Nuclear Cinema: Ten Prescient Meltdowns


One year after the United States aired The Day After, Britain aired its own fictional post-nuclear nightmare in this 1984 television drama. Building upon the bleak foundation laid down by the BBC’s 1965 television drama The War Game — which was eventually withdrawn from transmission after the British government declared it “too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting” — Threads was nevertheless much nastier than The Day After, and The War Game for that matter. From its material annihilation and societal collapse to its crude intercourse and deformed offspring, it promised nothing less than the total decline of civilization if the world kept dicking around with nukes. In our era of torture porn and autopsy programming, Threads is no longer too horrifying for broadcast. Maybe we should start making kids watch it as a prerequisite for graduating elementary school.

Miracle Mile

This enduring 1988 cult film, paraphrasing critic Roger Ebert, offers “effectively diabolical” testimony to the nuclear nightmare. But the same could be said of the shortening attention span of pop culture. After all, it arrived in theaters only five years after The Day After terrorized Earth’s superpowers into a productive nuclear conversation. But by then, the American public had moved on to the laughable terrorists of Die Hard, the autism bromance of Rain Man and the ludicrous notion that eventual California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny De Vito could actually be Twins outside of Karl Rove’s reality-based community. Made for over $3 million, Miracle Mile barely grossed over a million and more or less disappeared from the cultural radar. Perhaps it was its interrupted romance, or perhaps it was the Tangerine Dream soundtrack, but Miracle Mile’s vision of Los Angeles wracked by nuclear war has nevertheless found its longevity and lasted longer than both Chernobyl and Fukushima. Who’s real now?

Barefoot Gen

The bizarre tragedy behind the tragedy that is Fukushima is that Japan remains the only major nation that really knows what it is like to experience and survive a nuclear attack. After the epochal atomic obliterations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it has got to be a tragicomic record of some kind that the geothermal-rich nation would not only become Earth’s third wealthiest country, but even entertain, much less legislate and fund, a full-blown nuclear power industry. It would be fair to say that pretty much all of Japanese culture, post-1945, is influenced by those American bombings, but there are some productions that stand out above the rest. The viral multimedia iterations of Keiji Nakazawa ‘s manga series Barefoot Gen represent a sizable amount of them. Barefoot Gen’s acclaimed comics, anime and live-action films embraced post-apocalyptic Hiroshima with horror and poetry. A possible Hollywood blockbuster has been in the works, but Hollywood is currently infatuated with metahumans and wizards. That is, fictional heroes who have little to nothing to offer a bleaker reality besieged by disasters on all fronts.

White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

If Barefoot Gen is the epic Hiroshima fable, then this award-winning documentary from Steven Okazaki is its non-fictional kin. Created after Okanzaki met with over 500 survivors and conducted over 100 interviews, the documentary eventually settled on 14 subjects whose testimony to World War II’s atomic conclusion should be memorized by every proponent of America’s technocratic infatuation with predator drones, bunker busters and other death-from-above toys that ruthlessly remove the human element from collateral damage. One of White Light/Black Rain’s interview subjects even lent his story to Barefoot Gen, making the two perhaps the most depressing nuclear double feature this side of The Day After and Threads.

Kiss Me Deadly

This one may be considered a cheat by some. But director Robert Aldrich’s perverse noir potboiler is actually one of the strangest nuclear cinema experiments ever committed to culture. Based on Mickey Spillane’s gut-busting mystery novel, whose concerns with the mafia were subversively cast off by screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides, Kiss Me Deadly posited detective Mike Hammer as a sadistic narcissist too stupid to notice the nuclear catastrophe at the center of his brutal investigations. Its climactic radioactive suitcase eventually found its irraditated way into future film classics like Alex Cox’s Repo Man and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. But since its 1955 premiere, Kiss Me Deadly’s simultaneous violence and impotence has become practically encoded in our post-millennial culture as a fail-safe reflex.

What is our nuclear industry, but a deadly kiss whose attraction isn’t worth the annihilation? The disaster capitalists should watch the end of Kiss Me Deadly, where the film’s punishing hero becomes little more than a willing dupe in an apocalyptic endgame. While he sadistically chases sex, money and cars, the game theory over his head starts to fracture and spiral out of control. Too bad he didn’t watch his own film, or any of the others on this list, and wake up early enough to survive the existential endgame.

This article appeared in AlterNet

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