As Russia plants tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, and news outlets update their infographics to show which teams have the most warheads, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer seems ominously well-timed with its dramatisation of the first atomic bomb test in Los Alamos, July 1945. The story has already been told in Roland Joffé’s Fat Man and Little Boy (1989) – later retitled Shadow Makers after everyone assumed it was a comedy – though I’ll wager Nolan’s version will deliver more bang to the buck, especially in 70mm IMAX.
After the test, J Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist who oversaw the project, famously quoted Hindu scripture: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Well, let’s hope not. Dr. Strangelove (1964) is one of the few films that doesn’t chicken out of blowing up the world, though five years earlier there was no happy ending in On the Beach (1959). But mostly, one’s thoughts drift back to the last time nuclear annihilation was a public concern more immediate than, say, global warning, and led to protest marches aplenty. In the 1980s, with President Reagan ramping up Evil Empire rhetoric, we were pelted with films telling us that government tips on how to build our own fallout shelters were about as useful as a knitted condom.
Peter Watkins’ documentary-style The War Game (1966), in which Soviets nuke Gatwick Airport, was finally televised in 1985, two decades after the BBC had deemed the melting eyeballs “too horrifying” to broadcast. The Day After (1983) and Testament (1983) had us praying to be vaporised at Ground Zero, which seemed infinitely preferable to a slow death, bleeding from all orifices. Raymond Briggs’ animated When the Wind Blows (1986) depicted in heartbreaking detail an ever-hopeful elderly couple’s demise after an ICBM attack. Equally depressing was a suggestion in the thoroughly nightmarish Threads (1984) that a nuclear strike on Sheffield would make us wet ourselves in public.
Atomic bomb movies come in two varieties: horror shows, which make you want to stockpile cyanide pills, and divertissements, in which nuclear weapons are MacGuffins which the hero must disarm to save the world, like James Bond in Goldfinger (1964), Octopussy (1983) and The World Is Not Enough (1999). But after perestroika and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991, there was a perceptible lightening up of cinema’s atom-splitting. Steven Spielberg isn’t joking when young Christian Bale sees the Nagasaki mushroom cloud in Empire of the Sun (1987). Twenty-five years later, the same actor would be saving the population of Gotham City by flying a neutron bomb out to sea in Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012), while in Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), Indy survives an A-bomb test in the New Mexico desert by hiding in a lead-lined fridge – something we were warned never to do as children, so he was jolly lucky he didn’t get trapped in there and run out of air.
1980s tips on how to build our own fallout shelters were as useful as a knitted condom
Likewise, James Cameron took Sarah Connor’s nuclear nightmare seriously in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), but by the time he made True Lies three years later, he was cavalierly obliterating half the Florida Keys, with the mushroom cloud a mere background to Arnold Schwarzenegger smooching with Jamie Lee Curtis. A lot depends on how famous you are: in The Peacemaker (1997), no one cares when thousands of civilians perish in the Urals, and things only truly kick off when a Chechen terrorist tries to nuke George Clooney and Nicole Kidman in downtown Manhattan. In the extraordinary finale of Miracle Mile (1988), Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham go down with their helicopter, whereas when neo-Nazis nuke Baltimore and the electromagnetic pulse knocks Ben Affleck’s chopper out of the sky in The Sum of All Fears (2002), he clambers out of the wreckage unscathed. (Just don’t mention gamma rays.)
One wonders if Oppenheimer and a new wave of nuclear oneupmanship can galvanise a generation too young to remember the 1980s to take to the streets in protest. Perhaps their appetite will have been whetted by the mini-series Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), in which David Lynch pinpoints the 1954 A-bomb test as the root of all evil. But it’s not all doom! Even as we speak, Wes Anderson is putting the case for atomic frivolity in Asteroid City (2023), in which mushroom clouds on the desert horizon are barely noticed by stargazers more preoccupied by extra-terrestrials and arch dialogue.
Japan, of course, has never taken atomic bombs lightly. Even Godzilla (1954), the giant lizard with radioactive breath, is an obvious metaphor for nuclear firepower. Some of Akira Ifukube’s Godzilla score had already been used one year earlier in the harrowing docudrama Hiroshima (1953), based on eye-witness accounts, while the anime Barefoot Gen (1983) serves up enough melting eyeballs to give the BBC conniptions, as well as Gen’s family burning to death in the ruins of their house. Toy Story it’s not.
But for all-round atomic gloom, Shohei Imamura’s masterful Black Rain (1989) takes the biscuit, showing how survivors continue to suffer physically, socially and psychologically for many years after the blast itself. There’s no hiding in a fridge and popping out again when the all-clear sounds.
Anne Bilson is a film critic, novelist and photographer