When the first nuclear bomb was detonated in the New Mexico desert 78 years ago, on 16 July 1945, the world entered the atomic age, an era of unparalleled change, threat and anxiety. The imminent release of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer – about the leader of the Manhattan Project and ‘father of the atomic bomb’, physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer – provides an apt time to consider how the complexities of this epoch have been captured on screen.
When the Second World War ended and the Cold War began, the tenor of the times became defined by the tensions of the ever-escalating arms race, and the fear that war might erupt between the two opposing parties. Filmmakers, in turn, projected these anxieties on the big screen, envisioning scenarios of nuclear war or using their medium to satirise Cold War policies such as the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD), which sought to deter nuclear war with the threat of mutual annihilation.
Even our present boom in superhero movies can be partly traced to the postwar fascination with the powers of radiation, where gamma rays and radioactive spiders were imagined to be capable of granting superhuman powers. This era also heralded a golden age in science fiction, with apprehensions about the possibilities science offered taking fantastical form in films about aliens, monsters and artificial intelligence.
From art films to blockbusters, documentaries to fiction, the development of nuclear technology has inspired all sorts of new narratives and approaches to storytelling. This list showcases 10 films that provide very different perspectives on the age that Oppenheimer unleashed.
Oppenheimer is in cinemas, including BFI IMAX, from 21 July 2023.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Director: Robert Wise
In this classic of 1950s sci-fi, Klaatu (Michael Rennie), an alien dispatched to Earth by an interplanetary organisation, gives humanity a choice: “Join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration.”
Robert Wise’s movie weaves a potent blend of Christian imagery and political allegory, which explores the challenges of helping humanity overcome its warlike nature. Bernard Herrmann’s score, which makes early use of electronic instruments such as the theremin, provides a suitably epic and eerie tone, with affecting performances from Rennie as the serene Messianic alien and Patricia Neal as a determined mother giving the film emotional heft. Although its appeal for peace may seem simplistic, the film also has a darker thematic edge. Klaatu’s people are (voluntarily) policed by all-powerful robots, much as humanity is given a choice between peace and obliteration, suggesting the unnerving idea that world peace might only come through fear and firepower.
Director: Ishiro Honda
Made nine years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and just months after a Japanese fishing boat was irradiated by the Bikini Atoll hydrogen bomb test, Godzilla stands as a defining allegory of the horrors of nuclear war. Despite the monster-movie trappings, Honda’s stark black-and-white images of Tokyo in flames – of burning cities and hospitals full of the wounded and dying – remain unnerving.
Every character in the film is forced into committing hideous actions by forces beyond their control. There’s real pathos in how Dr Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), who creates a weapon capable of destroying Godzilla, is compelled by the scale of the tragedy facing Japan into deploying a weapon he is afraid to use. Meanwhile, Godzilla is a monster awoken and scarred by the atomic bombings, a victim of the nuclear horror it represents.
Hiroshima mon amour (1959)
Director: Alain Resnais
In postwar Hiroshima, a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) and a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) begin a brief, soul-searching affair. Through their conversations, director Alain Resnais unravels the personal ways in which both individuals have been scarred by the Second World War. The movie’s editing blends past and present, newsreels of Hiroshima and footage of a French town, using innovative juxtapositions and almost subliminally brief shots to evoke the recollection of past events. The result is a lyrical exploration of memory and wartime trauma, and the difficulty of human connection in such an atmosphere.
Hiroshima mon amour’s experimental approach made it one of the key works of the French New Wave, a movement which sought to innovate beyond the artistic traditions of the past. The movie itself is likewise a depiction of two people who cannot extricate themselves from history, living in a city forever altered by the bombing of 1945.
Ladybug Ladybug (1963)
Director: Frank Perry
At an elementary school, a nuclear warning alarm sounds. Unsure if the threat is genuine or a false alarm, the teachers must escort the students back to their homes, as Ladybug Ladybug shows how their families and friendships threaten to disintegrate in this atmosphere of paranoia.
At a runtime of 82 minutes, the increasingly anxious tenor and gnawing tension of this Frank Perry drama are acutely maintained. Shots of students and teachers isolated against the sweeping countryside heighten the movie’s themes of uncertainty and human vulnerability. The performances of the students believably capture how they struggle to make sense of danger and mortality, giving its simple narrative real emotional potency. By framing a vast geopolitical threat through the eyes of young students, Perry’s movie is a humanising, intimate perspective on the anxieties of the era.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
At the height of the Cold War, what the public wanted was a way of understanding the threats they were being confronted with and what the government was doing to keep them safe. Stanley Kubrick’s satire suggests that there are no good answers to either question – and that the looming peril mankind faces boils down to illogic and male impotence.
