Watching the End of the World
June 12, 2019 5:56 AM   Subscribe

The Doomsday Clock is set to two minutes to midnight—the same position it held in 1953, when the United States and USSR detonated their first hydrogen bombs. So why don't we make movies about nuclear war anymore?
posted by Ten Cold Hot Dogs (77 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
From the article:

“Maybe my parents thought I was too young to understand,” said McDowall. “But I remember thinking, ‘How can this be? The world can end, and none of these adults are able to stop it? No one can save me, not even my Gran?’ It’s dreadful to learn so young that there is no safety.”

...The time that I remember first being made aware of nukes was during a family vacation. We were all in our hotel room and my parents and brother had all fallen asleep while we were watching a movie, and I secretly was giddy that I could stay up and watch Johnny Carson without them telling me to go to bed, so I did.

But then after the Tonight Show was a news piece about the SALT talks. And at some point the two talking-head journalists started showing charts, comparing our arsenal to the Soviets. I just remember sitting there and looking at the comparison that here is how many million of this kind of bomb we have, and here is how many million they have....here is how many of their cities we can kill, and here is how many of our cities they can kill....here is how many times over we could blow everything up, and here is how many times over they can...

I wanted to wake my parents up and ask for comfort, but I also didn't want to because then I'd be in trouble for staying up late. So I just sat there paralyzed until I finally scrambled out of bed to turn off the TV and then get back into bed in the dark, trying to go to sleep and not being able to for a long time because all I could think of was the fact that there were these really big bombs somewhere that could kill everyone in the whole world and they could go off at any minute.

I was about eight, I think.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:15 AM on June 12 [54 favorites]


I just sat there paralyzed

and that right there is why the market for nuclear apolcalypse movies where Bruce Willis can't save the day is limited. Paralysis doesn't monetize.
posted by flabdablet at 6:38 AM on June 12 [3 favorites]


I had a similar experience as a kid, watching the movie "The Day After". It stuck with me. The peril we are in from nuclear bombs is as much as ever, and it's always been a big fear for me.
posted by HephaestusB at 6:39 AM on June 12 [4 favorites]


and that right there is why the market for nuclear apolcalypse movies where Bruce Willis can't save the day is limited. Paralysis doesn't monetize.

If that's the case, do you have a theory as to why there nevertheless were so many films that dealt with the topic in the 60s, 70s and 80s?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:47 AM on June 12 [2 favorites]


speaking as a gen-x kid who was scarred by the day after, etc, etc, suffering through climate change is a billion times more terrifying than a quick incineration in nuclear war and its actually happening
posted by entropicamericana at 6:49 AM on June 12 [38 favorites]


If Threads is everything that they say it is, then there's no point in making another movie about the aftermath of nuclear war; if that doesn't convince people... (I went looking for it on Amazon and it's listed as part of one of their hosted streaming services, Shudder, which looks to be your go-to source for cheesy straight-to-video horror.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:49 AM on June 12 [5 favorites]


Maybe because we know that Mother Nature is going to be the one to really detonate the Big One?
posted by BlueHorse at 6:50 AM on June 12 [2 favorites]


We don't make movies about nuclear war anymore because, post-Gorbechev and the tearing down of the Berlin wall, Hollywood moved from Russia to middle eastern rogue states and terrorists as the all-purpose Enemy of the U.S., and that captures the public's fears. And we don't think of that group in nuclear terms, really, or at least not in the terms of nuclear war. (Which is perhaps silly of us - our greatest practical threat from nuclear stockpiles is probably the lax security protecting them, but that's another topic...)

As for us needing movies about nuclear war to scare us away from it - the hell we do. Those movies did their job and then some, scaring us enough about nuclear war that it is now, in the public eye, beyond the pale. If we got a glut of films about the U.S. exercising nuclear power today the only result would be a knee-jerk politicization of a question that we've already, as a people, answered correctly, and then boom, that possibility is suddenly back on the table.
posted by Navelgazer at 6:54 AM on June 12 [1 favorite]


there was a moment, sometime during the collapse of the Soviet bloc, when i felt something deep inside me unclench.

i remember walking to elementary school in the mid 80s and thinking things like “this park here, that i walk past every day, could just disappear in a flash of light and heat because of a decision that someone thousands of miles away made, and there’s absolutely nothing i can do about it. and i would disappear, too, before i even had a chance to wonder why it was happening”. i was anxious about it all the time and the fear crept into all the quiet moments when i wasn’t distracted by some activity.

in hindsight it was naive to think that the end of the cold war meant the end of the nuclear threat, but at that time i felt like i could breathe for the first time in years.

now, of course, the fear is back and compounded by the fear of climate catastrophe and i have to aggressively tend my mental garden to get through the day without curling up in a ball on the floor.
posted by murphy slaw at 6:54 AM on June 12 [20 favorites]


" I mean, he'll see everything, he'll... he'll see the big picture!"
posted by clavdivs at 6:56 AM on June 12 [2 favorites]


Maybe it is time to make Threads 2: Atomic Boogaloo.
posted by misteraitch at 6:59 AM on June 12 [6 favorites]


Those movies did their job and then some, scaring us enough about nuclear war that it is now, in the public eye, beyond the pale.

Not necessarily. Trump actually asked a foreign policy expert "if we have nuclear weapons, why not use them?" back in 2016. And I mention that not as yet another "Trump is an idiot" spotlight; he's far from the only person who asks such things.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:00 AM on June 12 [7 favorites]


do you have a theory as to why there nevertheless were so many films that dealt with the topic in the 60s, 70s and 80s?

The 80s pretty much marks the beginning of the era we're still in today where money isn't everything, it's the only thing.

Maybe because we know that Mother Nature is going to be the one to really detonate the Big One?

