Def-Con 4

Director: Paul Donovan  
Lenore Zann, Maury Chaykin, Kate Lynch

Although you might not think it because I review a lot of movies that have given me a lot of pleasure, in my personal life I am kind of a cynical guy. I do try to think the best of a situation when I am with friends or family, because they accept me despite my eccentric ways, and I see that evidence in front of my eyes. But when I am alone, more often than not there is a voice in the back of my head that tells me to be very careful about whatever I am planning to do, from doing my duties at my job to going out to shop for groceries. The reason for that is pretty simple - like you, I have been disappointed or hurt by some bad occurences in my life, and I have no desire to be in a situation that will bring up any of those bad feelings again. So to be sure of this, quite often in my spare time I imagine myself in various bad situations, and subsequently do a lot of brainstorming as to what I would do if I was in a certain bad situation in real life. I previously brought up this quirk of mine a long time ago when I did a review of the movie This Is Not A Test. I discussed various situations of peril I have made plans for just in case, from running into a cougar in the woods to waking up in a strange place with an unfamiliar girl next to me. Also in that review, I brought up the subject of nuclear war, and what I would do if a nuclear strike was heading to my country. Well, at the time that I wrote the review, I kind of dismissed the idea with a quick answer. I figured out that the nuclear strike would include my city (which is the capital of the province I live in), and since I live downtown, I would be instantly annihilated by the nuclear blast. So I wouldn't suffer much, if anything.

Since writing about that, in the weeks and months that have followed, I found myself thinking about the situation more and more for some reason. To be more exact, I was thinking, "What if there was a nuclear war, but for some reason my city wasn't among those that were hit by a nuclear missile?" After thinking about the situation in that way for some time, I soon came to the conclusion that what would follow would make for a very tough situation. For one thing, there would be no Internet, and the electricity would be out, so that would mean my range of entertainment would be very limited. Seriously though, it didn't take me long to realize the major problems that would come from multiple cities around me being nuked. For one thing, the supply of food coming into the city would immediately stop. Maybe I could loot the supermarket that's just a block from my apartment, but other people in my city would no doubt have the same idea. Even if I did manage to stock up with food, what would I do when my food supply ran out? Another problem that would likely come up would be that the comfort of the existence of law and order would disappear. The federal government would be gone, so there would be no more guidance from that source. And the police in my city would no doubt be more concerned protecting and caring for their own families than the average citizen, so the city would, in short order, fall into chaos, and it would be every man for himself. Much as I hate the thought, I would almost certainly have to acquire a gun and keep it on me at all times as I would struggle to survive.

The more I think about it, the problems of trying to survive in a post-holocaust world would just keep mounting up. What if you had a medical emergency? Where would you get a constant and clean source of water? And what would you do when you had to go to the bathroom? To be honest, after thinking of tough questions like those, I think that those who would Def-Con 4immediately die in a nuclear holocaust would be the lucky ones. I certainly would prefer to be vaporized than live in such a radically changed world. But with my luck, I would be one of the survivors. So since I have started to think about the possibility of me being in that situation, I've been searching for movies about surviving a post holocaust world, Def-Con 4 being one of them. I was especially interested in it because it's a rare Canadian post-holocaust movie. I felt that the Canadian angle could be more informative for Canadians like me preparing for the worst. Though there's circumstantial evidence that the characters introduced to us at the beginning of the movie could be American. They are Walker (John Walsch), Jordan (Lynch, Meatballs), and Howe (Tim Choate, Ghost Story), three astronauts in a nuclear weapon-armed space station orbiting North America. Not long after their introduction, nuclear war breaks out on Earth, and the three barely manage to save their space station when a nuclear missile is launched against it. With their home planet blasted with hundreds of nukes, the three soon argue whether to return to their planet or not. Eventually the decision is made for them when their computers suddenly activate in a way not programmed by them, and the space station descends through the atmosphere and lands on an isolated part of the continent's eastern seaboard. While the three astronauts may be away from most of the radiation, they soon find they are facing some challenges just as tough. These include drifters with a taste for human flesh, and a survivalist named Vinnie (Chaykin, The Kidnapping Of The President) who has a taste for the lone female among the astronauts. But the most pressing of their problems is a teenager named Gideon Hayes, a former Army brat who has taken advantage of the chaos of the holocaust to become leader of a large band of armed followers. Gideon wants his hands on the astronauts, because they can access important information from the space station's computer. But what Gideon and his followers do not know is that there is one nuclear bomb still attached to the space station that's due to go off in a few days...

