A mere five minutes into "Chill Factor," we've already re-enrolled in the 1950s school of "science-gone too-far" disaster drama.
As Dr. Richard Long (David Paymer) watches the lethal chemical compound he's created lay waste to his island lab (and 18 of the armed servicemen assigned to guard it), the misguided researcher abruptly drops conversational English to wax poetically over the unfolding carnage.
"I am become Death," he whispers, "the destroyer of worlds." Pleased to meet you, Death -- and your little friend The Thing, too.
In the grand tradition of Cold War monster mashes, "Chill Factor" is ineptly written, ideologically muddled and unintentionally hilarious in its attempts to keep its audience in cheap suspense. A nervous military bites its nails as a test-tube menace overruns a small-town setting that appears to have one of everything -- one diner, one egghead scientist, one police car and one hunky blue-collar type who's fated to save the whole ball of wax before it goes boom.
That would be misunderstood drifter Tim Mason (Skeet Ulrich -- the actor producers call when they have a great part for a '90s James Dean, but can't afford Johnny Depp). While working behind the counter of a Montana greasy spoon, Mason falls into possession of "Elvis," a biological weapon that spreads flesh-eating death whenever its temperature rises above 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Why does creator Long entrust the Blob -- excuse me, Elvis -- to a transient like Mason for safekeeping? Answer: Despite their wildly disparate backgrounds, the two men are fishing buddies! It's a ludicrous way to bring them together, but at least it spares us from hearing the line "Let's go visit Doc up at the college" one more time.
In pursuit of the weapon is Major Andrew Brynner (Peter Firth), an army officer who's incensed that amoral lab-coat types are trying to push the good old U.S. of A. into the realm of biological warfare. (Huh?) With the help of a tastefully punked-out band of young mercenaries -- who look to have been recruited not out of the back pages of Soldier of Fortune but from a fashion layout in Spin -- Brynner seeks to loose Elvis on the American populace. Apparently, he can't think of a better way to protest the horrors of international terrorism than by engaging in a bit of the domestic variety himself.
Helping Mason keep Pleasantville safe from harm is Arlo (Cuba Gooding Jr.), a shady delivery driver whose ice-cream truck provides a convenient mode of transport for the volatile Elvis. As soon as Arlo appears, the film becomes a highway chase in which the fleeing duo mows down Brynner's minions one by one. How many times can you watch a man on foot be hit by a large vehicle and not feel silly? If you're first-time feature director Hugh Johnson, the answer seems to be "a lot."
But Gooding's role in this Eisenhower-era throwback goes beyond that of a simple chauffeur. He's the Funny Negro, bugging his eyes in fear while playing the lovable liar and con man. The only advancement is his co-starring status: Antiheroes like Mason used to have girlfriends for company. Then again, debutantes don't get to spout crowd-pleasing dialogue that consists of endless variations on the themes "Oh shit!" and "We gon' die!" Come back, Jar Jar Binks; all is forgiven.