By Ralph Novak
June 05, 1989 12:00 PM

Anthony Edwards, Mare Winningham

Edwards (Top Gun) and Winningham (Made in Heaven) face two terrifying prospects in this film. One is the beginning of a nuclear war. The other is a casual, meandering sort of script that sometimes seems to be a vague romantic comedy, sometimes a technothriller and sometimes an extremely low-budget, one-step-up-from-senior-thesis bit of foolishness.

Writer-director Steve DeJarnett, a newcomer, is only into a local sort of Armageddon here. Most of the action takes place within about a five-block radius in Los Angeles. No global networks, no squadrons of interceptors and flocks of missiles, no UN meetings get on-camera. Such humility is not always ruinous. Back in the ’60s, Rod Serling’s original Twilight Zone did claustrophobic dramas about nuclear war all the time, and they remain some of TV’s most striking half hours.

This movie, though, hits the sterile mood endemic to such H-bomb-era flicks as 1962’s Panic in the Year Zero (remember that one, Frankie Avalon fans?). Neither the horror of the impending event nor the unimaginability of that horror ever gets communicated.

Edwards and Winningham are two lovable oddballs who meet, fall in love and face obliteration all within about 18 hours. Yet it’s hard to muster much sympathy for them. First he finds out about the impending war when he happens to answer a ringing pay phone. Then he gets involved in the death of two innocent cops; Winningham nods out on Valium, and Lou Hancock and old-timer John Agar, as Winningham’s grandparents who haven’t spoken for 15 years, work out a subplot that seems to belong to a different movie.

The only way to take the film is as an impressionistic, cautionary tale. But as such, its moral remains obscure, unless it has to do with either not answering ringing pay phones or staying out of Los Angeles. (R)