I love a great movie nuke. They motivate our most muscular protagonists, birth our city-destroying monsters, and give our cigar-chomping four-star general clichés something to posture and sweat over.
For me, Dr. Strangelove was the pinnacle of the film nuke sub-genre (and Kubrick’s best–fight me). My fawning tribute comes later, but first I give some love to the many ways cinema has depicted the nuke over the past 70 years.
“Nuclear weapons film” isn’t really a movie sub-genre, but I’m going to treat it that way. To point, I will further divide it into multiple sub-sub genres—that’s how big a role the nuke has played in our collective imagination. We may hate what it can do, but we love the nuke when it’s confined to two-dimensions. Off we go…
The “nuclear weapon action thriller” category. Most film depictions of nukes fall in this category—and are thoroughly uninteresting. I’d wager 99% of nuclear weapons appearances in film involve a “loose nuke” or nuclear terror attack captured or foiled by a handsome/smart/ tough/resourceful hero. These films came to dominate the genre after the Cold War, when fear of mutually assured destruction gave way to fear of the individual actor. Great power game theory requires serious movie governments; asymmetrical warfare requires Ben Affleck.
The “quality geopolitical thriller” category. I’d put The Hunt for Red October here. It’s a nuclear weapons thriller but also legitimately good and complex film. Another was Thirteen Days, a wonderful fictionalized retelling of the Cuban Missile Crisis that drew from Essence of Decision, Graham Allison’s analysis of great power actions and motivations during the standoff.
The “warning/depressing lesson” category. Films like On the Beach and The Day After fit here. Largely restricted to the Cold War era (so far).
The “nuclear monster movie” category. Nukes or nuke testing creates monsters. There are a TON of these. Godzilla is the most prominent example; he also served as a metaphor for the bomb itself. The genre ranges from the truly scary to goofy horror like the mutant rednecks in The Hills Have Eyes. A childhood favorite of mine was Them! (1954), a film about giant ants created by nuclear testing. It’s not a good film; I was just really into ants. And no, I’m not that old—the movie was ancient even when I was a kid. It was just on tv a lot.
The “science fiction” category. Typically involves the aftermath of nuclear holocaust. If I go broad, I might put the Terminator films in there, though nukes only get a cameo. Battlestar Galactica often employed nuclear weapons as actual weapons, and their long sought-after “Earth” was an irradiated wasteland.
For me, the most memorable film in this category is WarGames (1983). It looks like the opposite of sci-fi now, with those giant banks of computers and big blinking lights, but it does have a childlike AI in charge of our nuclear arsenal. That’s science fiction (I hope).
The “comedy/satire” category. This is my favorite, so I’m giving it some extra love. I’m always impressed when a story can mine laughter out of the end of the world. There is very little entertainment that does nukes and comedy, so I have to stretch the borders a little, but there is definitely gold to be had.
The Simpsons. I can’t find the name of the episode, but at some point we discover the origin story of comic superhero Radioactive Man; he was a random guy standing near an atomic bomb detonation. It gave him superpowers. Easy. And though actual nuclear weapons rarely appear, Homer nearly causes a nuclear apocalypse many, many times.
James Bond. Bond films probably deserve their own subgenre, but hey, it’s just a blog post. This seems to be the closest fit. Nukes were a staple of Bondian plots, forming the chief existential threat (or a component of it) in Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965), You Only Live Twice (1967), Diamonds Are Forever (1971), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), Octopussy (1983), Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) and The World Is Not Enough (1999). Nukes were also core plot drivers in Bond parodies like the Austin Powers films.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Oh, my beloved Strangelove, nothing compares to you. Mixing Cold War deterrence theory, silly men in suits, fighting in the War Room, and a Peter Sellers master class in acting, this Kubrickian Cold War satire gave audiences the end of the world and made them laugh. It’s still one of my top ten favorite films.
No fighting in the War Room!
Despite showing a man ride a nuclear bomb like a bull, Strangelove was remarkably realistic. Even the film’s nuclear “doomsday machine” wasn’t so far-fetched; Edward Teller of the Manhattan Project purportedly drew up plans for a “backyard bomb” with up to a 10 gigaton yield (Hiroshima was 16 kilotons).
Why call it a “backyard bomb” you ask? A ten-gigaton yield meant that you wouldn’t have to shoot it at an enemy on the other side of the world; you just set it off in your own backyard, and it would get them eventually 🙂
On that note, dear friends, I’ll leave you to dream of mushroom clouds and atomic monsters. Try turning on your tv tonight and picking a movie at random; there’s a ten percent chance you’ll see a tough guy in a suit trying to stop the sale of a nuclear weapon.
I’ve decided to make my blog radioactive this week, so next time I’ll tackle a unique skill: how to escape a nuclear blast. Hint: it doesn’t involve mutating into a superhero.