Remember Blast From the Past, the movie where Brendan Fraser played a man who spends the first 35 years of his life living in a fallout shelter with his oddball parents?
Maggie Downs does. Back in the early 2000s, Downs was living in a small town in Ohio, working as a local newspaper reporter. “There weren’t a lot of entertainment options,” says Downs. “And I was broke.” Instead of renting movies from the video store, she would just buy the cheap VHS tapes from the discount bin. “So I owned like three movies, and I just watched them over and over. One of them was Blast From the Past.”
Two decades later, Downs has been thinking about Blast From the Past a lot. In fact, she’s been living it — quarantining in her California condo with her 5-year-old son, Everest, who is now being raised in isolation (albeit not underground). “It does feel a bit like a fishbowl right now,” says Downs, the author of the new memoir Braver Than You Think. “Or like a bomb shelter situation. I’m stuck inside a small condo, and I have very little contact with the outside world.”
Like the parents in Blast From the Past — played by a skittery Christopher Walken and Sissy Spacek — Downs must remove her son from society in order to protect him. She worries how that will shape him.
“I have a mom group — we all have children the same age,” Downs says. “We’ve all had a similar parenting philosophy: We wanted our children to grow up very immersed in the world. The pandemic has immediately flipped that script. Like, we used to put limits on technology, and purposefully sent our kids into the world and brought them places. Now it’s the exact opposite: Everything is technology, and we have no contact with the outside world. So when I said, ‘I feel like I’m raising Brendan Fraser in Blast From the Past,’ my friends were like, ‘Yes, that’s how we feel, too!’”
Downs even made a Twitter meme to illustrate this mounting fear:
I was relieved to see it, because it meant I’m not the only person who can’t stop thinking about a mildly successful Brendan Fraser movie from the late 1990s. I would go so far as to argue Blast From the Past is the perfect quarantine movie. It’s certainly more relevant in 2020 than it was in 1999. And unlike the other fictional films that have been hailed as being Startlingly Relevant for the Pandemic Moment (a list that includes Safe, Jaws, and of course, Contagion — which, sure, but why would you want to watch a movie about a pandemic during a pandemic?), Blast From the Past captures with alarming specificity what it means to raise a family in isolation.
Better yet, Blast From the Past offers a fundamentally optimistic spin on life in isolation. It suggests that we can use our time in quarantine to master French, Latin and swing-dancing, and eventually we’ll reemerge, find the outside world to be less frightening than we feared, and then immediately fall in love with Alicia Silverstone.
The Gen X Adam and Eve
The storyline begins in 1962, at the height of Cold War paranoia, when eccentric inventor Calvin Webber (Walken) and his pregnant wife Helen (Spacek) lock themselves in a fallout shelter, mistakenly believing a nuclear bomb has fallen on their city. They set time locks to keep them underground for 35 years (fearing nuclear fallout if they venture outside too early). Calvin, a sort of proto-prepper wife guy genius, has been preparing for this doomsday scenario for years, stockpiling decades’ worth of food and supplies; he’s even figured out a way to farm fish in the large and surprisingly cozy shelter underground.
Meanwhile, Helen gives birth to a baby boy, named Adam. They educate Adam, teaching him numerous languages and raising him on a steady diet of I Love Lucy reruns and other 1950s ephemera. (In their bunker, post-1962 pop culture doesn’t exist.) Eventually, 35 years elapse, the locks reopen, and Adam (now played by Fraser) needs to venture out in search of supplies. This proves awkward, since he’s a preternaturally polite 35-year-old who has never met anyone other than his parents. He’s awestruck by everyday experiences, like seeing the sky or encountering an African-American woman (“Oh my lucky stars, a Negro!”), and confounded by modern slang words.
The result is a little like Back to the Future in reverse: a clueless 1950s boy parachuted into 1990s society. As in Back to the Future, there’s some unintended irony in retrospect. What was then intended to look like an edgy, futuristic setting now seems hopelessly quaint, a pre-9/11 mood board decorated with rollerblading montages and a swing-dancing sequence set to Cherry Poppin’ Daddies.
Once Adam meets a love interest named Eve (a jaded Gen X chick played by jaded Gen X icon Alicia Silverstone — this film is absurdly well-cast), the movie falls into a more predictable rom-com rhythm. But it’s the first hour that most resembles life in the COVID age. Watch it in 2020 and you’ll find that it’s a movie about the daily mundanities of social distancing.
In fact, Calvin and Helen’s life underground probably doesn’t look so different from your life in quarantine. They cook, they homeschool their child, they make depressing attempts at indoor exercise, they watch reruns of shows they’ve already seen and they worry about what the neighborhood they once knew will look like post-apocalypse.
Sure, there are differences. You can stay in touch with your friends on Zoom or Instagram; the Webbers are fully cut off from the outside world. They have no internet; their friends and family presume them dead. Yet some of their conversations underground feel eerily applicable to life today. They anxiously fret about when and how it might be safe to venture outside again. “After an atomic blast, there’s a radiation half-life that lasts 35 years,” Calvin warns at the beginning of the film — an invisible threat not unlike a virus. When he finally does make a tentative trip outside the shelter, 35 years later, he wears an anti-radiation suit for protection. (Like you, he is probably nostalgic for a simpler time when he didn’t have to wear protective equipment just to go outside.)
Rewatching this scene in 2020, I was struck by how much I related to Walken’s paranoid wreck of a character. He’s scared to go outside! So am I! He finds other humans to be inherently frightening. Same here. When I watch most films these days, I flinch at the crowd scenes: What are they doing? Don’t they know they should be social distancing? But Blast From the Past feels newly relatable. Here is a movie in which the simple act of going outside seems overwhelming and fraught.
