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August, 2005 : Essay:

Nuclear Fallout

The Bomb in the Hollywood Imagination

"What sin could a man commit in a single life to deserve such a fate?" So asks the unfortunate Colonel Manning (played by Glenn Langan) in the 1957 movie The Amazing Colossal Man, after accidental radiation exposure during a nuclear bomb test turns him, well, colossal. The flick is unquestionably cheesy—and that line has achieved cult status among fans of B-movies thanks to the movie's skewering on Mystery Science Theater 3000—but there's a poignancy to it, however ineffectively depicted in the actual film, that could well characterize the human reaction to the specter of nuclear holocaust that has waxed and waned during the latter half of the twentieth century, and now into the twenty-first.

What sin did we commit? We split the atom. We tapped the fundamental forces of the universe. And our anxiety over that astonishing scientific achievement has been reflected in our pop culture, including our popular entertainment, in the decades since.

It was sixty years ago this month that the first—and so far only—atomic bombs deployed in wartime were detonated, over Hiroshima and Nakasaki. It took a few years for the ramifications of that to sink in with the public—1946's semi-fictionalized account of Hiroshima, by John Hershey, helped, as did the Doomsday Clock inaugurated in 1947 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (1) and maintained by the magazine ever since as a barometer of how close to nuclear destruction our global civilization is. Currently, the clock sits at seven minutes to midnight; the furthest it's been from midnight is seventeen minutes, in 1991; the closest, two minutes, in 1953, with 1984's three minutes a close second.

You could have predicted those numbers by looking at how nuclear worry manifested itself in Hollywood films: after a burst of energy—pun intended—in the 1950s, the '60s and '70s were relatively quiet, until atomic apprehension reached a crescendo in the 1980s, which saw an astonishing number of movies that touched on or outright freaked out over the Bomb. Recent years have seen a kind of moderation in how Hollywood deals with the issue—the Cold War may be over, and the threat of global annihilation may have receded, but there's still call for concern.

A word on terms: Can movies about nuclear weapons really be considered "science fiction" if nuclear weapons are contemporary or indeed even antiquated technology? Most films that approach nuclear issues do so with a speculative bent, and even those that are purely historical—such as 2000's Thirteen Days, an analysis of the Cuban missile crisis, or 1989's Fat Man and Little Boy, a fictionalized account of the development of the atomic bomb—explore the subject from a civilization-spanning perspective and with an eye on technical and scientific matters that mirror the way we, as science fiction fans, are used to exploring the grand human endeavor. They are science fictional in attitude, if not in fact.

And so, an abbreviated timeline of cinematic nukes:

The 1950s saw a slew of movies that sweated worry over matters nuclear and saw the birth of the mutated-by-radiation subgenre of SF (see the aforementioned Amazing Colossal Man). The best of those was the giant-ant flick Them! from 1954, in which mankind's experimentation with nuclear weapons comes back to bite him where it hurts. Japan's movie industry, unsurprisingly, has its own cinematic tradition of nuclear-themed films, which began in the 1950s and about which critics have written entire books. But it's worth mentioning one of the earliest examples, 1956's Godzilla (avoid the Raymond Burr-ized Hollywood version, if you can), which is so knotted up in fear of destruction on a scale that threatens civilization that some of its imagery is profoundly and newly frightening again in the wake of 9/11.

On the Beach, released in 1959, feels more like the early 1960s, with its earnest approach to the apocalypse, similar to that of 1964's Fail-Safe. The apocalypse took its first satiric hit that same year, with Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, which seems, as its title suggests, almost to throw up its hands and embrace the "inevitable" holocaust. But at this time, according to the Doomsday Clock, doomsday was relatively far away—the clock sat at twelve minutes to midnight, which, after a few fluctuations, is where it sat in 1972, too. While filmed SF in the '70s was replete with futuristic dystopias, few even hinted at nuclear war as their origin—environmental issues such as pollution and overpopulation were more on the public's mind. Perhaps the only significant film to directly address nuclear issues was the 1974 TV movie Missiles of October, a dramatization of the previous decades Cuban missile crisis.

But then came the 1980s.

After a flirtation with atomic nostalgia for the 1950s in the 1982 documentary The Atomic Cafe, 1983 was a nightmare year for films, with TV movies The Day After and Special Bulletin exploring, respectively, global nuclear war and nuclear terrorism with an astonishing realism that stunned audiences—we may have thought we were prepared for at least cinematic depictions of nuclear war, but these movies were cultural events that brought the nation to a standstill and renewed debate about atomic weaponry—Special Bulletin in particular was so effective that many viewers believed it was an actual news report about the nuking of Charleston, South Carolina, instead of the convincing fake it was. Threads, a 1983 British TV film that aired on PBS in America, did The Day After one better, depicting a Great Britain descending in medieval-style feudalism years after a limited nuclear war; Testament, from the same year, showed us the slow decline of a small American town downwind from nuclear blasts.

