Broadcast eleven years after a similar program, Special Bulletin, Without Warning starts in an identical fashion, with the beginning of "regular programming", in this case the opening of a murder mystery film with the title Without Warning, starring Loni Anderson (appearing in a cameo). Within moments, however, the program is interrupted with a news bulletin of a series of three earthquakes, one of them located in the Thunder Basin area of Wyoming. The "movie" resumes but a few moments later is interrupted for good as coverage begins of a Halloween night meteor impact on the United States.
Over the course of the film it is learned that additional impacts had been reported in southern France and a remote area of China. A scientist notes that the objects hit in a mathematically precise way and suggests the impacts may have been deliberate.
Soon, lone survivors are found at the Wyoming and France impact sites: a young girl and a young Frenchman. The girl had been reported missing from a city hundreds of miles away from the impact. Both people are severely burned and are speaking in unintelligible syllables.
The three impact sites begin broadcasting an ear-piercing radio signal that cripples aircraft flying within latitudes immediately surrounding the impacts. Then, another larger object is detected moving towards the North Pole. The United States, despite protests from world leaders and scientists, orders several aircraft to intercept the object before it impacts with the earth and destroy it using nuclear weapons. This is successful, although all the aircraft are destroyed, apparently by a signal coming from the new object.
A scientist, named Dr. Avram Mandel, who has been studying the impacts is flown by an F-16 to a U.S. military base where reporters are being briefed on the latest incident. He reveals that his determination is that the impacts were in fact an attempt at first contact by an alien species and that, by destroying the follow-up aircraft, Earth has declared war on the aliens. As if that wasn't enough, more than two-thirds of the public (or 72% for that matter) now believe that the objects have been connected to alien life, according to a telephone poll.
Other mysteries occur. At one point, the population of an entire town vanishes without a trace. It has been suggested that this occurred not as a result of the attacks, but in fact may have been a reference to one of the more extreme interpretations of the rapture. The town's name is Faith, Wyoming, supporting this reference.
Dr. Mandel's fears are confirmed when he later reveals that there are three more objects, each 2 miles wide, approaching Earth. Unlike last time, when they were aimed (intentionally, it is suggested) at lightly inhabited areas, these new objects have been directly aimed at Washington, D.C., Moscow, and Beijing—not coincidentally, the capital cities of the three biggest holders of nuclear weapons. Over the course of the night, the young Frenchman and the young girl are identified as Jean-Paul Chounard and 8-year-old Kimberly Hastings, respectively, before eventually dying.
Over the next few tense minutes, nuclear weapons are launched to intercept these three objects successfully (although Washington is nearly hit).
With a sigh of relief, the news anchors report success. Meanwhile, scientists are able to finally decipher the young girl and the young Frenchman's speech. It turns out they are each speaking a fragment of a message. When combined (although not complete as the assumed third survivor is never located), the message appears to be reciting of the message from the U.N. Secretary General that had been included on a special recording sent with the Voyager space probes.
Moments later, astronomers detect hundreds more asteroids, all heading towards Earth. As Sander Vanocur and a terrified Dr. Caroline Jaffe, realizing that aliens were indeed behind all that has happened, await the inevitable destruction of the planet, hearing reports of cities and entire countries being destroyed worldwide, the wizened anchorman solemnly quotes from William Shakespeare: "The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves" as a rumble is heard and the picture cuts to static.
