Alarms blare. The Washington National Guard swarms the streets of Seattle, evacuating everyone from their homes.
Could it be the government's new strategy against Microsoft ? Guess again. It's a scene from NBC's two-hour Y2K: The Movie, which is scheduled to air this weekend on US network TV.
In the film, the White House calls on uber-scientist Nick Cromwell (played by Thirty-something's Ken Olin) to save the world. Sorry, make that the US (The rest of the world -- notably Sweden -- isn't so lucky.) Nick's the guy. He's got MIT credentials and the world's foremost knowledge of both advanced computing and nuclear power. But most of all, he's a family man. (Hold that thought.)
There are some, um, inaccuracies in the film. But there's also lots of action caused by nasty year 2000 bugs. Among other things, the Eastern Seaboard loses power and a Swedish nuclear reactor melts down at 2 a.m., killing the entire staff (and presumably not doing the rest of Sweden much good). That last point is important because the exact same kind of reactor is in use in Seattle.
Nick's family lives in Seattle, so he must supersonic-jet his way back to the West Coast and pull a few MacGyver-like pyrotechnics out of his hat to save the day. Oh, did I mention he gets help from his dad, who was the NASA genius who helped bring a crippled Apollo 13 back to earth?
Unfortunately, while the film does cough up some relatively simple explanations of the Y2K date problem, it entirely misses the big picture.
"The shame is that it plays to the end points -- it's the end of the world and there's a silver bullet, which really trivialises the whole problem," said Y2K expert Leon Kappelman, an associate professor of business components information systems at the University of Texas, Denton.
As Ian Hayes, Y2K expert and principal at Clarity Consulting Inc. in South Hamilton, Mass., noted about the film: "I love the idea that there's one guy who can save the world. Oh good -- he's going to go and replace every single embedded chip out there."
At least two other Y2K films were scheduled for theatrical or broadcast release before year's end, but they were canceled. One, for Fox Television Network, also involved nuclear disaster, according to Kappelman, who consulted for the film. The other was to star actor Chris O'Donnell (Robin in Batman Forever) as a computer programmer who discovers a Y2K bug that exposes New York to a terrorist attack. But Warner Brothers pulled the plug on it in July. The Boston Globe quoted the film's producer, Bing Howenstein, as saying he believed the studio had anticipated that audiences would have trouble distinguishing fiction from reality.
One other movie, Y2K, did get made. It stars Louis Gosset Jr. (Iron Eagle) as a soldier who must find and defuse a nuclear missile that is hidden in the jungle and set to go off on New Year's Day. It was released straight to video -- in Japan.
Maybe Y2K: The Movie should have joined it there. The biggest problem isn't its overblown picture of Y2K disasters. It might make some people nervous, but few will crowd the streets in fear based on a TV movie. NBC's biggest disservice was reinforcing the myth that Y2K is going to go away anytime soon.
But as Computerworld reported this week, the movie did prompt some local officials to coordinate with their local TV news teams to follow the movie with calmer discussions of the problem and its likely effects. So if there's one potential saving grace for the film, it's that it might promote public dialogue on Y2K.
For example, fearing potential public concerns because of the power outages depicted in the movie, Edison Electric Institute in Washington has urged NBC affiliate stations to help reduce public fears by reporting about local Y2K preparations. The trade association, which represents US shareholder-owned electric utilities that generate and deliver three-fourths of the nation's electricity, sent letters to the nation's 100 largest NBC affiliates prior to the airing of the movie.