Essays · Movies

Cinema and the Spectacle of Nuclear War

Or: how the movies taught us to stop worrying and love the fire and fury.
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on August 10th, 2017

Movies have shown us one positive aspect of nuclear war: it’s beautiful. That’s not entirely to the credit of filmmakers, though, as the iconic image of a mushroom cloud has proven cinematically apt since the Trinity test films. And even before then, if we take into account pre-atomic explosions of similar aesthetic if not scope. Without that visual, nuclear war would be far less captivating on the screen.

Of course, Hollywood could always have developed its own abstract treatment of nukes. The mushroom cloud is itself already a natural reduction of the actual event of a nuclear explosion. The picture of distanced perspective, a geometric spectacle in place of the death and destruction going on beneath it. A mushroom cloud is an image of safety for those who can see it from afar, though that’s still only if you remember what you’re really looking at.

Nuclear war has been further abstracted, too, for times when even the mushroom cloud is too scary a visual. The war room map turned video game screen in WarGames reduces nuclear missile strikes to minimalistic graphic bits. “Phantoms,” Dr. Stephen Falken (John Wood) says. The US military trusts this dazzling, colorful “computer-enhanced hallucination” in place of confirmed, directly observed evidence of Soviet missile launches. They probably would go by the blips on screen as the only visual of impact, had their conceptualized vantage point not been challenged.

How perfect is the animated simulation on one of the screens tracing missile strike paths that it looks like a fireworks display? The complicated dichotomy of explosions, stemming from the dual nature of fire, is always that contrast of devastation and spectacle. And cinema has always milked our problematic pyromania and appetite for destruction by turning disasters into thrilling entertainment. The broader the lens on that devastation, the more spectacular it becomes.

The idea of cinema diminishing the human element of mass destruction has also been going on a while, long before today’s issues with superhero movies laying waste to cities during fight scenes. The original Godzilla movies do mean to acknowledge the people — after all, the first Japanese film has an obvious correlation to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — but eventually audiences just care about seeing larger than life monsters fighting way above the comprehensive point of view of individual humans on the ground.

Godzilla as a character is also an abstract representation of nukes in the context of humans’ relationship to the giant lizard creature. He is responsible for destroying our cities and likely many of our lives, but then we accept him as a hero when he protects us from other monsters. That’s akin to the idea of using nukes to retaliate after being attacked with the same. Of course, the metaphor works for warfare in general, but as one of the largest movie characters of all time, Godzilla is best linked to the largest weapons of all time.

Not all movies spectacularize nuclear war in such a manner that removes us from the reality of its devastation. Horror has its own way of exciting us by exploiting our fears. The visions of nuclear annihilation in Terminator 2: Judgment Day are chilling but ultimately a sensational delight. Or at least it’s not a total bummer due to our appreciation of the craft of the special effects and ability to distance these images from those of, say, Eric Barnow’s difficult to watch documentary Hiroshima Nagasaki August, 1945.

Not all nonfiction takes are so daunting, though. The Oscar-winning doc The War Game depicts a hypothetical scenario of a nuclear attack on England by the Soviet Union. Its very realistic treatment of the disaster genre and reminder of such plausibility makes it a serious and scary film, but the fictional aspect also allows it to be thrilling, especially today. And the very different doc classic The Atomic Cafe compiles footage of nuclear test footage and propaganda film clips that together results in something both disturbing and amusing.

The nuclear montage at the end of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb beat that doc to the punch, and there hasn’t been a lot of room for other comedic nuclear spectacle in its wake. On TV, there was Whoops Apocalypse and the memorable scene in the “Treehouse of Horror VIII” episode of The Simpsons‘ ninth season with the Comic Book Guy’s famous utterance of “Oh, I’ve wasted my life” as Springfield is hit by a neutron bomb, complete with cartoon mushroom cloud. But other than those, there aren’t many worth highlighting.

During peak times of the Cold War, the believed genuine threat of nuclear attack did hinder its capacity for cinematic pleasure, with more metaphorical or purely fantastical distractions in place of the real thing being delivered to audiences in the 1950s and 1960s (see the 1993 movie Matinee for a tribute to that era) and blunt portrayals of the possibility of nuclear war in the 1980s in such significant productions as the TV movies The Day After and Threads. The former, watched by seemingly everyone in America including President Reagan, and the lesser-known later program take the distressing intentions of The War Game to another level, almost just by being in color.

In the 26 years since the end of the Cold War, nuclear explosions on screen have been easier to take as spectacle. It also maybe helped that digital effects made the imagery so much easier to produce starting in the early 1990s, but we’ve been treated to tons of nuclear delights in action and sci-fi blockbusters from 1991 (the year of Terminator 2) onward. Many moviegoers today have likely seen fake mushroom clouds and other awesome nuclear explosions via cinema — examples include WatchmenThe Dark Knight Rises, The Wolverine, The Sum of All FearsIndiana Jones and the Crystal SkullTerminator 3 — than they’ve seen footage of the real thing.

Add to all this cinema’s love of post-apocalyptic stories, which are often set in the aftermath of nuclear war between nations, nuclear destruction caused by machines, or fallout from nuclear accidents of the power plant or weapon variety. There’s a certain attraction in the aesthetic of the wasteland, to the degree that some movie lovers might be fine with nuclear armageddon so long as they survive it and can live out their days in the kind of grungy world romanticized in the Mad Max films.

For others, nuclear holocaust, World War III, and post-apocalyptic society may seem an inevitable future for mankind. That’s why time travel movies that go far into the future will tend to have characters pass by nuclear war, a la the 1960 version of The Time Machine. It’s only a matter of when, and the truth is that nobody actually wants to see it occur, no matter how glorious the overall visual spectacle.

But if we are part of the generation to witness the end of the world, the movies have shown us what to expect and how the nuclear option is quite pretty as far as last sights before death go. That is, if you’re situated far enough from impact that you have a good view of the show to appreciate that spectacle, like a certain duo looking out on the mushroom cloud from the beach of Scarif at the end of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. And a force will be with you indeed, that of a kiloton blast.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.