The ease with which nuclear annihilation could come was never far from the popular consciousness in the 1980s: in 1983's WarGames a teen computer hacker accidentally initiates Global Thermonuclear War; 1986's The Manhattan Project saw a teen science whiz constructing a nuke for a science fair. In some films—such as 1983's The Dead Zone and 1984's Dreamscape—nuclear war was but a plot point, deployed with a casualness that was at once horrifying and weirdly indifferent, as if we'd all gotten used to the idea, if not actually comfortable with it, that we were all going to die in an all-out nuclear war. By the end of the decade, with 1989's Miracle Mile, a kind of quirky relaxation settled over us—if this was how we were going to die, so be it. We'd enjoy our last moments, and live them to the fullest, like Anthony Andrews oddball citizen, given an inadvertent heads-up to the holocaust arriving within the hour.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, nuclear terror receded somewhat in the Hollywood imagination. Although Terminator 2: Judgment Day, in 1991, featured one of the most horrifying scenes of nuclear holocaust ever committed to film, by 1994's TV miniseries The Stand, a one-off nuclear blast was a cleansing experience, ridding the world of bad guys, and in 1995's Crimson Tide, nuclear holocaust was averted thanks to the quick, steady thinking of the very characters—American military officers—who were so quick to push the button without question a decade earlier in The Day After.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the fears of nuclear disaster remain, but they're more subdued, less a function of our own poor judgment and more one of our carelessness in anticipating how our inventions may turn on us. In 2002's The Sum of All Fears, it's a rogue terrorist group that sets off a relatively small nuclear blast with a device scrounged from the Cold War; in 2003's Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, it's the computers that launch global destruction. The unaccounted leftover nukes may be our responsibility, but we lost track of them out of laziness, not malice; the computers may be our creations, but we, the humans, vehemently fight their decision to wipe us out. We're still to blame, perhaps, for our own near extinction, but there's a degree of separation from the animosity of the height of fear in the 1980s. It's as if we've come full circle, back to the horror films of the 1950s, in which unintended consequences and our own shortsightedness is our greatest enemy. It is, at least, a step away from demonizing entire nations. Though it remains to be seen whether we can continue along those lines—the future course of Hollywood's depiction of nuclear weapons and their uses will very likely to greatly determined by their use—or avoidance—in the real world. One terrorist nuke, or a strike against South Korea or Japan by their apparently trigger-happy nuclear neighbors, and Hollywood could revisit the 1980s all over again.

Works Referenced

(1) Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: Doomsday Clock [back]

Copyright © 2005, MaryAnn Johanson. All Rights Reserved.

About MaryAnn Johanson

MaryAnn Johanson is one of the most popular and most respected film critics publishing online—Time magazine likes her "snarky, well-informed commentary [and] breezy style," and Variety calls her "one of online's finest" film critics. She keeps a weather eye on Hollywood at The Flick Filosopher.


Aug 1, 21:54 by IROSF

This thread is for discussion of MaryAnn Johanson's latest essay.

The essay itself can be found here.
Aug 3, 05:39 by Abizer Nasir
I must mention Planet of the Apes (1968).

although it doesn't directly show Nuclear war, there is a clear implication that this is what brought about the end of man. This is supported by the sequel Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), where humans worship an atomic weapon.
Aug 3, 09:04 by Adrian Simmons
Such a discussion would not be complete with out mention of the Mel Gibson trilogy of Mad Max. I'm pretty sure that the original 'Mad Max' was set during a downard spiral of civilization. 'The Road Warrior' and 'Beyond Thunderdome' both simply say that at some point there was an atomic war.

Aug 6, 08:33 by MaryAnn Johanson
I never said this discussion was complete -- there are many more films that touch in some way on nuclear war than I mentioned here. I just aimed for an overview of how attitudes in the culture at large impacted Hollywood.
Aug 6, 09:38 by Bluejack
If someone *did* want to aim for a comprehensive bibliography, it could make an interesting "Subgenre Spotlight"
Aug 11, 17:12 by Carey McGee
It's probably pointless to repost anything from Boing Boing, but here's an interesting article about the relationship between SF and the development of the A-bomb, which includes a story about John W. Campbell getting investigated by the feds.
Aug 16, 16:43 by Richard Hayden
It's interesting that you mention the BBC film Threads. I was ten when that screened over here. Too young to watch it. but I remember school the next day quite vividly. A lot of the older kids had seen it; most of the teachers had too. Retrospectively I wonder whether what we felt that day was the realisation of how devastating nuclear power can be, something we (that is, the British public) hadn't really had to think about before.

About 20 years before Threads, the BBC made another post-holocaust docu-drama called The War Game. It was never screened. Before it could go out, the government stepped in and confiscated it on grounds of public morale. Questions were asked in the House of Commons and one MP chastised the BBC for portaying the British public as panic stricken and out of control. He reasoned that this would never happen to a people who had endured the Blitz. It is incredible to think now that the ruling body of the UK at the very height of the Cold War thought a direct nuclear assault on London would actually have no greater effect than a WW2 bombing raid. Threads changed that view.

By the way, UK film critic and author Kim Newman wrote a book, variously called Millennium Movies or Apocalypse Movies (depending on the edition), that charts a great deal of nuclear threat movies, plus a lot of other Armegeddon themes. It's not particularly deep but may be worth a look to those who are interested.

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