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)
Earth 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)
As 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)
Having 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)
Not 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)
A 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)
No 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)
When 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)
To 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)
After 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)
The 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)
New 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)
Given 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)
Things 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)
Originally 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)
One 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.