God help us once the Right does start to treat global warming as the existential threat it is instead of an endless vein of reactionary talking points; I'm half expecting some "super rational" Moldbug devotee in high office to decide "for the good of humanity" that the obvious cure for global warming is nuclear winter. In order to save the village it was necessary to destroy it, etc.

our greatest practical threat from nuclear stockpiles is probably the lax security protecting them

Exactly this. It's a point comprehensively missed during the Great Unclenching, and I for one am not super convinced that what the world needs now is popular films that draw attention to it.
posted by flabdablet at 7:02 AM on June 12 [8 favorites]


do you have a theory as to why there nevertheless were so many films that dealt with the topic in the 60s, 70s and 80s

Hypothesis: the Fear didn't cause us to make movies, the movies created the Fear. It was the greatest artistic achievement of the 20th century. The movies, books, etc. moved us from abstract awareness of danger, held by a small number of artists, to permanent, universal dread, reaching even to the people with fingers on the button. The Fear kept us alive.

With less art, less fear. I heard a teenage ethics bowl team discuss deterrence recently. Their dispassion was chilling.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 7:11 AM on June 12 [12 favorites]


God help us once the Right does start to treat global warming as the existential threat it is instead of an endless vein of reactionary talking points; I'm half expecting some "super rational" Moldbug devotee in high office to decide "for the good of humanity" that the obvious cure for global warming is nuclear winter. In order to save the village it was necessary to destroy it, etc.

God help us indeed.
posted by Reyturner at 7:15 AM on June 12 [2 favorites]


If your clock has been at two minutes to midnight for 66 years, it means it’s time for a new metaphor.
posted by Segundus at 7:17 AM on June 12 [20 favorites]


With less art, less fear. I heard a teenage ethics bowl team discuss deterrence recently. Their dispassion was chilling.

That's kind of exactly the point of TFA - that maybe we need to bring these films back as a reminder lest we forget and consider Mutually Assured Destruction as a viable option again.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:18 AM on June 12 [3 favorites]


I had a similar experience as a kid, watching the movie "The Day After".

I wasn't allowed to watch The Day After, and the day after The Day After, all the other kids were talking about it, and I was pretty upset that I didn't get to see nuclear armaggedon.

However, while my parental units were quite vigilant over my teevee intake, they didn't take much notice of what I borrowed from the library. One book I remember quite vividly (and have never been able to track down) was a youth book titled 'Sur-Real' (or something close to that). It was set in some not-too-distant future, after a nuclear holocaust. A community of survivors lived in some underground complex beneath Mount Royal in Montreal (thus, the 'sur-Real'). It was quite detailed, like how the underground community had engineered themselves to all be bald, and not have to deal with excess waste of things like hair. Anyway, time had passed, and some boy from the underground managed to get outside and started exploring the wasteland, and of course encountered some girl (with hair) from an aboveground group of survivors, and there was this rediscovery of lost cultures thing going on, and a clash of technology, and and and...

Youth title. Weighing the respective benefits of how to survive nuclear fallout in Canada. Totally normal. Movies about nuclear war -- and specifically aimed at kids, like War Games or Real Genius -- they were everywhere.

Fascinating post. I'll be needing to look up some movie titles from my library soon...
posted by Capt. Renault at 7:19 AM on June 12 [5 favorites]


It's a beautiful essay. I definitely feel my life has been shaped by that ever-looming doom, and when I see articles or documentaries about preppers, I can recognize myself in them in spite of being on the complete opposite side of the political spectrum.
Threads is the scariest film I have ever seen. I'm not certain I ever saw it to the end, actually. It's that scary. Maybe it did set a standard that no-one is willing to meet/fund.
Anyway, I think what definitively ended with the Cold War was the concept of the "Great War". It had practically ended with the US adventures in the Far East, and the Sovjet war in Afghanistan, but when the Cold War ended, it became very clear that a new world war between easily defined good and evil sides was not going to happen, and thus even nuclear war would be part of some sort of messy tangle, randomly hitting this area but not that. 9-11 could as well have been a dirty bomb attack. But it wouldn't have been a Cold War style attack on all the big cities in the Western Alliances simultaneously. IMO, that hasn't really changed. Some idiot, like Trump, might start using nuclear weapons in a local context and the consequences will be terrible, and unforeseeable, but they will be different from what we expected during the Cold War.
Meanwhile the climate crisis is real and happening and a lot less preventable than a nuclear war ever was. I can see how a nuclear war diminishes in the popular imagination.
posted by mumimor at 7:25 AM on June 12 [6 favorites]


If your clock has been at two minutes to midnight for 66 years, it means it’s time for a new metaphor.

It's not been like that for 66 years, though. In 1963 they set it to 12 minutes to midnight after the successful aversion of war during the Cuban Missle Crisis. Then in 1968, the Vietnam War updated it to 7 minutes to. It wavered during the 70s, then settled at 7 minutes to again in 1980; then got bumped to 4 minutes to in 1981, then 3 minutes in 1984. Then 6 minutes to in 1988. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the tearing-down of the Berlin Wall is part of what prompted a move to 17 minutes to midnight in 1991. Then during the 2000s it has been creeping closer and closer to midnight.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has a whole timeline laying out when they've updated the clock over the years, and to what time, and why. It's still a perfectly good metaphor if you care enough to pay a little attention.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:25 AM on June 12 [25 favorites]


yeah, in fourth grade our teacher read my class Z for Zacharia.

nuclear apocalypse was just part of the … background radiation at the time
posted by murphy slaw at 7:27 AM on June 12 [4 favorites]


I'm deeply fascinated by this*. That three generations have grown up with nuclear war being part of the scenery. That global warming and terrorism occupy the same mental space. That boomers still conflate nuclear power and nuclear weapons as equal evils.

