, stylistic flair with an '80s feel that is of the period, yet transcends it. This is due to the storytelling, which contends that the threat of nuclear war can happen in any decade, year or even day. The film haunts, hurts, has humor and heart, and its series of events culminate in a thrilling climax.
I applaud Steve De Jarnatt for having his singular vision in tact despite studio pressure for a more commercial product. I think that's what really impressed me alongside Miracle Mile's many emotional satisfactions and accomplishments. It's a great film. Of this, I have no doubt.
For the last decade or two, Miracle Mile has quietly been enrapturing the midnight circuit and the cult film underground, and is now being heralded as a “before its time” apocalyptic masterpiece with endurance and relevance. But, the real telling point of its greatness, is the unshakable conviction De Jarnatt has for how he tells his story: Two lovers in Los Angeles during an intense nuclear standoff in a real-time, edge of your seat countdown that feels not only real, but is philosophically plausible.
De Jarnatt waited ten years as he turned down money and studio power plays to make the film he wanted to make. Like all great writers and directors, budget was not the principle catalyst for determining the course of the film. Heart and ideology were. The fact that he weaved a tapestry that puts you in the hot seat of roller-coaster emotions and hair pin turns is only a minor point, unlike most films aiming for what De Jarnett created in which the hairpin turns are the star of the show.
Ultimately, De Jarnatt wisely chooses to focus on the humanity amidst the chaos, in the same raw vein of biting social commentary into which Rod Serling tapped. By humanizing characters and using real-life scenarios, the biggest thrill of the great Miracle Mile is that the human heart can survive even the greatest disaster. This love story is the underpinning of all great cinema, and Miracle Mile nails it down perfectly without being preachy, condescending or chintzy.
That about does it on this end. I think I'll take my Tangerine Dream soundtrack, go for a midnight cruise and let my imagination take over. Don't miss this film or De Jarnatt's equally impressive, buzz-worthy classic, Cherry 2000. Both are worth your attention. Until then, grab your pot of coffee at Johnie's and be sure to pick up that lonely, ringing payphone wailing outside its doors... or not.