Top 15 Film Appearances Of The Bomb

Has cinema’s depiction of the “bomb” always been about destruction? Maybe not. Mark Fraser takes a look at the various manifestations of nuclear weapons in the movies with surprising results…

Nuclear weapons in the movies do not always turn up as tools of mass destruction. They are also used – sometimes in testing circumstances – to help protect the human race, restore civic order and provide ambiance for the odd poignant moment. Mark Fraser looks at the various cinematic manifestations of one of mankind’s greatest fears.

15. The War of the Worlds (Byron Haskin, 1953)

waroftheworlds_1953_top10filmsEarth is invaded by some Martians. The military uses a nuke to try and wipe them out. It doesn’t work. In the end the unwelcome visitors are brought down by germs. So much for the power of the Bomb. Possibly the first colour fiction film to depict a staged atomic blast. Interestingly, Steven Spielberg – a director who has something of a penchant for the big explosion (see separate entries below) – chose not to recreate this scenario when he made his own version of the HG Wells novel some 52 years later.

14. World War Z (Marc Forster, 2013)

worldwarzcrash_top10filmsAs he is flying from South Korea to Jerusalem while trying to find a cure for a deadly rabid zombie plague that has spread across the globe, UN investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) sees the Bomb go off somewhere down below from the safety of his military cargo plane. Had it not been for the brief flash of bright light, he easily might have missed it. Here the message is clear – some problems are just too big to be solved by nuclear mayhem.

13. The Crazies (Breck Eisner, 2010)

The-Crazies_top10filmsHaving just escaped in a stolen truck from an Iowan town full of brain damaged, virus-infected murderous psychopaths and a just-as-unfriendly army, David and Judy Dutton (Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell) are unable to avoid the resultant shock wave from an atomic blast after the military brings in the Bomb to help quell the outbreak. Although they manage to survive the crash, the hapless Duttons are later targeted again after being seen from above while making their way across a field on foot. This is not the first time in the movies that the US Government has nuked a town to contain a zombie disaster – a similar incident occurred off-screen at the end of Dan O’Bannon’s 1985 deliciously subversive The Return of the Living Dead.

12. Alien Vs Predator: Requiem (Colin and Greg Strause, 2007)

predatorversusalien_top10filmsNot quite Ridley Scott meets John McTiernan, but anyway … When a revenge-driven Predator takes on a bunch of freeloading Aliens in a Colorado township, the locals have to find a way of escaping this backyard intergalactic conflict. In the end most of them, at the request of the military, assemble in the town’s centre, only to be incinerated by an atomic bomb while naively waiting for the cavalry to arrive. Those who have the foresight to escape in a helicopter – including Dallas Howard (Steven Pasquale) and Kelly O’Brien (Reiko Aylesworth) – are brought down by the blast’s shock wave. Fortunately they survive the ordeal and deliver the Predator’s nifty gun thingie to the US Government.

11. Broken Arrow (John Woo, 1996)

broken-arrow-travoltaA rogue US military pilot/officer (John Travolta) hijacks a stealth bomber and steals its nuclear arsenal so he can hold the US Government to ransom. His plan, however, is thwarted by his former boxing partner/co-pilot (Christian Slater) and a feisty park ranger (Samantha Mathis), who successfully dispose of one of the weapons in an abandoned copper mine. The only entry on this list where the Bomb is detonated underground.

10. Fat Man and Little Boy AKA Shadow Makers (Roland Joffe, 1989)

600full-fat-man-and-little-boy-screenshot_top10filmsNo on-screen explosion – just the look of complete horror on the wobbling face of J Robert Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz) as he witnesses the birth of the nuclear age in the New Mexican desert early on the morning of July 16, 1945. A moment of pure shock and awe, this is the high point of a sometimes sluggish period piece about the relationship between the scientist and General Leslie Groves (a miscast Paul Newman in a role that really should have gone to the heavier-set Brian Dennehy), who was assigned by the Pentagon to oversee the construction of what became the first Bomb.