It used to be the Bible that promised apocalypse in our time, but for a while now we've had a literal existential threat of our own design just hanging around us all the time like wallpaper. And it's banal. I suppose eastern philosophy takes a more 'we've been thru annihilation before' approach. But isn't it fucked up that me and most of the people I know grew up with the casual knowledge that we might be the only life that exists in this part of the universe (maybe anywhere at all) and we've invested unparalleled resources into munitions that can erase all that life many times over?

*For instance
posted by es_de_bah at 7:29 AM on June 12 [4 favorites]


Such a movie would simply encourage the people who want to use them. Thing is, as long as nuclear weapons exist, sooner or later someone will use them. Instead, make a movie about getting rid of them.
posted by 3.2.3 at 7:32 AM on June 12 [2 favorites]


I remember there were "Fallout Shelter" signs all over the place......we were supposed to crowd into these church basements, in the absence of deep subway tunnels like Moscow had, and survive on Civil Defense crackers and so on, in the event of nuclear war. I started noticing them when I went to kindergarten, in a church, but I had absolutely no idea what FALLOUT was or why we needed to shelter from it or when it was coming. But it was still ominous and creepy.

Someone here, I think, asserted that the "tornado drills" we performed in elementary school in the 70's were actually camouflaged put-your-head-between-your-legs-and-kiss-your-ass-goodbye practice. I dunno, we did get tornados on occasion.
posted by thelonius at 7:33 AM on June 12 [2 favorites]


In the 80s we grew up with fear of nuclear apocalypse: human civilization could end in a matter of minutes because adults were stupid, stubborn and short-sighted.

Since the Cold War, kids have grown up with climate change: that human civilization is already in the process of dying a slow, agonizing death over the course of decades because adults were stupid, stubborn, and short-sighted.
posted by Foosnark at 7:44 AM on June 12 [8 favorites]


Who's this 'we' again?
posted by Harry Caul at 7:48 AM on June 12


Such a movie would simply encourage the people who want to use them.

Evidence has shown to the contrary.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:52 AM on June 12 [4 favorites]


Perhaps telling that the logo of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was stripped of its original meaning in most of the world, and when seen in today's media it usually signals that a person is a wacky yet harmless drug addict or impractical dreamer.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:52 AM on June 12 [4 favorites]


We don't have the right kind of music:
We'll Meet Again
I Don't Want To Set The World On Fire
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:01 AM on June 12 [3 favorites]


thelonius: "I remember there were "Fallout Shelter" signs all over the place....."

Yellow, Black, and Rectangular
posted by namewithoutwords at 8:10 AM on June 12 [4 favorites]


Instead, make a movie about getting rid of them.

Been there, done that.
posted by davidmsc at 8:10 AM on June 12 [4 favorites]


"Verrra, Verra, what has becomeof you"'

I blame 'Atomic Cafe'
posted by clavdivs at 8:17 AM on June 12


I recall being sunk in dread and finding an odd comfort in the bouncy notes of this song
posted by Pastor of Muppets at 8:18 AM on June 12


Perhaps the message is the same but the medium has changed?

Nuclear Post Apocalyptic video games are at a glut right now, and don't seem to be waning in popularity.

I don't follow triple A shooting / survival games that closely - no personal appeal - but at least 4 such games/DLC packs were announced at E3 2019 this week
posted by Faintdreams at 8:29 AM on June 12 [5 favorites]


I think it's important to reflect on the depth of the work that was done, over a long, long time, to get to the point where Threads and The Day After were mainstream productions.

I don't know a complete history of anti-nuclear activism, but it's a little hobby of mine. It seems like anti-nuclear activism in the global north was basically started by people seen as "cranks" in mainstream society - famous cranks, maybe, but people like Bertrand Russell and Peggy Duff who were at times very influential but who had a great deal of fun made of them - people whose names were synonymous with "wacky weirdo, probably a vegetarian or something". Quite a lot of people thought the CND was stupid and the Aldermaston marches an embarrassment, never mind the Grenham Common stuff. And I remember the eighties quite well - Greenpeace and other environmental/anti-nuclear organizations were also punchlines. Peace activists were punchlines my entire lifetime, even in parts of the left. (Partly this was misogyny, since peace activism was associated with, eg, activist nuns, feminist encampments, etc)

The BBC censored an early anti-nuclear film, The War Game (1965), by famous left-wing film guy Peter Watkins. It wasn't shown in the UK until 1985.

Like, it was thirty years of hard and publicly reviled work to create a popular consensus that - even if hippie peacenik vegetarians were risible - nuclear war simply must not be allowed to happen.

It's not so much "what happened to the anti-nuclear consensus" as "how can the hard work of re-creating it be done, and do we have both time and people". Like, it's no surprise that the consensus dissipated, because creating it and sustaining it through the eighties itself was a mighty work.
posted by Frowner at 8:31 AM on June 12 [22 favorites]


I have a different theory: there are no more nuclear war movies because apocalypse is seen as a good thing. Much has been said about the cozy catastrophe genre, where the end of the world is just a backdrop for a wish fulfillment fantasy about not going to work tomorrow. In the USA, so many people have internalized the idea that working on your own is good but working together through a little something called "government" is wrong. So, instead of asking questions like "Everyone likes walkable neighborhoods, why do we build them for cars?" we fantasize about an apocalypse that forces everyone to walk on the blasted Earth.

