“Are they gonna drop the bomb or not?” This is the question at the heart of the anxiety that has marked the Atomic Age. The century-defining paranoia that inevitably followed the development of the nuclear bomb plagued a generation; and, while their descendants may have become distracted with more amusing technology, the theoretical threats of the ultimate weapon have not diminished. Rather, they have only grown more imminent, with the blade of this sword of Damocles growing sharper by the year.
Though many have grown numb to the fear of nuclear destruction, cinema has kept a watchful eye on the topic all along. With the dawn of the Atomic Era came an explosion of films which addressed the physical and psychological implications at the core of nuclear warfare, while reflecting on the terrifying capacity of humankind to destroy itself in the blink of an eye. These films examine the hubris, the humility, and the horror that are all triggered in some way by the very existence of such catastrophic weaponry. This dark, deadly shadow that has been cast by modern scientific enlightenment has inspired some profound cinematic musings on the topic of nuclear fear, and these are ten of the very best examples.
10. The China Syndrome (1979, James Bridges)
During a visit to a nuclear power plant in California, a news crew happens to catch an incident that reveals serious safety issues at the plant. Aware of the deadly nature of the risk, the reporters try to raise public awareness of the potential ticking time bomb in their midst. But can they counter public apathy and corporate indifference in time to prevent a catastrophe? This thriller by director James Bridges is guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat.
With a blockbuster cast including Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, and Michael Douglas, The China Syndrome possesses enough starpower to light a small nuclear plant. Though set in a fictional world, it examines the very real steps that could potentially lead to a nuclear disaster. Less sci-fi than realistic thriller, The China Syndrome places the atomic danger squarely in our own backyard, and imagines how we might prevent it.
9. Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959, Alain Resnais)
This French New Wave classic isn’t concerned with action sequences or atomic explosion special effects, but the aftershocks of nuclear disaster are clear in every frame. Emmanuelle Riva plays a French actress and Eiji Okada plays a Japanese architect, and an extended conversation between them is the focus of this film. Set in Hiroshima soon after World War II, Hiroshima Mon Amour floats among the memories of its two main characters, examining how an entire lifetime of experiences can be colored by a single horrific, haunting event.
Hiroshima Mon Amour is a meditative exploration of the effects of humanity’s destructive impulses upon itself. While it dwells on the melancholy past, it pleads for a brighter future free of nuclear fear. All these years later, it still possesses a subtle emotional power.
8. The Miracle Mile (1988, Steve De Jarnatt)
After a Los Angeles everyman accidentally overhears a random phone call, he finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to save humanity from destruction. The voice on the phone warns of an impending nuclear attack within an hour, and our would-be hero has reason to believe the threat is real. With the aid of a waitress he just met that morning, he maximizes every remaining minute to try and thwart the looming catastrophe.
Often in the movies, the atomic strings are being pulled by faceless bureaucrats and politicians, but The Miracle Mile succeeds by placing part of the power in the hands of an average citizen. Anthony Edwards plays the protagonist upon whose shoulders the fate of Los Angeles rests, and his efforts to save lives without the aid of money or influence makes the anxiety immediate and personal. Check out this underrated classic for a chance to put yourself in the shoes of a civilian savior.
7. I Live In Fear (1955, Akira Kurosawa)
Legendary director Akira Kurosawa turned his attention to the topic of nuclear fear in this classic drama. He focuses especially on the psychological effects of atomic anxiety on one man whose life is upended by what he perceives as the looming threat of attack.
Frequent Kurosawa collaborator Toshiro Mifune plays Kiichi Nakajima, an aging businessman so paralyzed by fear of a nuclear war that he goes to extreme lengths to protect himself and his family. Determined to start a new life on a farm in Brazil, he faces numerous obstacles – including some family members who want him stopped by reason of incompetence. Even as his sanity and his life start to fall apart, his fear grows and his determination remains unabated. I Live In Fear zooms in from the worldwide carnage that atomic warfare can cause to show us how individual lives can also be laid waste.
6. When the Wind Blows (1986, Jimmy T. Murakami)
Here’s a unique and brilliant take on the topic of nuclear fear – When the Wind Blows is an animated film based on the comic books of Raymond Briggs with the same title. But its unconventional style only heightens the emotional impact left on the viewer, and it’s a story you’re not likely to forget.
The film focuses on an elderly couple living in the English countryside; when they hear of an impending nuclear attack, they try to prepare but are unequipped to truly mitigate the danger to themselves and their way of life. After the initial attack is over, the aftereffects begin to take a devastating toll on the simple couple, and the film examines it in heartbreaking detail.
Featuring a remarkable soundtrack by artists like David Bowie, Roger Waters, and Genesis, When the Wind Blows is destined to remain an unforgettable classic.