Thursday, August 18, 2011

Top 10 Great Works of Nuclear Cinema

By Scott Thill
August 18, 2011

Threads poster
Despite the maddening lack of mainstream coverage, Fukushima remains a ticking time bomb, according to physicist Michio Kaku, who said Northern Japan was almost wiped off the map. In other words, there's really no good news.

The only positive outcome of the Fukushima clusterfuck is that nations around the world have now seriously considered abandoning their nuclear programs altogether. Germany and Switzerland announced they're finished with nukes, although not until 2022 and 2034, respectively. Italy is of a similar mind, and of course so is Japan, which is ready to scrap the Fukushima plant, along with its nuclear ambitions in general, if it can ever get close enough to the its still-lethal meltdowns without being irradiated to death.

Hopefully, those promises will hold once peak oil wreaks global havoc and Japan's irradiated seawater and fallout stops allegedly killing babies in the Pacific Northwest. Japan in particular, in light of all that has happened, has zero excuse. It's sitting on top of a gold mine of geothermal energy.

"Japan doesn't even need nuclear power," pioneering environmentalist and author Lester Brown told AlterNet two weeks after the disaster. "It's ironic that the same seismic threats to Japan are indicators of the country's enormous amount of geothermal energy. Japan has something like 10,000 natural hot baths, all using geothermally heated water. Any country with that many hot springs can tap geothermal energy for electricity. So the question has to be asked: Why hasn't Japan developed this indigenous renewable resource? Why did they even bother with nuclear power?"

It's a significant question, no matter how we try to oppress it at home and abroad. For years, 75 percent of the United States' nuclear sites have been leaking radioactive tritium. As I write, Nebraska's Fort Calhoun and Cooper nuclear plants, the former of which was shut down in April, are in danger of rising floodwaters from extreme weather courtesy of climate change, extreme weather that will worsen as the crisis inevitably intensifies.

Despite these killer trends, the International Atomic Agency's 151-nation ministerial meeting on Japan's nuclear nightmare ended June 23 with no new nuclear rules or policies. “In our view, the application of international safety standards by the national regulatory authorities is more efficient and effective than its application by an international entity,” Brazil’s Laercio Antonio Vinhas explained. Thanks for coming out. See you next year!

While science geeks and sellouts alike continue to argue over whether or not Fukushima is the biggest industrial catastrophe in the history of humankind, two things are screamingly obvious: This is the kind of enviropocalypse that happens when the nuclear industry limits disaster planning to a single page. All of this, and worse, could have been avoided if the public and proper authorities would have just watched the following 10 destabilizing cinema and documentary meltdowns.

1. Dr. Strangelove or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb

Stanley Kubrick's immortal satire of absurdist game theory and the cock-sensitive warmongers who play it is nuclear cinema's prime mover. It should only take a single viewing for anyone to realize that placing a superpower's nuclear capabilities in the hands of politicians and soldiers is a global disaster simply awaiting derangement. From its eponymous technofascist to its bumbling American president -- both brilliantly inhabited by the late, great Peter Sellers -- it proved beyond all doubt that nukes are simply too hot to handle, especially for a military-corporatist complex that's plenty happy to repopulate the planet without us vermin around. It's not for nothing that the U.S. military actually recently released a manual for zombie invasion: We're the post-apocalyptic zombies they're ready to blow away should push come to shove.

2. Into Eternity

The only full-length documentary about the lunacy of nuclear waste disposal, Michael Madsen's 2009 stunner felt like a fever dream straight out of David Lynch's dream-noir hauntings. Chronicling the construction of the Onkalo repository on Finland's Olkiluoto island, Into Eternity quickly laid bare the fantasy that humankind has the temporal foresight, to say nothing of the technical capacity, to create sites that can safely house nuclear waste for 100,000 years. Much less the million years that Nevada's Yucca Mountain is supposed to be in compliance.
"Who wants waste that has to be stored for a million years around them?" Lester Brown told AlterNet. "There's not a single country in the world that has come up with a way of safely disposing of nuclear waste."