Since it is hard to make nuclear war cozy, those movies have been replaced by zombie movies.
posted by BeeDo at 8:36 AM on June 12 [11 favorites]


I share her preoccupations, and I admire her readiness to talk about how they have affected her mental health. McDowall has often spoken of the breakdown she suffered in 2009, when she couldn’t go outside for weeks because she was afraid of the sky. “I’m certain that this fear was enhanced by my interest in nuclear war,” she said. “The sky is where the bomb or missile comes from, it’s where the blinding flash will be.”
I'm not saying people shouldn't make more media about this kind of thing, but this is the sort of thing that I think should be a big red flag. Somebody makes a popular podcast and talks about their nervous breakdowns and how they now have a feeling of hopelessness--maybe this isn't actually a good topic for most people to immerse themselves in. I don't think it's good or helpful to society for psychologically vulnerable people to ruin themselves for the sake of being "informed". Just because there are people like Trump out there who ignore or don't care about the danger doesn't mean that the general public can offset that by making ourselves feel afraid or hopeless. If you find yourself obsessing about these sorts of scenarios to the point where they have a negative impact on the rest of your life, please, step away and get real help for your mental health. I'm really uncomfortable with how pieces like this sometimes turn this kind of behavior into something laudable.

Media should afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. If the comfortable aren't paying attention, it doesn't help to make more intensely disturbing things that will just make the general population feel increasingly helpless, even if they're accurate. I think The Day After and Threads were important but they also seem to have entirely passed over people like Trump while giving, say, yours truly intense and lasting nightmares. Is there no way to reach the powerful without doing lasting harm to our own psyches?
posted by Sequence at 8:38 AM on June 12 [6 favorites]


Simple answer: media is profit driven. Since there's no profit in selling the public services that "prevent" nuclear war, why bother covering it in film, or in the news? There's a ton of profit in selling the public services that "prevent" terrorism, and so, here we are. Terrorism is covered in entertainment and in the news to a spectacularly unbalanced degree relative to the actual chance that it might impact any of our lives.
posted by Wetterschneider at 8:38 AM on June 12 [1 favorite]


Haven't there been multiple movies made (for some definition of) recently that involve nuclear bombs? I mean, I remember some Jack Ryan movie with Ben Afflec where they blow up Baltimore, but then also Batman #3? Doesn't he fly a nuclear-type bomb away? Then the Transformers movie - pretty sure one of those involves a nuclear bomb.

The answer must be then that nuclear bombs are minor plot devices now, not things that destroy the entire world.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:39 AM on June 12 [2 favorites]


Those movies did their job and then some, scaring us enough about nuclear war that it is now, in the public eye, beyond the pale.

In addition to EmpressCallipygos's point, there was a big hoo-hah in UK news media some months back (probably over a year now, hard to keep track) where the notion of a Corbyn government was being portrayed as dangerous because he wouldn't push The Button to launch nukes if it came to it.

It was taken as read (and with surprisingly little protest or opposition) that of course we want a leader who will launch nuclear weapons 'if the situation demands it' (as if such a situation exists).
posted by Dysk at 8:43 AM on June 12 [5 favorites]


Every time I read a thread like this, I'm reminded that me and my fellow Gen-Xers all have this story of coming to grips with the fact that our life could end at any moment, suddenly and violently, outside of our control and likely with no warning. Everyone seems to have a story about watching "The Day After," or not being allowed, or becoming obsessed with nuclear war for having seen (or not seen) it.

To an extent, I think the Gen-X leaders today have forgotten that, happy to have moved on.

Nuclear Post Apocalyptic video games are at a glut right now, and don't seem to be waning in popularity.

Perhaps, but the setting just seems to be a fantasy rather than real. It could just as readily be a zombie wasteland, a Nazi victory timeline, or Mars taken over by Hell.

If Threads is everything that they say it is, then there's no point in making another movie about the aftermath of nuclear war; if that doesn't convince people...

I think there are two reasons why, but they both boil down to "make it relateable to today's kids." Beyond simply have clothes and cars they are used to seeing, understand how things like social media might come into play before. It'd even be interesting to see, with the whole Internet/computers gone, just what impacts it would have on life. If you assumed you'd always be able to find a first aid video on YouTube...

Second, the "how" comes in to play. In the Eighties, the situation, as understood by my pre-teen/early teen self, was that the US and USSR hated each other, and were itching for a reason. The guns were drawn, aimed, and a round was chambered. Today, it's not quite as obvious we're at that spot--there may be more steps to get there. Plus, threats more immediate (terrorism) or long term (global climate change) demand more attention.
posted by MrGuilt at 8:45 AM on June 12 [3 favorites]


Nuclear apocalypse films became passe around the time T's with the clever slogan "Nuke the whales for baby jesus" were a thing. With all the seriousness of the topic a realistic representation was boring, just an empty vista of black and grey desolation. There certainly is no shortage of plot points where the ingenue in a low cut blouse with wire clippers must choose between the red or green wire.
posted by sammyo at 8:45 AM on June 12


Perhaps the message is the same but the medium has changed?

This is arguably not true either, at least not for video games.

Many games that feature a post-nuclear environment are set so far in the future that even the nature of the cataclysmic event is usually lost to the main characters (ex. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, as far as I know Horizon: Zero Dawn). The two major franchises I can think of that deal with the near-term effects of all-out nuclear war are Metro and Fallout.

The most effective movies about nuclear war have as their thesis the idea that continuity is effectively impossible. The Day After has a scene in a bombed-out church where an ineffectual government representative tells farmers to scrape off a huge layer of farmable topsoil to get to soil that hasn't been irradiated; the farmers all realize this actually means there IS no farmable topsoil that isn't irradiated. Threads posits that humanity's ability to reproduce will be significantly impaired, possibly fatally. Metro and Fallout, on the other hand, necessarily take the position that life after a nuclear war is possible. Otherwise there'd be no game.

