Chain Reaction (1996 film)

Chain Reaction is a 1996 American science fiction action thriller film directed by Andrew Davis, starring Keanu Reeves, Morgan Freeman, Rachel Weisz, Fred Ward, Kevin Dunn and Brian Cox. The plot centers on the invention of a new non-contaminating power source based on hydrogen and the attempts by the United States Government to prevent the spreading of this technology to other countries. The film was released in the United States on August 2, 1996.

Chain Reaction
Chain reaction ver1.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byAndrew Davis
Produced byArne L. Schmidt
Andrew Davis
Screenplay byJ. F. Lawton
Michael Bortman
Story byArne L. Schmidt
Rick Seaman
Josh Friedman
Music byJerry Goldsmith
CinematographyFrank Tidy
Edited byDon Brochu
Dov Hoenig
Mark Stevens
Arthur Schmidt
The Zanuck Company
Chicago Pacific Entertainment
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
  • August 2, 1996 (1996-08-02)
Running time
107 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$50 million
Box office$60,209,334


Eddie Kasalivich is a machinist working with a team from the University of Chicago to convert hydrogen from water into clean energy. Eddie inadvertently discovers the secret: a sound frequency that enables a perfect stabilization of their process. The project team celebrates with a party at the lab, after which project physicist Dr. Lily Sinclair’s car will not start. Eddie gets her home by bus. Back in the lab, Drs. Alistair Barkley and Lu Chen are on their computers preparing to upload their discovery to the Internet so they can share the breakthrough with the world. A band of men enter the lab.

Eddie returns to the lab to get his motorcycle, where he hears alarms coming from the lab. He runs inside to find Alistair dead with a plastic bag over his head and Chen nowhere to be found. The hydrogen reactor is dangerously unstable and Eddie is unable to shut it down. He speeds away on his motorbike as a concealed detonator triggers a massive hydrogen explosion that destroys the lab and surrounding streets.

Eddie is questioned by the FBI. Upon returning with Lily to their homes, they realize that they are being framed, with planted evidence found in both of their houses.

The two go on the run to an observatory belonging to Maggie McDermott, an old friend of Eddie's. They contact Paul Shannon, the wealthy man funding the project (secretly backed by DARPA), but they're almost caught in the process and barely manage to escape. As Eddie and Lily are evading more police, Paul meets with Lyman Earl Collier at C-Systems Research complex to discuss the current events. It becomes apparent that the plot to destroy the lab and frame Eddie and Lily for it was orchestrated by Lyman and the CIA. Despite some disagreement, Paul and Lyman decide to continue the hunt for Eddie and Lily, a task made easier when Eddie sends a coded message to Paul arranging a meeting. At their rendezvous, Paul reveals he was involved, but Lyman’s thugs (the ones who murdered Alistair) capture Lily while Eddie barely escapes.

By tracing the license plate on the thug’s van, Eddie tracks them to the secret C-Systems Research facility where Paul and Lyman are forcing Lily and Chen to replicate the project. Eddie sneaks in during the night and proceeds to "fix" the system.

The next morning, one of the other scientists discovers the working reactor and everyone celebrates. Paul is suspicious, and immediately obtains a download of the working data, and secretly gives it to his assistant, Anita, for safekeeping. He then finds Eddie at a computer in the company boardroom. There, Eddie demands to be let go in exchange for making the reactor work. Paul agrees but Lyman refuses, believing that the process already works, so Eddie sets the reactor to explode while sending proof of his innocence to the FBI and blueprints of the reactor to "hopefully a couple thousand" international scientists. Lyman responds by shooting Chen dead, then locking in Eddie and Lily to die in the explosion.

Paul kills Lyman for overstepping the bounds of the program, leaving the body to be incinerated in the explosion. During his own escape, Paul deactivates the containment system, allowing Eddie and Lily to escape. They are attacked by Lyman's henchmen, but escape moments before a blast wave sweeps through the complex.

Eddie and Lily survive the shockwave and are met by FBI agents Ford and Doyle, now convinced of their innocence, who take them to safety. Paul is shown departing the scene via chauffeured limo, and the last scene has him dictating a memo to his secretary Anita, which informs the Director of the CIA that "...C-System (is) no longer a viable entity."


  • Keanu Reeves as Eddie Kasalivich. A machinist working on a team from the University of Chicago. He is forced on the run with Dr. Lily Sinclair when someone frames him for the murder of his boss, Dr. Alistair Barkley, and the destruction of his laboratory. He must work to clear their names before they are captured or killed.
  • Morgan Freeman as Dr. Paul Shannon. The enigmatic leader of the project at the University of Chicago. His motives are unclear throughout the movie, but he advises Eddie to turn himself in to the authorities. It is later disclosed that he is the head of the entire program that includes Lyman, who tries to have the research team killed. A scene with Agents Ford and Doyle and the ending suggests Paul is with the CIA.
  • Rachel Weisz as Dr. Lily Sinclair. Physicist working with Dr. Alistair Barkley. She goes on the run with Eddie when they are framed for Alistair's murder and the destruction of his laboratory.
  • Fred Ward as FBI Agent Leon Ford. In charge of the investigation to discover the cause of the destruction of the laboratory. Initially focuses on Eddie and Lily, but soon suspects the involvement of larger government organizations.
  • Kevin Dunn as FBI Agent Doyle. Ford's assistant in the investigation. He helps Ford track down Eddie, Lily and later, C-Systems.
  • Brian Cox as Lyman Earl Collier. Chairman of C-Systems Research. person behind the conspiracy to keep the Hydrogen power plant a secret.
  • Joanna Cassidy as Maggie McDermott. An old friend of Eddie's who lives in an observatory in Wisconsin. Eddie and Lily head to her place after a warrant is issued for their arrest.
  • Nicholas Rudall as Dr. Alistair Barkley. Head of the project to develop energy from water. He is suffocated in an attempt to frame Eddie for the explosion.
  • Tzi Ma as Dr. Lu Chen. Project Manager on the Hydrogen Project and Dr. Barkley's right-hand man. When Alistair is killed, Dr. Chen is kidnapped and forced to work at C-Systems under Lyman Collier.
  • Krzysztof Pieczyński as Lucasz Screbneski
  • Eddie Bo Smith Jr. as Yusef Reed. Right-hand man for Collier at C-Systems Research. First seen as the getaway driver of the suspicious van, he overshadows both Eddie and Lily later on during their flight from the law.
  • Danny Goldring as Clancy Butler. One of Collier's henchmen at C-Systems Research. First seen detonating the bomb on the research laboratory at the suspicious van, then appears alongside Reed to overshadow both Eddie and Lily.

