International news is heavy these days, right?
Sheesh. And here I thought “duck and cover” drills went out with poodle skirts and pompadours. Maybe they did for a while, but it seems everything old is truly new again — including the imminent threat of nuclear annihilation.
Still, it doesn’t have to be all bad. Hollywood has shown us that even in humanity’s direst of self-made messes there is the opportunity for a good story, at least.
Nuke up some popcorn, grab a handful of Atomic Fireballs and a bubbly cup of Mountain Dew (it’s the same color, I imagine, as radioactive waste) and check out these, my choice for the top six movies to tackle the tricky subject of what exactly it will look like when we humans finally do push the big red button for the final time.
*Note: I’m omitting “Godzilla” here because, although it is an awesome allegory for nuclear war, these movies all deal directly with the subject of da bomb — or missile, satellite or something like that.
1. “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964)
Duh, right? This one’s gotta top the list of movies depicting our mutually assured destruction. Very loosely based on the novel “Red Alert,” this film, directed, produced and co-written by Stanley “One More Take, Please” Kubrick, satirizes the Cold War fears of nuclear conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States in a way that’s becoming more apropos with each new White House tweet.
From the immortal: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room,” to Slim Pickens’ riding the big bomb down, this is a truly immortal American classic, and not at all a bad way to spend your final 94 minutes on Earth.
2. “Miracle Mile” (1988)
Written and directed by Steve De Jarnatt, and starring Anthony Edwards (the only guy who could possibly be in “Top Gun” and “Revenge of the Nerds”) and Mare Winningham, this underappreciated cult classic takes place in a single day and night — mostly in real time.
Edwards and Winningham meet at the La Brea Tar Pits and immediately falling in love; it’s that awesome, deep, only-in-the-movies kind of love at first sight situation that you just know leads to trouble. They make plans to meet at midnight after she gets off of work at a nearby coffee shop, but a power failure means Edwards’ alarm doesn’t wake him up and Winningham leaves.
Waking up and frantically realizing what happened, Edwards rushes to the shop at 4 a.m. He tries to call on a pay phone (it is 1988, remember?), but only reaches her answering machine. Then, when the phone suddenly rings, he picks it up, flooded with relief — only to hear some frantic guy telling his dad that nuclear war is about to break out in about 70 minutes.
What happens next is strange and cool and makes for a totally unique film, which spent three years in production limbo until De Jarnatt optioned it himself, bought back his script and set forth solo-style to make it happen (despite a $400,000 offer from the studio to buy it back after they caught a glimpse of his rewrites — which he turned down).
It’s the kind of singular vision that doesn’t come around often anymore, and absolutely worth your time.
3. “The Day After” (1983)
This movie had almost as big an impact as an actual nuclear war.
It first aired on Nov. 20, 1983, on the ABC television network. Reportedly more than 100 million people, in nearly 39 million households, watched during the initial broadcast — that’s, supposedly, a 62 percent share of the viewing audience of the day.
It was the seventh-highest rated “non-sports” show at the time, and also set a record as the highest-rated television film in history — a record it still held as recently as 2009 (though it’s currently in 16th place).
The film, which stars Steve Guttenberg, John Lithgow and JoBeth Williams, among others, depicts the devastating effects of a nuclear holocaust on small-town residents of eastern Kansas.
Not exactly an escapist way to take your mind off the horrors of radioactive destruction, but a solid and important entry in the sub-genre.
4. “The Atomic Cafe” (1982)
An anomaly on this list, perhaps, but nonetheless an essential bit of nuclear-themed viewing, this documentary film consists of actual archival footage about nuclear war, mostly government propaganda and training films for American soldiers.
The movie, arranged in collage form, features clips from early in the Cold War era that are filled with delightfully loony misinformation. Some segments address the alleged safety of nuclear radiation itself, those “duck and cover” drills I already mentioned (what are those desks supposedly made of anyway?), and wonderfully vintage instructions for living in a fallout shelter.
5. “True Lies” (1994)
Easily, the most fun film on the list, this is the flick to pick if you’re looking to go laughing into that good night come zero hour.
Written, produced and directed by James “Yes, that James Cameron” Cameron, the film stars Arnold “Insert Terrible Impersonation Here” Schwarzenegger, who plays a secret operative for a covert counter-terrorism task force. Trouble is, though, his wife — Jamie Lee “Eats a lot of Yogurt” Curtis — thinks he’s just a traveling salesman.
Through a series of ridiculous misunderstandings, Curtis gets involved in her husband’s ongoing investigation of a Palestinian terrorist group known as the Crimson Jihad, whose leader (played by the truly villainous looking Art Malik) has smuggled stolen nuclear warheads into the country via a shipment of antique statues (like ya do).
I don’t think I’m giving much away here when I tell you Arnie suddenly finds himself, wife in tow, in the thick of things rather quickly. And, assisted as he is by Curtis and her classic blend of Femme fatale/cool mom style, it’s a ride well worth taking as Schwarzenegger saves the day — and his marriage.
This one tickles the funny bone, tugs the heartstrings, and sees enough stuff blown up to keep everyone in the family happy for their final movie-watching moments in this life.
6. “Until the End of the World” (1991)
This French-German sci-fi drama is directed by Wim “You Either Love Wim or Hate Wim” Wenders, the man who once said: “Films can heal! Not the world, of course, but our vision of it, and that’s already enough.”
Well, he put his money where his cinematic mouth is with this 158-minute-long masterpiece of weird wonderfulness, originally written by Michael Almereyda before Wenders decided to recraft it into “the ultimate road movie.”
Here’s the plot, as summarized by Wikipedia — except the super clever nicknames — because, believe me, it is a chore):
“In late 1999, an orbiting Indian nuclear satellite is out of control and predicted to re-enter the atmosphere, threatening unknown populated areas of the Earth. Mass populations trying to flee the likely impact sites cause a worldwide panic.
“Caught in a traffic jam and suffering from boredom, Claire Tourneur (Solveig Dommartin) escapes the highway congestion by taking a side road. When she gets into a car crash with a pair of bank robbers, they enlist her to carry their stolen cash to Paris.
“Along the way, she meets a man being pursued by an armed party who introduces himself as Trevor McPhee (William “He’s So Good You Might Get” Hurt), and allows him to travel to Paris with her. After reaching the house of her estranged lover, Eugene (Sam “Of Course He’s In This Movie” Neill, Claire discovers that Trevor has stolen some of the money.
“Claire then travels to Berlin and hires missing persons detective Phillip Winter to help her find Trevor through tracking his passport and credit card — he agrees to help when he finds out Trevor has a substantial bounty on his head.”
From there things get more complicated and more weird, but always worth the time investment this very literary film demands. As Alasdair Stuart, owner of Escape Artists, Inc. and cohost of the weekly sci-fi podcast Escape Pod said: “Nothing looks or movies like it, before or since its production.”