Metro does a better job of showing the limits of such a life than Fallout. But neither really describe the effects of nuclear war as devastating to your own life as the player. You run into irradiated plants in Fallout, and they're basically crafting material or fodder for recipes with bizarre but usually beneficial effects. Airborne radiation keeps you out of certain areas until you get Power Armor, at which point it barely becomes a concern. Metro Exodus changes the nature of your extreme vulnerability to the outside world in ways that are technically early-game spoilers, so I won't really get into that stuff except to say that the world of the first two games is more oppressive and hostile.

None of this even addresses Fallout 76's attempts to turn nuclear weapons into playthings. Players have the ability to launch nuclear missiles from silos to any area on the map; that area then becomes a limited-time spawning ground for high-level monsters and loot you can only get in bombed areas. In other words, nuclear weapons are just another way to get awesome loot. This is so far away from any conception of nuclear war as extinction event that I don't think you can ever assume anyone who plays Fallout 76 will get an anti-nuclear message from it.
posted by chrominance at 8:47 AM on June 12 [7 favorites]


The two major franchises I can think of that deal with the near-term effects of all-out nuclear war are Metro and Fallout.

And the latter has spent every game since the first one walking further from examining the horrors and reality of the post-nuclear-war wasteland, and toward fun! adventure! games with some allegory about (non-nuclear) politics.
posted by Dysk at 8:50 AM on June 12 [3 favorites]


Lots of people here too cool for WIng Attack Plan R
posted by thelonius at 8:50 AM on June 12 [1 favorite]


Is there no way to reach the powerful without doing lasting harm to our own psyches?

Fair old reach on a twelve foot pike.
posted by flabdablet at 8:59 AM on June 12 [1 favorite]


Simple answer: media is profit driven.

The 1980s United States where many nuclear apocalypse films were made was, of course, famously devoid of any concern for profit.
posted by tobascodagama at 9:01 AM on June 12 [4 favorites]


To an extent, I think the Gen-X leaders today have forgotten that, happy to have moved on.
I don't know about that. IMO, the Iran deal was about limiting the spread of nuclear weapons within the new threat paradigm, where the greatest risk is of smaller nations nuking each other or sending smaller nuclear weapons out into the realm of terrorism.
The problem now is that Trump and his trumpists are boomers, stuck in a world view that hasn't been relevant for decades.
posted by mumimor at 9:03 AM on June 12 [1 favorite]


Okay, I have another thought:

During the Cold War, the really big, obvious sources of nuclear disaster were basically war between the USSR and the US, a mistake that causes a nuclear exchange between the USSR and other powers or else an accident caused by the production of weapons and nuclear material for such a war. It's easy to explain, and it's easy to have a political goal - "let's not go to war with the Russians/Americans!"

An awful lot of pop culture in the eighties US was basically anti-nuclear through the means of "Russians aren't actually monsters", like that awful Sting song "Russians". There was a lot of cultural work done to try to humanize the USSR in the eyes of average Americans. I remember very well the idiocy about Russia that I grew up with - not the merely political, like "they are a rival great power which does some fucked up stuff" but "Russians don't have normal human feelings" stuff, things that were obviously untrue.

When trying to humanize Russians, there was a lot of "equal and opposite" framing, of the "Russians and Americans are just ordinary people with a lot in common, being manipulated by evil or crazy leaders, and if they were left to their own devices there would be no enmity" variety. There was a very clear framework for why nuclear war might happen, and it was easy to put the blame on corrupt or irrational people at the top rather than on individual civilians.

"Let's not go to war with the Russians, they're just like us and also everyone would die" is a pretty easy thing to get across in movie form, and it only requires the negative strategy of not starting a war.

To build up public understanding of how a limited nuclear exchange might happen and why it is still very very bad even if it doesn't kill everyone and do the necessary work of re-humanizing Russians (probably not as difficult as during the Cold War) and humanizing, eg, Iranians (probably more difficult than Cold War stuff because of Islamophobia) - that's pretty complicated. You could do it, but you'd need a more complicated and less fun/obvious plot, longer running times and probably the kind of support from an independent studio that is hard to get now.

Another thing: An awful lot of movie money gets made overseas, right? All those superhero movies, etc, keep getting made in part because they can readily be marketed all around the world due to their visual effects and broad plotting. Is "let's not have a limited nuclear exchange with Iran, here's why" the kind of thing that any studio is going to want to bankroll? Probably not, at least without extensive ground-work among small press, activists, independent productions, etc. And for that to happen, those people have to be organized, informed and scared.

You could probably do a TV series - maybe you'd set part of it here and part of it in, I dunno, somewhere the US might bomb. US protagonists are regular folks of one kind or another; protagonists in the other country are a mixture of people from there and US exchange students, government workers, etc. Tensions ratchet up, everything gets stressful and messy, maybe there's a terrorist attack among the regular folks at home, there's a small nuclear exchange, everything is terrible in limited and ongoing ways that you could convey through careful attention to characterization and setting. I think it could be done, but it would cost money and you'd need a distributor.

Again, I think the real moral is that a lot of deep background cultural/activist work has to be done before anything with mass-culture power can be produced.
posted by Frowner at 9:08 AM on June 12 [10 favorites]


I find the existential fear aspect of nuclear war to be an interesting reaction. My father, who grew up in South Philadelphia during the initial nuclear panic in the 50s described his feeling, even into adulthood with a dark humor, rather than fear. It's the attitude expressed best in Tom Lehrer's classic "We Will All Go Together When We Go", a song I've been singing to myself every time the specter of nuclear combat comes up again.
posted by SansPoint at 9:17 AM on June 12 [2 favorites]


The most effective movies about nuclear war have as their thesis the idea that continuity is effectively impossible. The Day After has a scene in a bombed-out church where an ineffectual government representative tells farmers to scrape off a huge layer of farmable topsoil to get to soil that hasn't been irradiated; the farmers all realize this actually means there IS no farmable topsoil that isn't irradiated. Threads posits that humanity's ability to reproduce will be significantly impaired, possibly fatally. Metro and Fallout, on the other hand, necessarily take the position that life after a nuclear war is possible.

