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Apocalypse Not : CBS MOVIE ATTEMPTS TO CREATE A BELIEVABLE CATACLYSMIC EVENT THAT NO ONE ACTUALLY WILL BELIEVE

October 30, 1994|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On Oct. 30, 1938, much of America panicked as Orson Welles' "Mercury Theater on the Air" presented H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds" as an apparent live radio-news broadcast of a Martian invasion.

Now 56 years later, CBS hopes to scare the living daylights out of viewers Sunday evening with "Without Warning," a science-fiction drama that simulates a live television news broadcast. While we've had warning this time around, reality and fiction continue to collide.

The premise: Three pieces of a huge asteroid suddenly plunge to Earth and land in China, France and the United States. The regularly scheduled movie-of-the-week is preempted by the "Evening World News" anchored by veteran newscaster Sander Vanocur.

Besides Vanocur, "Without Warning" features scientist and science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke ("2001: A Space Odyssey") and TV journalists Bree Walker-Lampley, Warren Olney and Sandy Hill. Actress Jane Kaczmarek plays Vanocur's co-anchor.

"Without Warning" isn't the first time a network has presented a TV movie masquerading as a newscast. In 1983, NBC aired the acclaimed "Special Bulletin" about the threatened nuclear destruction of Charleston, S.C., written by Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, who later created "thirtysomething." However, in "Special Bulletin" actors, not actual television journalists, played newscasters.

CBS plans to air disclaimers throughout "Without Warning" explaining that the film is a fictionalized newscast. The disclaimers will begin before the program starts and continue at frequent intervals throughout, says Kenneth Martin, director of program practices. "It will be at least every 15 minutes," he says.

The first disclaimer will say: " 'Without Warning' is a realistic depiction of fictional events. None of what you are about to see is actually happening." During the program the disclaimer will change to, "None of what you are seeing is actually happening."

As far as responding to audiences' fears, Martin says, "Our audience services area in New York will be responding to inquiries," he says. "We are interested in having a very compelling and dramatically intense program that is highly believable, but which no one believes."

"Without Warning" was inspired by the events that occurred last July when fragments from the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 struck the planet Jupiter in numerous places. At the time, executive producer Mark Wolper ("Queen"), son of executive producer David Wolper, happened to be perusing old scripts from Wolper Organization files to see if any might still be viable as network fare.

"I happened to be doing one of my searches and came across this script called 'July 13th,' written in 1969," Wolper says during a break in the filming at a Burbank sound stage. "I read the script and said, 'This is perfect. This is asteroids coming and hitting the Earth.' So the next day, which was a Friday, I gave the script to CBS and on Monday they called and ordered it."

The original script by David Seltzer ("Punchline") was revised by former Emmy-winning ABC News correspondent Peter Lance. The first thing Lance did was take an intensive course in astronomy from the film's technical adviser, Donald Yeomans, senior research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

"I basically treated the script like a piece of journalism," Lance says. "I took the weekend to understand the science. I wanted to do something that would be really believable. I wanted the science to be bulletproof. If you are going to do something that comes out of the headlines and appears to be a news broadcast, it has to make sense. It has to have logic to it."

Yeomans is impressed with the technical details of the film. "It's not a documentary, so within the limits of the story itself, we tried to keep it quite realistic," he says. "There is always a chance of getting hit with an asteroid. We make the point in the script that it is very unlikely, but very unlikely is not the same thing as impossible. These comets smacking into Jupiter this summer show this kind of thing on a cosmic time scale happens all the time. In a human lifetime it's quite a rare event. The Earth is not immune to these impacts."

According to Yeomans, 250 large asteroids relatively near Earth are being tracked by scientists. Still, he adds, "that's only 10% of the believed (asteroid) population. The large ones we can track for hundreds of years into the future and see if they get close to the Earth. We do that at JPL."

The problem, Yeomans says, are the smaller ones. "The 200-meter-sized objects have to get very close to the Earth before they're bright enough to be seen. What's worse is that if they are heading straight for you on a collision course, it's almost impossible to see until the very last minute."

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