Nowadays it is so hard to watch a film without knowing anything about it. The amount of movies we can get our hands on feel endless and with so many options on the menu, the best way to know whether something is to your taste is to have a fair idea as to what you’re in for. Actively avoiding all promotional material is near impossible, especially when you have to pick the carefully designed DVD cover off the shelf. There’s still one place, though, where you can start watching a film with little-to-no idea as to what it’s about: late night television.
When I was a bit younger, and TV was a bit more of an influence on my life, I’d love switching it on to find a film just about to start, and sitting back to see where it would take me. If it was dull: fine, switch it off, no harm done. But if I was lucky, it would be something interesting that I never would have sought out on my own. This is how I first saw the 1988 film, Miracle Mile.
In my mind, there’s absolutely no other way to watch it for the first time, which is a bit of a conundrum for a column that pitches films you might not have seen. I suppose if you stop reading now and get your hands on a copy of the film without seeing the cover or any synopsis you could have a similar experience?
Miracle Mile is what you might call a “gear shift” film. It starts off firmly in one genre, playing as a charming romance, before switching gears at the end of the first act to become a nightmarish apocalyptic thriller. It was a little jarring when I first saw it, and as the terror escalated beyond what I could imagine, I had to believe I had completely misread the start of the film.
A re-watch confirmed that this wasn’t the case, as director Steve De Jarnatt has intentionally crafted his film to resemble your standard Hollywood romance plot, admittedly with hints as to what’s to come that one might not pick up on. Harry (Anthony Edwards) is a slightly nerdy guy who enjoys spending time at the Natural History Museum. It’s here that he first sees Julie (Mare Winningham) and after much time spent trading looks at each other, he seemingly misses his chance to say something to her when she leaves.
“Fate is a funny thing. We must have meant to be together,” says Harry in voice-over as Julie again comes across him outside. They go on to spend the day together and it’s as warm and pleasant as any first date should be. They make plans to meet at midnight, once Julie finishes work at an all-night diner, but through a ridiculously convoluted twist of fate, Harry doesn’t make it, and she goes home, alone and disappointed. Harry’s attempts to call her from a payphone outside her work go unanswered as it’s now after 3am, and Julie’s co-worker informs him that she might not want to talk to him anyway.
While standing outside, presumably formulating some kind of chivalrous plan to win her back, the payphone rings. On the other end isn’t Julie, but a distressed man who has clearly dialled the wrong number and doesn’t wait for Harry to say anything before warning the intended recipient that, “This is it. This is really it. This is the big one…” Harry asks him what he’s talking about and he replies matter-of-factly: “I’m talking about nuclear-fucking-war…”
Harry is shaken when he realises this probably isn’t a prank and when a well-dressed woman with ties to Washington is able to confirm that something suspicious is going on, panic sets in. The woman, Harry, and the other odd-ball patrons in the diner realise they have a head-start on the rest of the city learning about the imminent attack and decide to flee to the airport. However, Harry still has his romantic plot-line to play out, and decides even with nuclear apocalypse on the horizon, he needs to go win Julie back.
The rest of the film plays out in real-time, counting down the minutes until the inevitable as Harry does what he can to get to Julie and then get them out of the city. As more and more people become aware of Los Angeles’ fate, the pandemonium increases and we get some very terrifying visions of a city approaching the end.
If you’re aware of the “gear shift,” don’t worry – Miracle Mile is still an immensely enjoyable film. It’s portrayal of a city on the edge of apocalypse is as terrifying as any I’ve seen, with the final act upping the ante considerably. Truly horrifying stuff – with just a touch of romance.