Michael Shannon and Neil Flynn make appearances as a van driver and a Wisconsin State Police Trooper, respectively.


Large portions of the film were shot on location in and around Chicago, Illinois, including the University of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory, the Museum of Science and Industry, the Field Museum of Natural History, Michigan Avenue, and the James R. Thompson Center (Atrium Mall). Additional scenes were shot at Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, on Geneva Lake in southern Wisconsin, interiors of the U.S. Capitol were shot at the Wisconsin State Capitol, in Madison, Wisconsin, at Inland Steel (now known as MITTAL Steel) in East Chicago, Indiana, and at a private residence in Barrington Hills, Illinois. Because of the cold Great Lakes winter and filming taking place during record breaking winter weather besides, unique challenges were present for the cast and crew. Morgan Freeman noted that "It was difficult for everyone, particularly for me because I'm tropical," he said. "I don't do cold weather. This is the winter. I was ill and in bed four days at a crack. It was really rough."[1] Among the extras in the film were U.S. Rep. (and current U.S. Senator) Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) [2]


Chain Reaction received mostly negative reviews. It holds a 16% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 32 reviews.[3] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "C+" on an A+ to F scale.[4]

Roger Ebert gave the film two and a half stars out of four, writing: "By movie's end, I'd seen some swell photography and witnessed some thrilling chase scenes, but when it came to understanding the movie, I didn't have a clue."[5] Jeff Millar of the Houston Chronicle wrote: "The narrative is very complex, but what's on the screen is little more than generic, non-narrative-specific, guy-being-chased stuff".[6] Conversely, Edward Guthmann of the San Francisco Chronicle felt the film was one of the summer's best movies, writing: "[Chain Reaction] has better acting, better writing, more spectacular chase sequences and more genuine drama than all of this summer's blockbusters."[7]

Chain Reaction and its cast were nominated for only one award, with Keanu Reeves being nominated for the Razzie for Worst Actor, which he lost to both Tom Arnold and Pauly Shore.[8]

Despite the mostly negative reception, Chain Reaction was a minor financial success, making approximately USD$ 60,000,000 worldwide.[9]

Scientific accuracyEdit

In one interpretation of the film's plot, a scientific process supposedly extracts hydrogen from water, then burns the hydrogen to generate power, and leaves only water as a residue, essentially a chemical perpetual motion. The movie never clarifies how the hydrogen is extracted from the water, nor how water is still left over. The character Dr. Shannon makes contradictory statements in the combination of ideas mashed together: one time he says this is accomplished with a laser with millions of degrees, another time he says frequencies of sound and sonoluminescence. In one scene, the movie shows a bubbling container reminiscent of cold fusion electrolytic cells and another references sustained fusion. A character in the film claims that a glass of water could power Chicago for weeks, but no clear explanation is ever given as to whether this is by simply burning hydrogen released by highly efficient means or through nuclear processes. The film's title is also misleading, since "chain reaction" is related to nuclear fission, not fusion.[10]

The film is based around the premise that free energy suppression is real. The main character is told that his discovery is too disruptive: energy would suddenly be cheap, oil would no longer be necessary, oil companies would go bankrupt, and that such sudden economic changes would throw society into chaos. Unfortunately, this is only explained in the last minutes of the film, and it is unlikely that his discovery would have such an effect on the economy. Most of the film revolves around action scenes in the style of 1990s blockbusters, and the topic of conspiracy theories is not adequately explored.[11]


  1. ^ "Morgan Freeman stars in 'Chain Reaction': latest movie in the actor's stellar career". Jet. 1996. Archived from the original on 2016-02-22.(subscription required)
  2. ^
  3. ^ "Chain Reaction". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2008-04-21.
  4. ^ "CinemaScore".
  5. ^ Ebert, Roger (1996-08-02). "Movie Reviews: Chain Reaction". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on 2016-04-21.
  6. ^ Millar, Jeff (1996-07-31). "The thrills are missing in Chain Reaction". Houston Chronicle. Archived from the original on 1999-02-24.
  7. ^ Guthmann, Edward (1996-08-02). "Keanu Is the Action in Frantic 'Chain Reaction'". San Francisco Chronicle.
  8. ^ HeadRAZZBerry (2005-12-04). "1996 RAZZIE Nominees & "Winners"". NewsgroupOfficial RAZZIE Forum The Official RAZZIE Forum Check |newsgroup= value (help). Archived from the original on 2009-03-25. Retrieved 2008-04-21.
  9. ^ "Chain Reaction". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2008-04-21.
  10. ^ Sidney Perkowitz (2010), Hollywood Science: Movies, Science, and the End of the World (illustrated ed.), Columbia University Press, pp. 113–114, ISBN 9780231142816
  11. ^ Barna William Donovan (2011), Conspiracy Films: A Tour of Dark Places in the American Conscious (illustrated ed.), McFarland, p. 178, ISBN 9780786439010

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