This raises a very good point. Part of the reason people point to Threads and The Day After as being impactful is because they were, for most, the first real kid-gloves-off depiction of "this is what nuclear war actually would be like if it goes down." Other movies either spared you seeing the worst of the aftermath, or had a miraculous last-minute save, or the like, and people could delude themselves into thinking it wouldn't be that bad - and finally along came Threads to show people what it would really be like and everyone finally realized "oh. Ohhhh."

Also, consider that it took until the point that most of the Boomers had grown up for both the bombs, and people's understanding of the bombs, to to get to the point that that was the case. We had the footage of Hiroshima, yeah, but that was just one city; the military spent much of the 50s and 60s both researching how to develop bigger and badder bombs, and researching "say, if we ever did use those bombs, what would they do?" So many of the Boomers grew up believing nukes were survivable because no one knew any different at the time. And by the time people did know different, there were those in the military who thought that this should be clandestine government secrets, partly so that we didn't all freak out. My father is one of the few Boomers I know who has always leaned pretty left politically, and I am 100% convinced it's because he worked with the military as a younger man designing nuclear subs with Electric Boat in Groton; he had to be given some intel as part of the process, stuff he technically isn't supposed to talk about still, and I strongly believe that what he saw just freaked him out to the point that it permanently altered his perspective. Just like Threads did for many when it was finally aired.

I think that a lot of the reason that nuke movies stopped getting made was because the Cold War stopped and we were all "hooray this isn't a problem any more", and then 9/11 happened and we had a new model for "who the bad guys are". But "who the bad guys are" is a different issue from "what can nukes actually do". And now another generation has grown up since we last had a look at "what can nukes actually do", and that generation right now is only hearing about it through hearsay - and it's the hearsay of the Boomers' perspective outweighing the GenX perspective right now.

There's a reason I started urging people to go watch Threads recently. We should never take our eyes off that ball.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:23 AM on June 12 [11 favorites]


>The answer must be then that nuclear bombs are minor plot devices now, not things that destroy the entire world.

Yeah, there's a big difference between fear of terrorists getting a hold of a weapon and the existential fear of global thermonuclear war. The author of the piece is concerned with the latter. Nuclear annihilation in Hollywood movies and TV was always rooted in conflict between Nato and the Warsaw Pact. And it wasn't just the idea that the Cold War could suddenly go hot. Nuclear proliferation and expansion of existing nuclear programs ratcheted-up the sense of danger, as new missile systems and deployments (and fictitious systems for defeating them) were constant news.

When that conflict ended in the early 90s, residual nuclear fears turned to the idea of loose nukes falling into the wrong hands -- possibly triggering an all out war, but more likely limited to one city. The idea of a global war receded even as regional conflicts flared up. That's not to say global war isn't still frighteningly possible, but lacking a clear-cut conflict between equal adversaries with massive arsenals there isn't the same sense of global danger.

I'd say a contributing factor is that real-world imagery of nuclear weapons is in the distant past now and rarely seen. Photos and film of the horrific effects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are almost unknown to modern audiences and imagery of atmospheric nuclear testing hasn't played a big role in the popular consciousness for some time.
posted by theory at 9:25 AM on June 12 [3 favorites]


One point that seems to be missed is that climate change and nuclear weapons do not exist in independent vacuums. Sure climate change can eventually kill us directly, but long before that it is a massively destabilising force.

For example: Climate change can cause drought, which can destabilise a country to the point of civil war, at which point major powers try to exert their influence, and before you know it NATO is shooting down Russian jets.

Expect more like this. :(
posted by swr at 10:10 AM on June 12 [7 favorites]


Hollywood moved from Russia to middle eastern rogue states and terrorists as the all-purpose Enemy of the U.S.
I think this gets things a bit backwards.

Future historians, if there are any, will view the Cold War as an intercontinental episode of crown madness. There was never more than a vanishingly small likelihood, after the Cuban Crisis, that either side would ever voluntarily escalate a conflict to the point that nukes would fly(1). If a general nuclear war happened, it would not be because of increasing tensions in the Persian Gulf or some shit like that. It would have been an accident.

In the US there was a powerful constituency, going back to right after the Russian Revolution, for trying to eradicate the Bolsheviks from the face of the Earth. These people were utterly irrational about the threat represented by Communism and there were enough of them to elect enough like-minded Senators that for most of the 20th century, the US's Russia policy was bats-in-the-belfry crazy.

On the Russian side things were no better. By the 1960s, the people in charge of the Soviet Union were elderly guys whose main life accomplishment was to survive the Stalin era as Party members, not the sort of exercise generally thought to prepare people for leading roles in world statesmanship. Their paranoia matched that of the US hardliners, and so did their stupidity (insisting on thinking of nuclear weapons as being something you'd count the same way as, say, guys with spears). The reason there was so much relaxation of fear after 1989 was that on the American side, the boogyman had finally died, and on the post-Soviet side things were so fucked up that nobody had the wherewithal to indulge the fearful fantasies of the old guys, who were pretty marginalized anyway in the new environment.

So, IMHO, the cause was not "Hollywood moving," it was the end of a terrible fever dream. Hollywood moved because people were no longer irrationally frightened of what the Russians might do.

