"Warning Sign" (citywide), a taut, swift but finally unconvincing high-tech thriller, wastes no time in building suspense.
After a couple of idyllic shots of a Utah cornfield it cuts to a nearby lab where chief scientist Richard Dysart is checking out some test tubes, each of which is marked with a strip of tape. One of the tapes sticks to Dysart's sleeve, carrying the tube with it. You just know it's only a matter of time before that tube is going to smash onto the lab floor--and that it's going to unleash some terrible catastrophe.
When disaster does strike we soon learn that the lab's experiments in producing a genetically enhanced corn that will grow in saltwater is but a cover for a top-secret government program in supposedly outlawed germ warfare.
Written by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins and directed by Barwood, "Warning Sign" brings to mind Alan Rudolph's somewhat similar "Endangered Species." It also shares certain aspects of "The Andromeda Strain" and "Silkwood" but ends up more like "Night of the Living Dead." In short, it's a gory genre piece, lacking in scope and dimension, and we really don't know its people any better at the end of the film than at the beginning.
When that tube hits the floor, security officer Kathleen Quinlan sounds an alert. Steel doors slam down, partitioning off the interior and sealing 85 technicians and employees inside the lab. Soon arriving on the scene are Quinlan's husband Sam Waterston, the local sheriff, and Yaphet Kotto, heading up something called a "U.S. Accident Containment Team." Kotto's job is to try to keep a lid on what's really been going on in the lab, even if it means not letting anyone inside the lab out.
"Warning Sign" is not all that effective as a cautionary tale because there's not that much time to ponder its dire implications amid nonstop action. Nothing is made of Kotto's point that in germ warfare we've got to keep up with the Russians, and the film even leaves us with the impression that it's OK for the people, relatives and friends of those trapped inside the lab to try to storm this modern-day fortress as if it were the Alamo--never mind that in doing so all mankind could be destroyed in the process. (But then why hasn't Kotto, expert as usual at playing tough take-charge types, long before called in the National Guard to back up him and his men?) "Warning Sign's" terrifying premise could have used lots less contrivance and lots more credibility and clarity.
It was a smart move to cast Waterston and Quinlan in the leads, because they possess a sense of normality and intelligence that lends substance to what are very thin parts. Because of this thinness it's really Jeffrey De Munn who dominates as a wryly disillusioned scientist, an ex-employee of the lab, recruited by Waterston to help him save the day.
"Warning Sign" (rated R because too intense for small children) never bores, but for all its energy and considerable technical finesse, it's never fully engaging either.
A 20th Century Fox presentation of a Barwood/Robbins production. Executive producer Matthew Robbins. Producer Jim Bloom. Director Hal Barwood. Screenplay Barwood, Robbins. Camera Dean Cundey. Music Craig Safan. Production designer Henry Bumstead. Associate producer Robert Latham Brown. Second-unit camera Ray Stella. Costumes Aggie Guerard Rodgers. Stunt coordinator Bobby Bass. Film editor Robert Lawrence. With Sam Waterston, Kathleen Quinlan, Yaphet Kotto, Jeffrey De Munn, Richard Dysart, G. W. Bailey, Jerry Hardin, Rick Rossovich, Cynthia Carle, Scott Paulin, Kavi Raz.
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.
MPAA rating: R (Under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian.)