The kind of fiction made during a time period can tell you a lot about what people at the time were afraid of. Cyberpunk, with its strong Japanese aesthetic and references to yakuza and keiretsu, is a relic of 1980s America’s fear of Japan overtaking it as the dominant political and economic power of the world. The 2010s saw the release of movies about the world coming to an end, courtesy of the Mayan calendar’s supposed 2012 doomsday.
If you want a more recent fear that’s dominated the public consciousness, there’s the coronavirus which saw over 100 countries locked behind doors by the end of March 2020, according to BBC News. This overlaps with a spike in interest in the film Contagion as shown on Google Trends. Google Trends also shows us another interesting observation: There was a breakout level of interest in the search term ‘nuclear war‘ around the time the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. Related queries included questions like “best place to survive nuclear war” and “Ukraine nuclear power plant“.
As global tensions rise, it feels like we’re on the precipice of a new world of global conflict and these fears are not new. The 1980s gave us some of the most memorable nuclear war films of the past century that will make you wonder where the nearest bomb shelter is.
The Nuclear War Films of the 1980s Are Emotional Relics of Their Time
The nuclear bomb has shaped cinema as much as it has shaped history. In ‘Why Is Cyberpunk So Japanese?‘, we touched on how many key pieces of Japanese cyberpunk fiction are haunted by the effects of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with movies like Akira and Godzilla depicting the destructive power of the atom and the horrors of radiation. The number of nuclear war movies released by Hollywood began to rise during the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union before coming to a fever pitch during the Reagan administration’s nuclear arms race against the Soviet Union. The Nuclear Freeze was, to oversimplify, a game of chicken with Russia where Reagan continued to expand the U.S.’ nuclear capabilities in the belief that the Soviets didn’t have the funds to keep up.
Though most of us are more worried about the price of eggs right now, tensions are rising in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Vladimir Putin’s security council, ominously stated, “The defeat of a nuclear power in a conventional war may trigger a nuclear war.” back in January 2023, according to Aljazeera. These aren’t empty threats either — Russia holds one of the biggest stockpiles of nuclear weapons in the world.
So will Russia go nuclear? Only time can tell, but here are some nuclear war movies to remind you that while the chances of a nuclear war happening in your lifetime are low, they are never zero.
Nuclear War Movies That Will Make You Wonder if They Could Happen in the Near Future
1. Barefoot Gen (1983)
Barefoot Gen is a nuclear war film based on a manga of the same name by artist Keiji Nakazawa. Nakazawa made the series as a slightly fictionalized autobiography that retold his experiences as a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing. The artist was only 7 years old when a uranium bomb leveled his hometown and killed his father, brother, and two sisters.
Much like Grave of the Firelies, the animated film doesn’t shy away from depicting the events and aftermath of a nuclear bombing. We’ll keep the spoilers minimal, but if you’re sensitive to graphic depictions of violence, the film has a long sequence depicting people literally melting from the heat of the nuclear bomb.
2. Threads (1984)
Threads is one of the many TV nuclear war movies that came out in the ’80s. Originally aired by the BBC, Threads shows how nuclear fallout destroys society down to the very concept of family. There’s a heavy tension that hangs over the entire first half of the film which is set before the bomb drops. A young couple grapples with the implications of having a child as fears of nuclear war ramp up in the radios and TVs around them. More than their anxiety as new parents, the fear of nuclear war looms over the film like a sword of Damocles.
The second half of the film is where things get much, much harder. The scenes directly after the bomb drops are some of the bleakest you’ll see in a film.
3. War Games (1983)
Time for a palette cleanser. While War Games is still a nuclear war film it’s easily the lightest in town compared to all the others on this list. Threads alone will make it feel like a Disney animated feature. That said, there’s a hopefulness to War Games that the other nuclear war movies here don’t have. It follows David Lightman, a high school student with a gift for hacking. David accidentally discovers a video game that lets him play, well, nuclear war games. What he doesn’t know is that it connects to a real military base that now thinks the U.S. is going to be bombed all while the artificial intelligence he’s playing against thinks it’s all just an innocent game that it can win.
4. The Day After (1983)
Where Threads is a slow, melancholy kitchen sink drama, The Day After is a Hollywood-ified take on the aftermath of nuclear war which is not to say that it’s less horrific, just that you get the feeling from The Day After that it has a brighter outlook on nuclear fallout, if any such thing can exist.
The Day After mostly followed a young soldier and a doctor whose lives both change drastically as a result of a nuclear attack. Both of them try to cling to any sense of normalcy by integrating into a family and continuing their job roles from before the war, but it soon becomes clear there’s no going back to the old world.
5. When the Wind Blows (1986)
When the Wind Blows is an animated short about a couple living in the English countryside. The wife, initially dismissive of the possibility of a nuclear attack, continues her daily routine while her husband anxiously prepares for the attack. The optimistic husband keeps telling his wife about survival tips he heard on the radio as well as details from the conflict, both of which he misremembers details from.