9. Empire of the Sun (Steven Spielberg, 1987)

steven-spielberg-moment-empire-of-the-sun_top10filmsWhen Jim (Christian Bale) witnesses the death of an exhausted Mrs Victor (Miranda Richardson) in a makeshift Japanese prison camp during the final days of World War II, he thinks it’s her soul going to Heaven when a giant flash briefly lights up the night sky. Of course it’s not a moment of spiritual transcendence; rather, it is the Bomb’s quick destruction of Nagasaki way off in the distance. As with James Cameron and True Lies (see next entry), Steven Spielberg is perhaps being a little daring when he uses a deadly nuclear blast as a set piece for one of the movie’s most strangely tranquil moments.

8. True Lies (James Cameron, 1994)

Art-Malik-Tia-Carare-True-LiesTo use an atomic explosion as the backdrop for a movie’s most romantic moment requires a certain amount of audacity, something which director James Cameron seemed to have in spades when he made True Lies. In a film heavily overdosed with hokum, one of the standout moments is when a reunited Harry (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis) Tasker kiss as one of the Bombs stolen by a bunch of terrorists goes off at a safe distance somewhere in the Florida Keys. A strange time to enjoy the perfect moment to be sure, but a nice touch nevertheless.

7. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Steven Spielberg, 2008)

crystalskullbdcap3_original_top10filmsAfter escaping from some crystal skull-seeking Soviet agents led by Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) in the Nevada Desert circa 1957, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) seeks refuge in a small town, only to discover he’s walked into a nuclear test site and the clock is ticking. Fortunately the resourceful Dr Jones finds a lead-lined refrigerator and survives the blast. Although he gets thrown a fair way while huddled in the fridge by the Bomb’s shock wave, Indy still emerges from the experience somewhat triumphantly as – bruised, battered and silhouetted – he picks himself up and defiantly faces the rising mushroom cloud.

6. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron, 1991)

terminator, judgment day, Arnold SchwarzeneggerThe heatwave from the Bomb that hits downtown Los Angeles – as seen in the dreams of Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) – rips right through the LA basin, destroying buildings, vehicles, palm trees, playground equipment, stay-at-home mothers, their young children and everything else in its path. So horrific is this vision of nuclear hell that Connor decides to throw the consequences of upsetting the space-time continuum to the wind by assassinating the computer scientist responsible for putting into train the events that will ultimately lead to an atomic holocaust.

5. Watchmen (Zack Snyder, 2009)

watchmen_top10filmsNew York gets it once again, this time in an alternate universe where former super hero and arch terrorist Adrian “Ozymandias” Veidt (Matthew Goode) vapourises the city and its inhabitants as part of his plan to alter the course of the Cold War. Being in a parallel world where advanced technologies are employed, the stylised explosion is not a mushroom cloud in the traditional sense, but it is still clearly nuclear. Earlier in the film, a more conventional blast disintegrates Laurie “Silk Spectre II” Jupiter (Malin Akerman) and Dan “Night Owl” Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson) as they kiss passionately in the latter’s not so wet dream.

4. Armageddon (Michael Bay, 1998)

Armageddon_top10filmsGiven its title, there are no surprises that the Bomb ends up playing quite a large part in this space actioner. Aside from helping save humankind from being destroyed by a giant asteroid, it is both the focus of some serious dramatic conflict between a group of drillers led by Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) and some astronauts under the command of the phallic-sounding Colonel Willie Sharp (William Fichtner) as well as a prop in a comic homage (courtesy of Steve Buscemi) to Slim Pickens in the 1964 classic Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (see below). Additionally, this nuke is also one of the few weapons in cinema’s arsenal that manages to kill the usually indestructible Willis.

3. The Abyss (James Cameron, 1989)

the-abyss_james-cameron_filmThings go from bad to worse when a US Navy SEAL (Michael Biehn), who is stuck inside an underwater drilling rig and suffering from a lethal dose of cabin fever, decides to wipe out some previously undiscovered sea creatures with a Trident missile that he has retrieved from a submarine wreck – all as the Cold War outside reaches a boiling point. While the Bomb in this one doesn’t go off, it causes a hell of a lot of angst amongst the terrestrials and non-terrestrials. It also almost triggers a watery end for the world.