The nature of the aliens and their reason for the contacting Earth is never revealed, and they are never seen. Similarly the exact nature or reasoning of their "hello" message—the crashing of three meteor-like objects into Earth—is left a mystery, as is the intent and purpose of the follow-up vessel that is destroyed by the military. A third survivor of the original impacts is assumed throughout, but given the remote region in which the Chinese impact occurred, this individual is never located during the time frame of the film.Sander Vanocur as Himself
Jane Kaczmarek as Dr. Caroline Jaffe
Bree Walker Lampley as Herself
Dwier Brown as Matt Jensen
Brian McNamara as Mike Curtis
James Morrison as Paul Whitaker
Ashley Peldon as Kimberly Hastings
James Handy as Dr. Norbert Hazelton
Kario Salem as Dr. Avram Mandel
Spencer Garrett as Paul Collingwood
Gina Hecht as Barbara Shiller
John de Lancie as Barry Steinbrenner
Patty Toy as Denise Wong
Dennis Lipscomb as Dr. Robert Pearlman
Ron Canada as Terrence Freeman
Victor Wilson as Mark Manetti
John M. Jackson as Dale Powell
Ernie Anastos as Himself
Phillip Baker Hall as Dr. Kurt Lowden
Jim Pirri as Robert Marino
Alan Scarfe as General Lucian Alexander
Cynthia Allison as Herself
Arthur C. Clarke as Himself
Sandy Hill as Herself
Michelle Holden as Herself
Mario MacHado as Himself
Warren Olney as Himself
Saida Pagan as Herself
Richard Saxton as Himself
Debra Snell as Herself
Randy Crowder as Deputy Anson Peters
Frank Bruynbroek as Jean-Paul Chounard
Diana Frank as Sylvie Chounard
Marnie McPhail as Donna Hastings
Sherri Paysinger as Pamela Barnes
Robert Peters as Dwayne Haskell
Lou Beatty Jr. as Dr. Jonas Tremblay
John DeMita as Major Powers
Tyler Cole Malinger as Tyler O'Neal
Marnie Mosiman as Annie O'Neal
Armand Schultz as David Case
The film employed "accelerated time" (i.e. events said to have taken place an hour apart actually take place a few minutes apart), among other storytelling devices to make it clear to viewers paying attention that it was not real. This, combined with the casting of Jane Kaczmarek, a recognizable actress, as well as several other well-known performers in secondary roles (such as Star Trek: The Next Generation guest star John de Lancie as a reporter), was expected to alleviate any concerns that the story being shown was actually happening. Ron Canada, who appeared in the film as a science author being interviewed by Sander Vanocur, had previously worked as a television news reporter for stations in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. during the 1970's before becoming an actor. However, the casting of noted (albeit retired) news anchor Vanocur and noted journalist Bree Walker (who had previously anchored for Los Angeles CBS O&O station KCBS-TV) in major roles portraying themselves, plus a faux interview with noted author Arthur C. Clarke, still left some viewers wondering.
In addition, when it originally premiered, CBS had warnings during the commercial breaks stating that the film was completely fictional, and that the events were not actually happening. Some CBS affiliates, such as KHOU in Houston, had similar warnings in the form of a news ticker "crawl" during the broadcast. The producers used actual CBS News graphics to help accentuate the feeling that it was real (though they used a different network logo, a sphere within an outline of a TV screen), however, leading to at least one uproar over the events. In Fort Smith, Arkansas, the CBS affiliate (KFSM-TV) reported that they had received dozens of calls regarding the incident and whether it was actually happening. The area's ABC, Fox, and NBC affiliates were also flooded with complaints, asking them why they were not covering this event at the same time that CBS was covering it. In several other markets, including Detroit, Michigan and San Diego, California, the local CBS affiliates (respectively, WJBK, which was preparing to drop CBS for Fox entirely six weeks later, and KFMB-TV) refused to air this TV movie.
Some accused CBS of being irresponsible in showing the movie during the primetime hours, when some children were still out trick-or-treating (indeed, the film explicitly takes place on Oct. 31, with trick or treaters featured in several news reports within), but very few occasions have happened since Orson Welles' 1938 The War of the Worlds radio broadcast that so many people have been taken in by a production such as Without Warning. The film also borrows one of the locations from Welles' broadcast. Welles used the village of Grover's Mill, New Jersey as the first landing site of the martians in his tale. Without Warning uses the fictional town of Grover's Mill, Wyoming as an obvious homage to Welles' broadcast, and the original broadcast was preceded by a brief prologue referencing the War of the Worlds broadcast, with the narrator reiterating that the film about to be shown was fiction and presented in the same spirit.
Other television productions that simulate devastating crises in a documentary format predate Without Warning. Special Bulletin featured a simulated newscast reporting on a nuclear terrorism incident in Charleston, South Carolina, and Countdown to Looking Glass, a Canadian production, combined simulated news footage with behind-the-scenes dramatics to tell the story of how a network covers the outbreak of a nuclear war. World War III is a German television drama that depicts in documentary format the events immediately preceding a global thermonuclear showdown. Both Ghostwatch and Alternative 3 were British faux documentaries that caused hysteria amongst viewers. Alternative 3 was broadcast in 1977 but to this day some conspiracy theorists insist the story was real.
At the end of Without Warning, viewers hear radio reports indicating the destruction of major cities (just before Vanocur's sign off). This ending is very similar to the ending of the 1978 musical version of War of the Worlds produced by Jeff Wayne.
Occasionally, DVD releases have included faux newscasts as special features to illustrate the apocalyptic events featured in the film as if the viewer were seeing the actual news reports. Examples include Independence Day, and the 2004 version of Dawn of the Dead. Several early episodes of the 1980s TV series V (about an alien invasion of earth) also began in faux-newscast style (featuring, like Without Warning, a real-life journalist, in the case of V, Howard K. Smith) until this gimmick was abandoned.
The film was released on DVD on July 8, 2003, nearly nine years after its initial, and only, showing on CBS. However, it has since been shown outside the United States, such as the United Kingdom where it has been aired on Sci-Fi, minus the commercial break warnings.