(1) Though, strangely, down to the present day, we get people being elected President who get the SIOP briefing and come out of it horrified by what they learned.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 10:20 AM on June 12 [5 favorites]


If that's the case, do you have a theory as to why there nevertheless were so many films that dealt with the topic in the 60s, 70s and 80s?
There weren't that many, and they were mostly commercial failures if not outright flops.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 10:24 AM on June 12


Yeah, the only reason Threads and The Day After got such a wide reach is because they were broadcast on prime time television. They were treated as Teachable Moments sponsored by the networks.
posted by Autumnheart at 10:29 AM on June 12


Hey, Capt. Renault, your book is Surréal 3000 (English: The City Underground), by Suzanne Martel.
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:42 AM on June 12 [5 favorites]


This isn't complicated. There is too much money to be made in the MCU/Star Wars properties, and the other studios besides Disney are also trying to cash-in on this concept. People aren't going to camp out for 48 hours in front of Hall H at Comic-Con to see some one-off property about something as old fashioned as nuclear war.
posted by sideshow at 10:44 AM on June 12


I'm a Boomer. I remember seeing so many atom bomb test videos when I was a kid. My neighbor dug out his basement to make a fallout shelter in the 60s. I lived near a sawmill where they would burn scrap wood in big incinerators with just a grill over the top. (They looked like giant badminton shuttlecocks set on end.) I remember seeing ash from them once, and wondering if that was what fallout looked like. I was younger than 10. Ive lived with this fear all my life.

I've never seen The Day After because I didn't think I could handle it. I did watch Testament, which left me sobbing so hard my dog jumped on the bed to comfort me. I watched Threads on TBS and was absolutely shattered. (TBS, in a genius move, followed it by showing Harvey, which I stayed up and watched just so I'd have a chance of ever sleeping again.)

Like someone upthread, I relaxed a little when the Berlin wall came down, and the Soviet Union broke up. All those fears are back, though. I really effing hate that.
posted by Archer25 at 10:54 AM on June 12 [5 favorites]


There was also 1983's Special Bulletin, where terrorists detonate a bomb in Charleston. The wrinkle is that the terrorists are lefty anti-nuclear activists (there's even a poet!)
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 11:13 AM on June 12 [1 favorite]


I think the fact that there were several TV movies within a year says a lot:

The Day After 1983
Testament (originally intended for PBS) 1983
Special Bulletin 1983
Threads 1984
posted by theory at 11:27 AM on June 12 [3 favorites]


As always when this discussion comes up, I urge you to read Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser.

It's not just that these weapons are perfectly designed to kill us all, it's also a miracle that they haven't done so already.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 12:46 PM on June 12 [9 favorites]


An awful lot of pop culture in the eighties US was basically anti-nuclear through the means of "Russians aren't actually monsters", like that awful Sting song "Russians".

Jackson Browne's "Lawyers In Love," too.
posted by kirkaracha at 12:48 PM on June 12


I went looking for it on Amazon and it's listed as part of one of their hosted streaming services, Shudder, which looks to be your go-to source for cheesy straight-to-video horror.

Looks like you can also just rent it or buy it from Amazon.
posted by kirkaracha at 12:51 PM on June 12


I was really into nuclear annihilation stories for a while. I read On the Shore, I watched The Day After. Threads is the movie that broke me so badly I couldn't sleep for a week afterwards. (Thank god I wasn't working at the time.)

I never got around to Testament. It's the only other movie I fear at this point.
posted by chrominance at 12:57 PM on June 12


I never got around to Testament. It's the only other movie I fear at this point.

I've seen 'em all; there is no big dramatic shock imagery (i.e., no bomb falling, no mushroom cloud, no big chaotic destruction scene); there's a flash people see from a great distance away, but that's it. It's set in a San Francisco suburb that's far enough away to avoid the major destruction, but still gets affected by radiation and fallout, and so it's mostly "slow decline of a town and family from radiation and societal breakdown" than it is "storm of fire and stuff".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:13 PM on June 12 [1 favorite]


it's mostly "slow decline of a town and family from radiation and societal breakdown" than it is "storm of fire and stuff".

That's exactly why I fear it.
posted by chrominance at 1:27 PM on June 12 [6 favorites]


that awful Sting song "Russians".

CONDITIONED TO RESPOND TO EVERY THREAT
IN THE RHETORICAL SPEECHES OF THE SOVIETS

....this is what you get without Stewart Copeland around to do fistfights....
posted by thelonius at 1:32 PM on June 12 [5 favorites]


There are a bunch more "the bomb falls, how do people react" movies - IIRC there are French and German ones, and there's a truly weird Australian one called One Night Stand, which is basically a wacky 80s ensemble comedy with appearances by happening musicians and artsy young people from subcultural scenes...except eeeeeeeeeeverybody dies.

I found it more upsetting than this would indicate.

Barefoot Gen and When The Wind Blows are also extremely upsetting.

You could probably write something about how race appears in these - there's definitely a very white-centric trope where isolated characters of color are brought on as characters to show that everyone bonds after the bomb.

If anyone else makes any nuclear war movies, it would be interesting to focus on characters of color, queer characters, etc. Threads is pretty good on class.
posted by Frowner at 1:56 PM on June 12 [2 favorites]


Lee Sanders describes this quite well in his essay, Losing the War, something that I would never experience, being born towards the end of the Cold War.

---

Hersey was describing for the first time the war's true legacy: a permanent condition of helpless anger and universal dread. Hiroshima was the end of the line for the archaic idea that war was something that soldiers did on battlefields, somewhere on the far side of the horizon. The great strategic breakthrough of the war had been the targeting of civilian populations with weapons of mass destruction -- so that for the first time in history everybody, soldier and civilian alike, could share equally in the horror of battle. Now the postwar world was elevating this principle, making it the organizing fact of existence. After Hiroshima, Armageddon could erupt anytime, anywhere on earth, without warning, by accident. Even as people walked heedlessly in the streets, the bombs could be spiraling down from an invisible plane passing in the stratosphere; at dinnertime in the heartland, as the local news droned on about the Middle East, the missiles could already be arching over the north pole, like the ribs of a strange new cathedral.