Perhaps because of the Canadian origin of the filmmakers who made Def-Con 4 is why there are a number of off-beat touches in the finished film. True, the movie in quite a few aspects wants to be familiar (read: American) to the mass audience, including references to the United States military, such as when it's mentioned that the father of the character of Gideon belonged in the American army. But there are some elements that have been handled in a way that many viewers might consider to be Canadian. Most obvious are sights like a social insurance number card, Canadian cigarette boxes, and a Canadian beer bottle, though blatant Canadian touches like those in the movie are rare. There are some more subtle touches, like the fact that at one point one of the astronauts says he is a member of NORAD - which Canada participates in. So it's possible that this astronaut (or any one of his fellow astronauts) could be Canadian. It's true that whether or not the astronauts are Canadian is never revealed. But the astronaut character of Howe has been written in a way that he does not come across as the typical American action hero you usually get in a movie like this. He is not someone who is cool and confident. Not long after the nuclear war has broken out, he gets a farewell message from his dying wife, which shakes him up badly - enough to possibly explain his later behavior when he lands on earth. As he battles the various foes he encounters on earth, he is clearly shown to be physically weak enough to not present himself as such a great obstacle to others who wish to control him. Indeed, at several points he is seen more or less whining and pleading with the people who challenge him. And most of the movie revolves around this weakling character. Though I wouldn't call this behavior of this character "Canadian", I do think that the Canadian origin of the filmmakers contributed to making a protagonist who is different than others in the B movie world.

Interestingly, while the character of Howe might at first strike viewers as a kind of a wimp, by the end of the movie we root for this weakling. Part of the reason is that the screenplay provides foes for him that make him look good in comparison, but another reason is that eventually he does start fighting back in earnest. Though even before then he's sympathetic, thanks to a skilled performance by actor Tim Choate. His character may be weak, but he's weak in a way we can identify with. I could picture myself in his situations behaving in the same way. The other performances in Def-Con 4 are pretty well done for a largely no-name cast. Kevin King (Iron Eagle) deserves praise for not going over the top with his performance as the ruthless teenage dictator. His relative calmness makes him believable as well as creepy. However, his character has some of the problems found in the screenplay. For one thing, it is never really explained how this teenager got a hold of all his power, and managed to keep it. It's also not explained very well just how this fascist society of his works. All the movie does is having a character briefly mentioning, "He's got his ways", and the issue is immediately forgotten about. By not going deeply into things like this, the movie really lost the opportunity to give its audience extra interesting details. Another problem with the screenplay is that around the middle of the movie, the story stops in its tracks and stays more or less in place for a considerable long time. It's a bit surprising, because up to this point the movie had been moving at a comfortably zippy pace, revealing multiple plot turns and new locations at a fairly brisk clip. The movie eventually does start speeding up again, but it's a considerable wait.

There are also some problems that may not have been evident when the filmmakers wrote the script, but popped up when it came to the production design. For example, it's stated several times that the crashed space station contains four months of food. However, when seeing the crashed space station, it is barely big enough to simply house the three astronauts, and couldn't possibly have that much food aboard. There are also problems with the look of the movie not related to the screenplay. The biggest problem is that the movie looks dark - too dark. When the astronauts reach Earth, most of the subsequent scenes are filmed outside during the night, with precious little lighting used by the filmmakers to illuminate things. This results in a few confusing action sequences where it is hard to figure out just what's going on. However, when you know that the movie was made on a poverty-row budget of just a million dollars or so, one can see that the filmmakers did well with so little money to work with. The opening sequences in space have some impressive visuals as well as set design. Later sequences also have some pretty convincing construction of Gideon's compound as well as Vinnie's home. The filmmakers also took advantage of the Nova Scotia wilderness (beaches, forests) to create some haunting visuals equal to those found in post-nuke movies taking place in the desert. So while Def-Con 4 may not be very strong in the exploitation department with its disappointing action sequences (as well as there being virtually nothing in the nudity and sex department) it does have enough offbeat touches and impressive low budget production design to entertain post-apocalypse movie fans in ways they probably haven't been entertained by a post-apocalypse movie before.

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See also: Steel Frontier, Survivor, Warlords 3000