Friday, 30 November 2012

Come, come, nuclear bomb

We have only three weeks to live in the case the Mayans were right. So, in terms of public service announcements, I will be writing a bit more on various visions of how life has been cinamatically wiped off of Earth in movies, and how people have come to terms with the fall of civilization.

During the time of the Cold War, there was an ever-looming threat of the United States and the Soviet Union wiping each other out by their massive arsenals of nuclear missiles. The threat of nuclear war went so far as to treaten the very destruction of life on Earth, particularly in the Bay of Pigs crisis in 1961.

That's why nuclear disaster has also inspired a great number of filmmakers for decades. James Cameron wouldn't have as successful a career without the threat, for one. I'll take a look at three visions of events leading to nuclear disaster, which take different viewpoints.

Fail-Safe (1964)
Director: Sidney Lumet

One of the most famous Cold War thrillers that faced the threat of nuclear annihilation was this film, based in part on the same book as Dr. Strangelove. Fail-Safe deals mostly with sweaty politicians trying to fix the catastrophy a minor error causes, to little avail. For anyone who has seen Strangelove, the film is a little hard to take seriously since it shares a number of plot twists and turns with Kubrick's satire classic. Nevertheless, the film is held to high acclaim today, thanks in large part for Lumet's unrelentingly dramatic direction and strong lead performances.

A radar alert for possible intrusion to US airspace causes nuclear bombers to fly off to Moscow. It is soon found out that an out-of-course airline plane was the cause of the alert, and the Rush'N Attack is meant to be called off. But a human mistake, as well as Russian radio wave jammers, cause the message not to reach the bombers. High tensions with the Soviet Union leaders would cause them not to believe any explanation of the accident. The President (Henry Fonda) is called to make tough decisions to make sure mankind would survive the tragic catastrophy. And this includes doing the unthinkable, attacking New York City by themselves.

The film uses stark contrasts and is shot mostly indoors, in stuffy cabinets, with people watching monitors and radars. There's a strong sense of claustrophobia since neither the characters nor the viewers have any means of getting out of the sticky situation. Most of the time the film plays like a chamber drama, with the tensions arising in discussions and the stakes getting to impossible heights. In the end the president's solution is quite hard to swallow. This twist makes the otherwise naturalistic film drive off the cliff of being too fantastic. But the incredible final scene, shot in an expressionist manner, makes up for most of the major flaws in the movie's script.

★★★ 1/2

The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961)
Director: Val Guest

While Americans tend to look upwards to authority figures and decision-makers, the Brits tend to choose more down-to-earth viewpoint characters in their catastrophy films. Made on the same year as the Bay of Pigs Invasion took place, Val Guest's thriller is a nuclear disaster only indirectly. It's still quite clear the fear of the cloud and tempering with the power of the atom is the catalyte for disaster here. The movie centers on reporters out to make a story on the fall of planet Earth.

The young Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) and the experienced Bill Maguire (Leo McGuire) are reporters for the London-based Daily Express. Stenning has gone through a messy divorce and is in a slump of his career, getting only boring assignments. The friendly Maguire attempts to help him out when he can. While investigating odd weather reports, Stenning realizes something horrible. The recent nuclear tests ran by both United States and the Soviet Union have caused the Earth's rotation to change and hurl the planet closer to the sun. Nothing can survive the rising temperatures, unless drastic measures are taken to fix the situation.

The film perhaps suffers a bit for imitating the studio-era Hollywood style rather than embracing a bit wilder 60's aesthetics. The film's scenes of pandemonium and looting look awfully tame when compared to the news reports that began to flood in during the same decade all across the world. Yet the film features several awfully clever visual ideas. One is to tell the back story in flashback in regular black-and-white, while the moments of reckoning are shot in a scorched sepia-typed tone. One can almost feel the temperature rising while watching this. Guest manages to tighten the suspense sufficiently, although wastes time for a pretty tacked-on romantic subplot. Another great idea is to close the film on ambiguous church bells. What will the future bring? We may never know.


Threads (1984)
Director: Mick Jackson

Another British drama, film this goes to lengths not possible two decades before. The 80's were a lot more cynical and not as much on the edge as the common atmosphere 60's. It seemed that there was no doubt nuclear annihilation would come. The question was only, when. The film tells the documentary-styled ugly story of total nuclear devastation in England, as seen through the eyes of two families of regular people. They have no particular hopes or dreams, except for to survive. The film is made-for-TV, but in its effectiveness it's been raised on the level of other movie classics. Shows how TV is thought to be the inferior medium. Even it's major classics are always compared to cinema.

In Sheffield, northern England, the families of Becketts and Kemps come together since the proposal of Jimmy Kemp (Reece Dinsdale) to Ruth Beckett (Karen Meagher). At the same time, Cold War is going global and heating up, fast.

Fear grips England and people start hoarding food and survival supplies in case of the worst-case scenario. Loud protests and riots erupt on the streets, which Chief Hirst (Michael O'Hagan) is unable to control. Little by little society crumbles, starting with politics and moving on to the mico-level. In turn comes just a simple battle of survival. When the bombs finally hit, the remains of civilization burn to the ground, leaving the survivors in a frantic search to find their missing loved ones. Charred corpses and collapsed buildings litter the streets. Even the very basics of human culture start to falter, with people repressing to the state of animals.

At the center of the movie is not just an apocalyptic nuclear disaster. It's still a central element to the story and delivers several horrific scenes, but the larger details on why the bombs drop are never really explained. Instead, as the title suggests, the film is about the British society and how it's hanging by a thread. When all chips are down, no element of the intricate network of society works and people are left to fend for themselves.

The film offers no warmth, distancing itself from the terror with a narrator and intervowen nature film footage. This is harrowing, as terrifying and cynical as a film can get. It's no wonder the film is often categorized to belong in the "horror" genre. No knife-wielding maniac or monster attack could dream of being as terrible as the notion that people cease to be humane when civilization fails.


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