I once saw it begin, about 20 years ago. One evening I was in the backseat of a car, gliding on a freeway out of Chicago, and I glanced out the rear window, my eye caught by an unusual bright light. There in the distance was a brilliant mushroom cloud opening up above the skyline of the city. I think it was the single worst moment of my life: I stared into that orange rose flare, that impossible death's head, and prayed that it would vanish -- and then grew sick with terror when I saw that it wasn't going to. In just another instant, I knew, the first wave of the blast would arrive. The serene suburban landscape around me, twinkling in the evening air, would erupt into a million separate sites of wreckage. The trees would flash away, the houses would vanish, the cars around us would be hurled into the air and melted into an ocean of fire. It was, I realized in those last seconds left to me, what I'd been afraid of my entire life: that the war had never stopped, that it was still escalating to its inevitable end, that everything I'd ever known was a mirage floating in the accidental lull between the detonation over Hiroshima and the shock wave that at last swallowed up the world.

Then something changed. The car took a curve, and the land readjusted itself, as though shaking free of a bad thought. Everything was as it had been; the storm had passed over me and was gone. It was all foolishness anyway -- what war could possibly reach the depths of the American heartland? The suburbs stretched out before the car, invincibly solid and inviting -- an empire of timeless privacy, opening up for me as it always did, beneath the twilight. I turned back again to look at the city and watched the mushroom cloud float dreamily out of the orange smog that hovered along the skyline and turn into the harmless moon.
posted by xdvesper at 3:58 PM on June 12 [9 favorites]


It's 2019.

Still waiting for Threads 2: Electric Boogaloo
posted by Auden at 6:49 PM on June 12


China -- a cavalry charge (horses in gas masks) and foot soldiers running into a nuclear test.

Perhaps we don't have more movies like this because reality is too astonishing.
posted by hank at 9:29 PM on June 12 [1 favorite]


Then again, there's a "ten best" video collection
posted by hank at 9:43 PM on June 12


I fell into a bit of a rabbit hole yesterday. It turns out you can watch both Special Bulletin and Countdown to Looking Glass on YouTube; I guess obscure 80s TV movies have long second lives there. The thing that ties both movies together is that they pretend to be news broadcasts, to the point where Special Bulletin had a ton of extra titles added on top of the original broadcast because the NBC censors freaked out about how real it was. Countdown to Looking Glass has interludes that are clearly dramatized and set aside the conceit of looking like a news broadcast, but honestly the effect is pretty much the same; if anything, Countdown to Looking Glass feels more real than Special Bulletin despite the interludes.

It all got me thinking about how you could possibly do something like this now, as broadcast and cable television's hold beginning to wane. Obviously there are 24-hour news channels you could imitate, but even that landscape feels so fragmented. Both Special Bulletin and Countdown to Looking Glass rely on the illusion (however false it was back then) that television news was monolithic and authoritative. You couldn't even possibly do that now, because in the back of your mind someone would say "yeah but what's Fox News's take" or "yeah but what about CNN" or "listen I'm sure Alex Jones has this figured out" or "what would YouTubers be saying" or whatever. The media landscape is so fractured that the concept of a movie that sticks with a single channel's news show for two hours seems quaint.

But also I want this to happen. Even 35 years later, I found both movies surprisingly intense to watch.
posted by chrominance at 7:54 AM on June 13 [2 favorites]


I like that the article addresses the idea of a slower apocalypse, but I think the writer doesn't quite get to the idea that every apocalypse, even a nuclear one, will seem slow to the the survivors.

And of course, we do make movies about nuclear apocalypse, we just dress it up in zombies and aliens. That's how horror works. All great truths must first wear hockey masks and threaten campers.
posted by es_de_bah at 8:07 AM on June 13


Here's a list of all the films mentioned in the article; I guess I should have included this in the post, but hey, we're all gonna die anyway, what's the rush: I had pretty much the same experience with The Day After as many of the posters above, and I'm very fucking glad I never saw Threads until I was an adult: there is no denying that, for Gen Xers at least, it's the most terrifying horror film ever made. I'm curious to see what effect it'll have when I show it do my Gen Z friends.

That said, what most terrified me when it came to nuclear war culture was Robert R. McCammon's novel Swan Song. Admittedly a cheap ripoff of The Stand (with nuclear armageddon instead of a plague), I was way too young to read this when I did and I still vividly remember being electrified with fear, literally trembling, frozen on the couch, my ears filled with the sound of television static as I raced through the pages. It ends on a hopeful note of course, but the vivid descriptions of a blasted landscape and fallen civilisation freaked me the fuck out. I still read it every couple of years, not as affected of course, but just to enjoy the pulpy (and crypto-Christian) vibe. And while I think a contemporary CGI update of Threads might work, I can understand why we don't make these films any more. Should we? Maybe. Probably. But climate change and terrorism motivates our fear now, and the culture we produce mirrors that in its twisted way.

If any director was to tackle a post-nuclear survival tale in this day and age, my money (and hopes) would be for Jordan Peele. Can you imagine?
posted by Ten Cold Hot Dogs at 9:49 AM on June 13 [2 favorites]


Then again, there's a "ten best" video collection

I got that link ("The Top 10 Most Shocking Nuclear War Scenes In Movies") suggested to me in my Youtube feed about 3 months ago and thought that "There is no way in all of the nine hells I'm going to ever watch that."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:06 AM on June 13


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