This article was originally published on the now-defunct Birth.Movies.Death in 2015.
Every generation has its own reason to feel a pervasive sense of despair. Whether war, economic crisis, social or political unrest, or environmental disaster, there’s always been something on the horizon promising to end our lives – or at least make them significantly tougher. Some people feel that despair more than others. I’m fairly certain that the human race will render itself extinct within my lifetime (or rather, I suppose, at the end of it), and I often feel like people who are actively optimistic must also be actively ignorant. A depressing thought, but one that seems increasingly realistic.
All of which makes me thankful for my favourite movie: Steve de Jarnatt’s 1988 cult classic Miracle Mile. It’s a film that deals in drastic tonal shifts, centring on a love story as pure and innocent as they come, against a backdrop that’s anything but. Miracle Mile is a romance for the doom-burdened, capable of bringing a glimmer of sweetness to the bitterest of outlooks.
I first saw Miracle Mile knowing nothing about it, which is 100% the right way to see it. So if you haven’t seen Miracle Mile, blind-buy the Blu-ray or grab it on VOD. Trust me: you will not regret it.
If you’ve seen the movie, feel free to scroll past the Spoiler Buffer…
What a movie, right?
The first thing that everyone talks about after seeing Miracle Mile is the inciting incident. It’s not just a jump in tone; it’s a jump in genre, with Harry (Anthony Edwards) answering a phone call that turns the film from a gentle romantic drama into a highly-strung nuclear end-of-days thriller. The terrific Tangerine Dream score turns from soft synth pads to pounding, rhythmic pulses, and we all sit the fuck up and pay attention. But while that twist may be the start of the conversation, it’s definitely not the end.
Miracle Mile constantly throws new twists and surprises at its characters and its audience. Even after the first act break, the tone continues to shift within its disaster-movie framework, and that’s a significant part of why it feels so honest and real. Disasters aren’t spectacle when you live through them. Most survivors experience a tiny sliver of the event – but experience it acutely. Miracle Mile accurately depicts the despair and panic and terror of being trapped in a catastrophe beyond one’s control. Late in the film, a lengthy tracking shot reveals the extent of the panic, and it’s the first time the camera really pulls back to do so. It’s astonishing.
But Miracle Mile also captures something about disasters most films don’t even address: the profound weirdness of being trapped in one. Panic makes people do strange things. That’s what leads us to Harry carting around a partially-conscious Julie (Mare Winningham) in a shopping trolley; a crazed businessman drinking himself to death atop a skyscraper; and weirdest of all, the discovery of a bodybuilding helicopter pilot in a gym at 4am. Miracle Mile’s best moments are these surreal diversions that develop through the sheer momentum of events.
For a film about nuclear Armageddon, Miracle Mile is a surprisingly big-hearted film, unironically celebrating its central romance even though – or perhaps because – it’s only just begun. Harry and Julie instantly click, as people so rarely do, and they’re fuelled by the excitement of burgeoning love for the rest of the film. It’d be cheesy, were it not for the tunnel-vision earnestness with which Edwards and Winningham play it. When Harry learns the bombs are coming, his overriding instinct is to find this woman for whom he’s fallen. Harry and Julie are, for each other, the one piece of happiness and sanity they can cling to as the world comes to an end. If you’ve only got an hour to live, why not go all-in on a romance with barely a day on the odometer?
As the title suggests, most of the action takes place within the Miracle Mile region of Los Angeles – a surprisingly small scale for this kind of movie. There’s a scene on a freeway, and Canter’s Deli gets a shoutout, but otherwise, pretty much everything happens within a radius of a few blocks. You can visit most of the locations – the diner, the skyscraper, the apartments, the museum – inside an hour. The film’s geographical structure constantly loops around on itself, paying off every element until ultimately it ends where the film began. It all revolves around the La Brea Tar Pits – where Harry and Julie meet cute, and meet death, slowly sinking in a crashed helicopter as Los Angeles is nuked into oblivion.
The Tar Pits aren’t just important to Miracle Mile’s geography; they’re incredibly potent thematically, representative of the film’s acceptance of the apocalypse. The pits’ preservation and regurgitation of fossilised remains is a cycle that Harry and Julie embrace with a strange sense of peace. On a geological timescale, extinction events happen with relative frequency, and honestly, we’re due one – it’s just that in this case, the extinction is man-made. Harry and Julie go down in that helicopter knowing that their bodies will transform into something else over eons, and it’s comforting, in a way.
I visited the Tar Pits museum a couple years ago. With the film lurking in the back of my head, it made me profoundly sad. I felt connected to the dead sabretooth tigers, sloths, mammoths, and direwolves in a way I’ve never felt with the likes of dinosaurs. I couldn’t shake the notion that each of those skeletons once belonged to an animal that had its own life; went through its own day-to-day struggle for survival. Yet here they were, attractions in a museum for us to marvel at.
Reading about those long-extinct animals, one wonders whether kids in the future will do the same for rhinos or tigers or giraffes – amazing creatures that seem all the more mythic when they’re only viewable in a museum. What will future generations think of the biosphere we took for granted for so long? Will some distant generation of people – or insects, as Harry suggests – dig up our own fossilised bodies, wondering who we were and what we did? Will they find the likes of Harry and Julie, preserved entwined in each other’s arms? These questions plague and consume me, and there are no satisfying answers.
Maybe we will turn into diamonds, as per Miracle Mile’s final lines of dialogue. For the doom-burdened, that’s a tiny ray of beauty – one that doesn’t negate the certainty of premature species-death in which we so firmly believe. Miracle Mile grants us a poetic end in the face of absolute destruction. Someday, maybe, we’ll re-emerge twinkling into the sun.
The trick, as T.E. Lawrence would say, is not minding.