The China Syndrome

  • Review Date: March 17, 2014
  • Rated: PG
  • Genre: Drama
  • Release Year: 1979
  • Running Time: 122 minutes

Common Sense Media says

Scary, absorbing thriller predicts risks of nuclear power.
  • Review Date: March 17, 2014
  • Rated: PG
  • Genre: Drama
  • Release Year: 1979
  • Running Time: 122 minutes




Golden Globe

What parents need to know

Positive messages

Advocates for courageousness in the pursuit of right even when the consequences may be severe. Promotes the ideal of the greater common good triumphing over economic and political influences. Warns of the dangers of nuclear power plants: the chance for human error, the effect of even minor natural disasters, and the possibility of self-interest on the part of corporate or government agencies in determining safety. 

Positive role models

The three leading characters all are portrayed as brave, hardworking, and willing to risk all to do the right thing. The more the heroes learn, the more heroic they become. The audience learns what's at stake along with those heroes, increasing the characters' effectiveness as role models.  Corporate types are motivated by self-interest and job security rather than righteousness. It's set in the 1970s, so the glass ceiling is well entrenched; no women hold positions of power. Little ethnic diversity.


Suspenseful throughout; continuous apprehension that major environmental disaster may be coming. A shadowy car follows an unsuspecting victim, finally running his car off the road and crashing down a hillside. The driver is bloody when he's later removed from the wreckage. Spoiler alert: A major character is shot in the back, killed instantly and graphically. Characters are threatened at gunpoint. 


A belly dancer is briefly seen on a television screen.


Intermittent swearing: "hell," "goddamn," "bastard," "son of a bitch," "chickens--t," "a--hole," "taking a leak," "screw it," "Jesus Christ." 

Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Some social drinking at a party and at a bar. No drunkenness. Set in the 1970s, so characters occasionally smoke. 

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that The China Syndrome is a suspense-filled, entertaining "issue" movie that has a strong point of view. An active nuclear plant shakes and shimmies; parts crumble and fall, all threatening a catastrophic accident in California. A constant sense of impending doom underscores the film, with shots designed to bring the viewer close to the "core" of the drama. Violent scenes include a car being run off the road and crashing (the bloody victim is seen later), and (spoiler alert) a major character is graphically shot in the back, dying instantly. Swearing is occasional and includes "goddamn, "s--t," "a--hole," "bastard," and "Jesus Christ." Released in 1979, only 12 days before the Three Mile Island disaster in Pennsylvania (the worst accident in the history of nuclear power in the U.S.), the movie warns against relying on nuclear energy as a replacement for fossil fuels. Characters smoke, and there's social drinking in a few sequences. 

What's the story?

Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda), a charming, popular television news reporter, and her crew are set to film a routine human-interest feature about the local nuclear power plant. While they're observing the smooth workings of the plant's operation, however, an accident happens. Kimberly's cameraman (Michael Douglas) secretly films the panic in the control room. The emergency is averted, but attempts to prevent the news team from releasing the footage, and the position taken by Kimberly's superiors and the industrial bosses, confirm her suspicions that there's more to the story. She seeks out plant supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon), a man committed to his job and to the positive uses of nuclear power. Jack, increasingly concerned about what he's felt and heard in the control room, aligns himself with the news team in an attempt to uncover and expose the true condition of the plant before tragedy occurs. However, opposing forces in THE CHINA SYNDROME are lethal, determined to conceal any hint of danger in the workings of the industry, especially since hearings are in process to approve a second plant.

Is it any good?


This award-winning film works on many levels. Outstanding performances; an intense, suspenseful story and script; and later events (both the Chernobyl disaster in Russia and the accident at Three Mile Island in the U.S.) confirmed the premise of this film and give this movie both power and resonance. Most of all, it's thrilling entertainment. When it was first released, some thought it over-earnest, too political, and foolishly fearful of nuclear power. The movie may be even more impressive today, given our increasing preoccupation with energy-dependence. Highly recommended for teens and their families, it's both exciting and thought-provoking.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can discuss the role of the news reporters in this film. Do you agree with the premise that the news media has an obligation to the public? What happens when the reporting of news becomes the news, as it does here? 

  • The filmmakers hoped to deliver an entertaining movie with a message. Were they successful? Why? 

  • This movie was released in 1979. Find out what has happened since that time that either affirms or contradicts the explicit warning in this story. 

Movie details

Theatrical release date:March 16, 1979
DVD release date:May 29, 1999
Cast:Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas
Director:James Bridges
Studio:IPC Films
Topics:Science and nature
Run time:122 minutes
MPAA rating:PG
Award:Golden Globe

This review of The China Syndrome was written by

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