Mick Broderick, Nuclear Movies (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1991)
A critical analysis and filmography of over 850 feature-length dramas concerning nuclear issues from 1914-1989 and from over 30 countries.
Foreword by Dr Helen Caldicott (1988)
Chapter: From Atoms to Apocalypse
Preface © Mick Broderick
An old Australian truism has it that a week is a long time in politics.
Much has happened on the international arena during the two years between completion of the Australian and American editions of this filmography.
Who, for instance, could have predicted either the brutal suppression of pro-democracy forces in China at Tienanmen Square, the speed and enormity of reforms sweeping Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union or the catastophic Gulf War?
The long-term strategic consequences from these geo-political changes remains uncertain. At the commencement of glasnost , when the Soviet Foreign Minister called for the dismantlement of the Warsaw Pact but NATO scorned the suggestion, it appeared to many observers that the US Administration could not deal with the prospect of deconstructing its own ideologies and mythologies of an evil, monolithic communism. One even detected a nervous hesitation in President Bush's utterances on these momentous changes, as if the cold war discursive strategies of antagonism and brinkmanship continued to frame American diplomacy.
Today, the rhetoric of suspicion and caution is emanating much less from both the White House and the State Department, and the rapprochement is being amplified by European allies. Such events find reflection in popular cinema.
The Package (1989) alluded to this political shift by forecasting a not-too-distant superpower summit where both countries' leaders sign a treaty to eliminate all Ýnuclear weapons. However, unwilling (unable?) to overcome and relinquish their strategic and ideological postures, the hawkish shadow governments of the Pentagon and Kremlin unite in a conspiracy to assassinate their executive troublemakers.
Hence, the previous superpower demonologies now appear incongruous, if not ludicrous, when occasionally applied to their nuclear foes. Yet for the first time in many years Congress has culled the spiralling SDI appropriations since the Soviets no longer regard the "Star Wars" program as an impasse to arms negotiations. Capitol Hill now regards other strategic nuclear systems such as the B-2 "stealth" bomber and the Midgetman ICBM program with less urgency in light of the political climate. Whereas President Reagan reluctantly promised to "share" SDI technologies and secrets with the Russians, President Bush has now conferred "most favoured trading status" onto the Soviet Union.
If this East-West reconcilliation continues it is fair to assume that the familiar icons and mythology of nuclear film and television dramas will be transposed onto or mutate into more potent contemporary "others". Just as the transference from Nazi nuclear conspirators to Communist spies was easily attained in the Forties and Fifties, the Gulf war will undoubtedly promote another change in the genre/culture paradigm, similar to the shift from anti-Soviet nuclear scenarios to anti-Maoist ones in the Sixties and early Seventies. As the continuing horizontal proliferation amongst countries ostensibly outside the "nuclear club" (e.g. Israel, South Africa, Iraq, Pakistan, North and South Korea) becomes increasingly vertical Ý through the acquisition of sophisticated computer technologies and missile delivery systems, it is more likely that the cinematic 'imaginary' site for expression of nuclear fears will concomitantly adopt such scenarios, particularly in the fertile espionage/terrorism genre. Roman Polanski's 1988 production Frantic was disturbingly prophetic in its depiction of Arabic interests clandestinely obtaining nuclear triggering devices -- two years before identical items were confiscated by British authorities en route to Iraq, just as the docu-drama Secret Weapon (1990), which portrays the immense secret thermonuclear arsenal Israel has illegally constructed over decades, highlights the unchecked atomic arms race in the Middle East. The regional insecurity also served as the basis for the equally anticipatory Iron Eagle II (1988) which embraced a post-cold war theme to depict of a joint US-Soviet miliatry attack on an unnamed Arab country, which obliterates its clandestine nuclear ICBM capability, whereas Babylon (1991) is based on the actual Isreali bombing of Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981.
More disturbing, however, has been the very real strategic and carpet bombing of Iraqi nuclear and chemical installations by UN forces. Ostensibly aimed at destroying Iraq's retaliatory capacity in the early stages of the conflict, it is now clear that the effort failed, since International Atomic Energy Commission teams have advised Iraq's nuclear fuel escaped unscathed, like Saddam Hussien and his Republican Guard, protected by deep blast-proof shelters. The terrible irony of Superpower supplied missiles and European built nuclear and chemical facilities posing the greatest threat to President Bush's vision of a "New World Order" is lost on few observers.