The black-and-white images and Ken Adam’s grand set designs give an air of gravity to the plot about a US general ordering a nuclear attack on Russia. Yet this only magnifies Kubrick’s subversive sense of humour, which turns footage of planes refuelling into visual innuendoes and pairs Vera Lynn’s morale-boosting wartime song ‘We’ll Meet Again’ with images of the end of the world. Featuring some of the director’s most memorable characters, including the three wildly different roles played by Peter Sellers, it’s Kubrick’s funniest and most outrageous movie.
The Atomic Cafe (1982)
Directors: Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader and Pierce Rafferty
This documentary features no narration, instead presenting the viewer with painstakingly arranged broadcasts and newsreel footage from the early decades of the Cold War. The lack of a unifying narrator’s voice is apt considering how The Atomic Cafe highlights the sensationalised and manipulative language surrounding nuclear issues. It uses artful editing to showcase the dissonance between the language used by the government and media, and the bleaker reality their claims obscured.
The voices of 1940s radio hosts joking about the Hiroshima bombing are played over shots of the city’s bombed-out ruins. The 1957 pop song ‘Atom Bomb Baby’ is juxtaposed with instructions for how many tranquillisers a bomb shelter should stock. Released in the wake of the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster and the re-escalation of the nuclear arms race, The Atomic Cafe is a darkly comic exploration of the media’s simultaneous ability to downplay serious issues and to drum up baseless fears.
Director: John Badham
Nominated for three Academy Awards (for best cinematography, sound and original screenplay), WarGames shows a different, lighter side to the prospect of nuclear conflict. Matthew Broderick stars as David Lightman, a teenage tech genius who finds that his hacking into a military supercomputer has caused it to begin simulating a game of ‘Global Thermonuclear War’.
By building a tense plot around the two rapidly developing fields of home computing and military technology, WarGames is a snapshot of contemporary technological transformation. Strangely enough, it directly inspired Ronald Reagan to tighten the military’s cybersecurity. Its tackling of the idea of mutually assured destruction draws heavily on Dr. Strangelove, but WarGames innovates by merging this global threat with a coming-of-age narrative, counterpointing the futility of nuclear war with the value of human connections and hope.
When the Wind Blows (1986)
Director: Jimmy Murakami
Don’t be fooled by the movie’s seemingly cheery animation, or the fact that it’s adapted from a comic by Raymond Briggs, author of The Snowman. When the Wind Blows – about how Jim and Hilda Bloggs (voiced by John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft), two endlessly optimistic pensioners, attempt to survive the aftermath of nuclear war – is truly chilling to watch.
The movie’s blend of animation and stop-motion is subtly uncanny, as it depicts the couple navigating an irradiated world. When the Wind Blows mines intense dramatic irony out of the Bloggs’ faith that everything will work out fine, exploring the dangers of the quintessentially British spirit of “Keep Calm and Carry On”. But the film also makes such nostalgic self-delusion relatable, suggesting that it might be the only way to cope with such an apocalyptic scenario. The elegiac tone is underscored by a memorable soundtrack, featuring contributions by David Bowie.
The Sacrifice (1986)
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Andrei Tarkovsky’s final film begins with a birthday celebration for Alexander (Erland Josephson), a retired actor. But the festivities are soon interrupted by a radio broadcast announcing that nuclear war has broken out. Alexander vows to God that he will renounce everything he possesses if God averts it.
In this movie, nuclear doomsday is a force of revelation. Tarkovsky suggests that beyond physical danger, the possibility of World War III is terrifying in how it forces the characters to consider the most unanswerable questions of existence. This limbo of uncertainty is captured through Sven Nykvist’s stunning cinematography, which moves fluidly between desaturated realism and surreal, dreamlike imagery. The Sacrifice’s slow pace offers space for the viewer to ruminate on the ambiguities surrounding modernity, mortality and faith.
The Babushkas of Chernobyl (2015)
Directors: Anne Bogart and Holly Morris
The 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the most deadly of all nuclear accidents, displaced thousands from the radiation-contaminated area around the Soviet nuclear plant. This 2015 documentary, which required the crew to take careful safety precautions, explores how and why a number of women chose to go on living within the irradiated containment zone.
The film explores the ingenuity with which these women cope with the challenges and threats of the atomic age. One of the interviewees memorably claims “Radiation doesn’t scare me. Starvation does”, and many of these women, having braved the Second World War, are willing to endure grave danger to go on living in what they call “the Motherland”. The splitting of the atom may have unleashed unprecedented transformations for society, but The Babushkas of Chernobyl suggests that the constants of human resilience remain unchanged and indivisible.
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