2. The War Game (Peter Watkins, 1965)

the_war_game_top10filmsOriginally made for the BBC, this black and white mockumentary about the effect of World War III in county Britain was so distressing that the national broadcaster refused to air it until 1985. By then it had been widely seen and appreciated around the world as one of the strongest anti-nuclear war statements ever made. As with Terminator 2: Judgement Day there are children present when the Bomb goes off, and the results – as described by an accompanying voice-over – are unpleasantly grim. Interestingly, it won the best documentary Oscar in 1967, despite the fact it was all made up.

1. Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)

Dr._Strangelove_-_Riding_the_Bomb_top10filmsOne of the most perfect films ever made. Also one of cinema’s most coherent moments. Additionally, it boasts the performances of five talented actors who were at the top of their respective games (Peter Sellers, George C Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens and Keenan Wynn). Plus it really hasn’t dated too much in 50 years, regardless of Ronald Reagan’s Cold War victory back in the 1980s. Regardless of this, some critics of the day were not so convinced of its genius. In his bipolar January 30 (1964) review in The New York Times, for instance, Bosley Crowther suggested while there was much about the film that was “brilliant and amusing”, it also contained elements which were “grave and dangerous”. In short, he said, it was “the most shattering sick joke I’ve ever come across” while being “one of the most incisive satiric thrusts at the awkwardness and folly of the military that has ever been on the screen”. In particular, Crowther – the once progressive scribe who helped introduce the work of directors like Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa to a wider American audience before completely missing the point when faced with Arthur Penn’s ground breaking Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 (which he called “a cheap piece of bald faced slapstick comedy”) – seemed to hate the final atomic explosion montage that closes Dr Strangelove to the strains of Vera Lynn singing We’ll Meet Again. “Somehow to me, it isn’t funny,” he carped. “It is malefic and sick.”

Given he was living in the Big Apple during some of the Cold War’s chilliest years, one would have thought this critic would have found the idea of a doomsday device more terrifying or depressing than malefic. As with Bonnie and Clyde some three years later, it seemed Crowther had again missed the point.

Written and compiled by Mark Fraser

Over to you: what are top film depictions of the bomb…

About the Author
Mark is a film journalist, screenwriter and former production assistant from Western Australia.

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  1. Raymond Reply

    Really good read, Mark.

    I don’t think there could be any other number one. It’s particularly pivotal to a list like this, proving, as you say, that the “bomb” could be used in film to convey a much more important message. Kubrick’s genius is such that Dr. Strangelove is the sort of film you can return to again and again and not realize you are being indoctrinated by a message that is totally, and unashamedly, against war, wasted life and destruction.

  2. Cinegirl Reply

    I remember seeng The War Game many years ago and being deeply moved by it. It’s great to see so many anti-war films on this list with Dr. Strangelove being a worthy winner.

  3. Jason Kidd Reply

    Good list and its timely anti-war message is nice to see.

  4. Dan Grant Reply

    Fantastic idea for a top ten. Great inclusion of True Lies and Armageddon. I haven’t seen all of these and that includes number one. Sad, I know.

  5. Pete Black Reply

    Dr. Strangelove is surely Kubrick’s best. Love that shot of the falling bomb. Need to see quite a few of these so thanks for the recommendations but I’m a fan of True Lies, T2, Broken Arrow, The Abyss and Watchmen. I didn’t like the new Indiana Jones but the scene at the beginning with the “bomb” is the best part so I have no problem with seeing it listed here.

  6. Arnie Reply

    The War of the Worlds is one of my favourite films so I’d put it in the top 10 rather than 15th but thanks for having it in there at least.

    As much as Armageddon fits the topic, however, it’s a really, really bad film! Much prefer Deep Impact from that period of disaster flicks.

    Nice to see True Lies – I wish they’d make a sequel, it lends itself so well and we know Cameron is the master of sequels!

  7. Dan Grant Reply

    Armageddon is one of the best films of 1998.

  8. Gray Adams Reply

    Fat Man and Little Boy made one of your lists! Hurrah!

  9. Jack Deth Reply

    Hi, Mark:

    Very intriguing list!

    Excellent catch on ‘The War Game’!

    Would also add or expand the number to include ‘Threads’. A dry documentary about political sabre rattling with Britain stuck in the middle. And the horror beginning after the bombs go off!

    Surprised to see ‘A Boy And His Dog’ not make the cut. Though, ‘Dr. Strangelove’ deserves its top spot.

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