Miracle Mile (1988)

Sometimes a wrong number can change your life. God help you when it does.

Harry Washello is a nerdy trombone player in a big band that travels around the US. While doing a stopover for a show in Los Angeles, California, he meets the woman of his dreams: Julie Peters, a somewhat nerdy, spunky, intelligent lady with charisma and charm in spades. Harry is instantly smitten, and to his luck, it seems like Julie is too. They spend time together, he meets her grandparents, and everything seems all set for a night of fun and dancing. Unfortunately, a freak accident involving a pigeon and a lit cigarette causes a power outage, and Harry’s alarm fails to go off. He oversleeps and shows up three and a half hours late to where she works, a diner in the Miracle Mile of Los Angeles, knowing how screwed he is.

And then Harry hears a payphone ring, and he makes the mistake of answering. He learns that nuclear war has begun, the missiles are in the air, and the apocalypse is due in an hour and ten minutes. The news shakes him, even if he suspects it’s a prank, and he tells the folks in the diner. When another patron checks and reveals he might be right, panic ensues. Harry then begins his fight to go to Julie and escape, taking a journey that involves an exploding gas station, a stolen police car, an aerobics class, a surprising amount of gunfire, and eventually mass panic in the streets. In short, it’s exactly like what happens any time a new Funko Pop line gets announced.

It’s a great twist, where what is a 1980s feel good romantic comedy suddenly turns into The Day After, only in Los Angeles so you know it’s gonna be a way weirder ride than what happens to a traditional nuclear family in Missouri. From random weirdos using noodles to make maps to barbecue joints at 4am in a diner to the most ridiculous spandex gym wear of the decade, it’s the oddity of the characters in this city that make things feel so out of whack and yet so honest; nobody is plain bland in Miracle Mile, and almost every character is memorable. Sadly, it being a movie about impending nuclear death, this means they’re probably all going to die, and you learn the sad fates of a few while many more are left as simple unknowns.

As for Harry and Julie? Watch the movie, though don’t expect it to go for the traditional Hollywood ending. It took writer/director Steve De Jarnatt almost a decade to make the movie, partly because he wouldn’t compromise on his vision for the finale. And it works. The flick is already a sucker punch to the nuts when it transitions to a nuclear terror at the start of the second act, so how could he not double down? And no, I won’t spoil it for you. Just know that the ending to this movie is now up there with films like Dead & Buried and To Live and Die in LA, which I also will not reveal and will take to the grave. Unless you go watch them. Please go watch them.

So how does this film stack up to other 1980s doomsday movies? Well, it’s a highly watchable romp, and you don’t have to see anyone’s hair or teeth fall out, so if you’re more into radioactive gore porn, this one ain’t gonna do it for you. But there is a color palette transition that ties it in with another film about the end of the world in Southern California. Most of Miracle Mile takes place at night, so when the sun comes up, it takes on a golden orange hue of dawn in the desert that made me immediately flashback to the red sky of Night of the Comet. I now want to pair the two films together for a sick the-end-is-nigh double feature.

This movie also has connections to a multitude of movies via its soundtrack, which was composed by Tangerine Dream. With over 60 scores to their name, some of which are attached to classic pieces of cinema like Thief, Risky Business, or The Keep (I kid…), it’s worth seeing solely if you’re a fan of their work. It’s also worth it for the tonal changes as well as the interplay between Harry’s one big band scene and how it melds in with the soundtrack and doesn’t feel weird despite everything else being electronic music. At no point does the music swell and take over for the action, resulting in a film where the characters and their emotions are able to dominate with musical support.

In fact, Tangerine Dream’s particular brand of surrealist electronic sound melds in well with the night time setting, the strange and unusual characters that haunt the wee hours of LA, and the growing fear and dread of nuclear armageddon. It lends the sense of a dream state, that this is the nuclear nightmare we had all been dreading in the violent thrashing of the Cold War’s dying days. Harry even tells himself that he is in a dream. There is an intense connection through Harry and Julie’s love, and then the bizarre twist into a frantic search and steadily building despair. No, the film isn’t bad by any means, but the dream that it inhabits seems occasionally illogical or unrealistic, only to grow steadily worse as we continue down the rabbit hole. A guy in a diner misses a date and then half an hour later is in a stolen police car driving away from an exploding gas station while thinking nukes are in the air. The situation is steadily going from bad to worse to even worse, and all we can do is root for these two crazy kids to find each other and get to revel in their love while the world goes to hell.

And then that ending hits, like a corpse on a sewer grate. It is both depressing and uplifting, and you need to see it. In fact, I’m seriously concerned about why you’re still reading this and not tracking down Miracle Mile right now. Go watch it, damn it!

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