Other events have been equally remarkable. The chicken and egg nature of genre production and art imitating reality, and vice-versa, became evident when several children and adults in Brazil recently fatally contaminated after handling a discarded radioactive cannister, mirroring the plight of Vince Edwards depicted in City of Fear (1958) over three decades ago. Also, the age-old alchemical dream of transmuting matter into vast riches emerged again in the modern scientific form of "cold" nuclear fusion (although now widely debunked), with reinvigorated projections of energy "too cheap to meter", recently anticipated in the sequel Back to the Future II (1990) where miniaturized 21st century nuclear fusion reactors power virtually everything kinetic.
If "backyard" test-tube nuclear research captured the world's imagination, as in the cold fusion debate, Big Science once again became a highly problematic issue, particularly among environmental advocates with the Chernobyl fire and Challenger disaster still close to mind. Fearing another radiation tragedy, thousands lobbied to halt the recent space shuttle launch of the nuclear powered Galileo space probe to Jupiter, a scenario which was accurately projected decades before in the plots of both Destination Moon (1950) and Satellite in the Sky (1956). More bizarre was a computer virus-like "worm" loaded into several NASA mainframes by young anti-nuclear hackers during the Galileo countdown, which closely paralleled the action depicted not only in Wargames (1983), but way back to The Space Children (1958).
Looking back on the 1980s, an apocalyptic fin du millennaire Ý sentiment is still obvious in the expression of many post-nuclear survivalist film and television futures. The sub- genre of film which has entertained visions of nuclear armageddon primarily concerns itself with survival Ý as its dominant discursive mode. These films have drawn upon pre- existing mythologies of cataclysm and survival in their renderings of post-holocaust life with the most potent of these myths as a recasting of the Judeo-Christian messianic hero who battles an antichrist and his followers, liberating an oppressed community and thereby enabling social rebirth.
While some films have explored (albeit fleetingly) post-holocaust life as a site for ideological contestation, the renderings of long-term post-nuclear survival are highly reactionary and advocate reinforcing the status quo by the maintenance of conservative social regimes of patriarchal law (and lore). In so doing, they articulate a desire for (if not celebrate) the fantasy of nuclear armageddon as the anticipated war which will annihilate the oppressive burdens of (post)modern life and usher in the nostalgically yearned for, less complex existence of agrarian toil and social harmony through ascetic, spiritual endeavors.
Unlike other disaster scenarios, the imaginary projections of life in a distant post- holocaust future by-pass graphic scenes of planetary destruction, which allows audiences to evade or dismiss the human Ý causal chain in nuclear warfare and to replace it with an archaic mythology steeped in heroic acts, inspired and propelled by some inscrutable and predetermined divine cosmic plan. In this way the post-nuclear films of the Eighties have signified another means by which a generation has learned to stop worrying and love -- if not the bomb -- then a (post-holocaust) future, which after some initial hardship will provide the compelling, utopian fantasy of a biblical Eden reborn in an apocalyptic millennia of peace on Earth.
Whether the continued application of postmodern form will itself proliferate amongst Nineties nuclear dramas remains to be seen. Certainly one of the most awaited box-office successes, Back to the Future: II provided a sizeable injection of expectation/confirmation of our collective imaginary nuclear futures. However, lurking ominously just beneath the surface, the new decade was prefaced by a wave of epigrammatic nuclear submarine tales (The Rift (1989), The Abyss (1989), Deepstar Six (1989), The Hunt for Red October (1990)) whose narratives, like their 1950s sf counterparts, depict human technological arrogance and in(ter)vention challenged by irrational and inexplicable forces of immense power.
Then again, perhaps the Eighties cycle of post-holocaust, desert warrior heroes will make room for a cold fusion tomorrow, as utopian and idealized as the nostalgic reactions which continue to inform and dominate our aesthetic modes.
Sydney, June 1991