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HOWARD ROSENBERG

'Fire': Planet Earth at a Slow Burn

April 16, 1993|HOWARD ROSENBERG

It's 2017, a time when the Earth is finally rebelling after ages of abuse, and the rosy-orangy hue on the screen conveys the plight of a society sweltering, crisping and slowly burning away under the scalding rays of global warming.

Thus do we glimpse the not-distant future through the prism of "The Fire Next Time," a flawed, yet powerful CBS drama attacking an indulgent humanity whose greedy, thoughtless devastation of the environment could threaten the very survival of the planet. It airs in two parts, at 9 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday on Channels 2 and 8.

The initial setting for co-executive producer James Henerson's eco-disaster story is a tiny community on the Louisiana coast where polluted waters dictate economic ruin for struggling shrimper Drew Morgan (Craig T. Nelson). Moreover, his wife, Suzanne (Bonnie Bedelia), has left him, and two of their three kids are rebellious teens who blame him for the family's woes.

When an epic hurricane wipes them out, the Morgans are tenuously reunited for an arduous, adventurous journey toward the cooler Northeast reminiscent of Okies in "The Grapes of Wrath" fleeing the Dust Bowl for California during the Great Depression. And just as John Steinbeck's country-crossing Joad family embodies the miseries--and strengths--of that era's dispossessed, so do the 21st-Century Morgans join a new underclass of migrant Americans, forced by a tragedy largely of their own making to survive by their wits.

Directed by Tom McLoughlin, "The Fire Next Time" is a study of human response to a disaster, and this one evokes at once the best and worst behaviors. During their odyssey, the Morgans benefit from the kindness of good Samaritans, but also are imperiled in a land where scapegoating, racism and vigilantism ascend along with temperatures, and doomsday cults and roving bands of militant, armed eco-commandos rise from the embers.

At its best when depicting a heat-ravaged United States, "The Fire Next Time" is as fierce an argument for visionary management of our resources as "On the Beach" or "Testament" or ABC's "The Day After" were for nuclear restraint. While the latter three portrayed mass destruction arriving swiftly via nuclear microwaving, the planetary death envisioned in the equally provocative "The Fire Next Time" is a slow, agonizing burning at the stake.

Joining scores of other displaced survivalists on a giant river barge for the trek northeast, the Morgans later make a brief stop in a small New York town that's an unlikely ecological paradise, before pushing on toward their ultimate destination of Canada.

Nelson and Bedelia give nicely understated performances that interestingly counterpoint the enormity of their misfortune, and Richard Farnsworth is especially appealing as Drew's elderly father, Frank Morgan, who heads out with the family despite failing health.

"We was the last ones that had a chance to get this thing stopped," the old man laments, acknowledging that he, too, had assumed that everything in the environment was everlasting.

While depicting the potential symptoms of global warming, however, "The Fire Next Time" is vague about the causes, never adequately defining the malady that it shows killing the nation's forests and rivers and shrinking its wetlands. We understand that society is ultimately responsible for what is happening. But what exactly did we do wrong? The precise connection between squandering and global warming is never clearly made.

As a dramatic piece, however, "The Fire Next Time" is nagged by plot inconsistencies and the credibility blues, with members of the Morgan family, for example, constantly being separated and then reunited through unlikely script conveniences.

Even before the great hurricane, Drew and his son, Paul (Justin Whalen), are parted during a trip back from blaze-blackened Southern California, only to magically come together in New Mexico at the precise time Paul and a Mexican friend are about to be roughed up and possibly lynched by vigilantes.

Much later, Drew falls from a speedboat while trying to cross unfamiliar Lake Ontario with his family at night, but amazingly manages to swim one to two miles to shore so that he can later participate in another melodramatic reunion with his daughter, Linnie (Ashley Jones), who has joined an Iowa cult opposed to battling for survival. Incredibly, he's back there in a flash.

The story's hokey ending is just as far-fetched, and even worse seems to soften, if not ignore, the horrific disaster that precedes it. Yet so otherwise potent is this drama--and its indictment of a public shortsighted about dangers to the environment--that its scenes of a once-verdant land slowly browning linger with you indefinitely. For years we have worried about the Big One. "The Fire Next Time" insists that the Big One is us.

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