In Adam’s case, though, it’s also exciting, since he’s never been outside before. There is a scene in which he rides a bus for the first time. “Wow!” he beams, delighted. “So this is public transportation!”
Watching this in quarantine, I realized I hadn’t been on public transportation — or any kind of transportation — in more than two months. Will I bug out like Adam Webber when I finally get to ride a bus again? As we used to say in more innocent times: “It me.”
“What Kind of Child Is This!?!?”
Blast From the Past wasn’t a great success upon release, lost in a sea of roles where Fraser flexed his muscle for playing dorky, fish-out-of-water characters navigating modern society. It was more suited to a home-video afterlife. But I’ve always found it to be much cleverer than it got credit for, and certainly more interesting than George of the Jungle or Bedazzled. There’s satire, encompassing a fun send-up of both 1950s paranoia and 1990s disaffection. As Roger Ebert appreciated in his 1999 review, “It’s a sophisticated and observant film that wears its social commentary lightly but never forgets it.”
That’s largely thanks to the film’s screenwriter, Bill Kelly. In 1995, Kelly was a struggling scribe in his early 30s. He’d written his share of “really terrible scripts,” he tells me. While visiting his parents’ house in Chicago, he had an idea for a good one. “I was looking out at the backyard, and I remembered digging up one of those green plastic army soldiers in the dirt,” he explains. “That made me think of those stories about Japanese soldiers — you know, 30 years later, they don’t know the war is over. Then I thought of the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
Kelly came up with the Adam character, a kind of walking time capsule entering the 1990s. “I loved the idea of someone frozen in terms of values and innocence, and coming head-on with cynicism. And to not make the innocent person the butt of the joke but to make the cynical person the butt of the joke,” he says.
Originally titled Looking for Eve, the script sold to New Line Cinema. “I think Jim Carrey was circling it,” Kelly claims, “and that’s why they bought it.” (Kelly isn’t sure why Carrey ultimately passed. Perhaps he found the role too similar to The Truman Show — another late 1990s film about a naive man subjected to an artificially sheltered life.)
Eventually, the role went to Fraser. The filmmaker Hugh Wilson signed on to direct and rewrote the script, and the film hit theaters in early 1999. (Wilson died in 2018; Fraser, through a representative, declined to be interviewed for this piece.)
Twenty-one years later, Kelly seems delighted by its recent spike in relevance. During our interview, he mentions one parallel between quarantine life and Blast From the Past that I hadn’t thought of — a rise in parents subjecting their kids to pop culture that will put them out-of-touch with their own generation. “I talk to a lot of writers, and they’re all talking about the classic movies that they’re force-feeding their kids to watch. It’s very much like Perry Como,” Kelly says, referencing Adam Webber’s Stockholm-syndrome fondness for the 1950s crooner. “All these movies that there’s no chance these kids would watch if not for their parents having them literally under lock and key.”
But Blast From the Past is also resonating with parents of young children because it taps into a very real fear — that their kids will be deprived of a normal childhood and will come out of quarantine, well, a little like Fraser’s character. Adam is brilliantly educated, but he’s also precocious, confused by social cues and unsure how to relate to anybody his own age. (Oh — and obsessed with stocking up on bulk supplies.) Will an entire generation emerge from coronavirus similarly stunted?
“That’s probably the biggest worry of this,” says Downs, referring to her 5-year-old son. “I can minimize the exposure he has to news about the virus. But I can’t change the fact that he’s not socializing with kids his own age. I’m teaching him to actively avoid people. I do worry about the long-term ramifications of that.” Recently, on a hike, Downs watched her son perk up when he saw another family approaching. “My son was like, ‘Wow, a kid! I want to talk to him. But I can’t!’ And he was, like, cowering behind me. I thought, ‘What kind of child is this? Like, what am I doing to him!?!?’”
Parenting Memes for the Pandemic Age
Other parents have similarly mined Blast From the Past for memes expressing the anxiety of parenting in a pandemic:
Calvin Fournier, the author of that last tweet, is a Toronto-based father of two. “One day I was sitting there, watching my 10-month-old,” he says. “It just reminded me of Christopher Walken, and how they really worked on teaching the Brendan Fraser character. I thought, ‘I’m kind of making my children more than ever an image of myself, because I’m with them all the time.’”
On the bright side, his 3-year-old is learning a lot under lockdown: “She’s literally spelling out the words that we’re reading.” But she is also missing out on crucial interaction with peers. “My daughter is now really starting to become friends with her doll,” Fournier says.
Ben Flores, aka @limitlessjest, became a first-time father in late March, two weeks after he and his wife began self-isolating. His infant daughter has effectively spent her entire life in quarantine. Naturally, he thought of Blast From the Past, a film he hadn’t watched in years. “Of course I worry that my daughter will have a limited childhood because of this situation,” says Flores, who co-hosts the podcast Please Save Me. “There are little things, little anxieties, that the movie amplifies. Christopher Walken isolates his family in order to protect them. One of the things that has arisen for my wife and me is this feeling of, ‘Well, we’re isolating in order to protect ourselves and our daughter.’ But through that experience, she’s not being exposed to the range of experiences she’d be exposed to otherwise. There’s actually this harm that potentially comes to her through lack of exposure.”
Yet when he recently rewatched Blast From the Past during the pandemic, Flores found it oddly comforting. “It was kind of therapeutic to watch the movie and realize, no matter what kind of world we prepare our daughter for, she’s going to live in a different one than we expect,” Flores says. “The movie is so much about the adaptability and resilience of people to grow up in unfamiliar circumstances that it helped me feel positive.”