3. A Is For Atom

Criminally underrated UK documentarian Adam Curtis makes a habit out of routinely annihilating technocrats and utopianists. Named after General Electric's 1953 propaganda short, this hour-long finale of Curtis' six-part interrogation of misguided science and rationalism, called Pandora's Box, handily eviscerated the promise of nuclear safety. Stretching across decades from America to Russia, it employed Curtis' iconic remixing of related and unrelated footage from the BBC's vast vault to artfully make a very simple point: No one on Earth ever been able to build a reliably safe nuclear plant. and a trash dump to store all the crap it creates. In fact, from Three Mile Island to Cherrnobyl and now to Fukushima, the utter opposite has come true. General Electric, Westinghouse -- parent corporations of media dinosaurs like NBC and CBS -- Tepco and other contract-happy technocrats have regularly built nuclear plants more likely to create the China syndrome than clean energy. Speaking of...

4. The China Syndrome

Written and directed by James Bridges, this Oscar-nominated 1979 classic opened a mere 12 days before Three Mile Island went nuclear. But instead of capitalizing on the incident, and further inciting public inquiry and concern, Columbia Pictures lamely pulled the film from some theaters because it was worried about...capitalizing on the incident. That's as ridiculous as the International Atomic Energy Agency meeting months after the Fukushima disaster without implementing any new rules or policies, which is to say business as usual. Why would you take the time and money to actually create a sobering thriller about the fault-prone nuclear industry, and then pull the film as that same fault-prone nuclear industry gets nailed with an inevitable accident? The film's title comes from nuclear physicist Ralph Lapp, who coined the term to describe the chain reaction that occurs when core meltdowns totally breach their containment vessels. What's scarier than that? As you read this, Fukushima has six reactors that are sick with one strain or another of that syndrome.

5. The Day After

Some may have forgotten this incontrovertible fact during the Fukushima clusterfuck, but nuclear plants have had more to do with tactical warfare than renewable energy for the last several decades. While there are millions who cannot remember the panic-button years of the Cold War that lasted from the post-Hiroshima '50s up until the late '80s, there are millions who do remember the apocalyptic chess games America and Russia played with our hearts and minds during that time. This shattering 1983 made-for-television movie was the first to contemporize that catastrophic showdown in an utterly personal way. Where films like Dr. Strangelove and director Sidney Lumet's less satirical Fail-Safe played out like military and political procedurals, The Day After showed what life might be like if us dumbshit humans finally decided to go there. Which is why it was viewed by over 100 million people in its initial broadcast, left president Ronald Reagan feeling "greatly depressed," was screened for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and even influenced the perestroika and glasnost reforms of Russia's Mikhail Gorbachev, who eventually would forge an uneasy peace Reagan and the United States. It's a peace that has sadly done nothing to deter the actual industrial threats of nuclear production that eventually irradiated Chernobyl, Fukushima and sites to come.

6. Threads

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.

7. 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?

8. 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.

9. 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.

10. 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.

Scott Thill runs the online mag His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.


  1. You forget:
    Hiroshima, Mon Amour,
    Original Child Bomb,
    Atomic Cafe,
    Dark Circle,
    Building Bombs,
    Hiroshima-Nagasaki, 1945

  2. The Japanese had nuclear power forced down their throats by secret treaties imposed by U.S. puppet regimes ever since 1945. So they really are not to blame for nuclear power. It's like the Mexicans. They are not to blame for the civil war in Mexico. It was forced on them by Washington.

  3. I would add to this list:
    "From the Stone Age to the Atom Age" a 1955 Canadian National Film Board fantasy that makes nuclear power seem attractive.

  4. Honorable Mention: "If You Love this Planet," a 1982 NFB documentary on Australian anti-nuker Helen Caldicott. So hot for Raygun-ites that the U.S. banned its distribution to protect tender American minds, it won an Oscar nonetheless. It went on to help galvanize Canada's anti-war movement and was seen around the world.

    At it's viewable as a 26-minute short. I thought there was also a longer version.