A Book Review by Thomas M. Puhr.

A quick and engaging study addressing a scholarly blind spot.”

Amid escalating tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union, the 1980s were something of a golden age for films about humanity’s annihilation. Yet despite its ubiquity in the arthouse and grindhouse alike, a book-length exploration of the topic has been lacking in cinema studies. Mike Bogue’s encyclopedic Watching the World Die: Nuclear Threat Films of the 1980s (McFarland) seeks to address this scholarly blind spot. Because this subgenre “capture[s] and reflect[s] society’s Cold War anxieties,” the author asserts in his preface, “this book has historical value.” Such cultural significance undoubtedly persists; see a recent episode of The Daily podcast that covered the possibility of nuclear attacks against satellites in space. God help us.

Watching the World Die - McFarland

Besides introductory and concluding sections that contextualize his analyses, Bogue organizes his chapters chronologically, beginning in 1980 and ending in 1990. “The…movies surveyed in this book fall under four categories,” he notes. “(1) plausible near-future scenarios; (2) post-apocalyptic action adventures; (3) comic book tales; and (4) monster yarns.” This broad definition allows for a nice variety of film choices: not only despairing realism ala Threads (1984), but also pulpy exploitation ala Equalizer 2000 (1987). The book, in other words, is not a total bummer. And with each entry within a given year hovering around 1 or 2 pages, Bogue also keeps things quick and engaging.

Some of the decade’s best-known examples fall into the first of the four categories, with Mick Jackson’s Threads perhaps being the crown jewel. Additional well-known releases include Nicholas Meyer’s The Day After (1983) and Steve De Jarnatt’s cult classic Miracle Mile (1989). However, part of the book’s charm is its putting a spotlight on the many other films to which time has been far less kind. Take Kinji Fukasaku’s Virus (1980), which – with its labyrinthine plot about a fatal virus, a nuclear explosion, and an immense earthquake – seems to be trying to win some contest for ticking off as many disaster scenarios as possible. “[T]hen the most expensive Japanese movie to date,” it was trimmed from 2.5 hours to about 90 minutes before being unceremoniously dumped on American television (this despite sporting a supporting performance from none other than Glenn Ford). Movies like Virus were made for rediscovery on streamers like Tubi.

A lot of the examples that fall under the remaining three categories go full camp. Not surprisingly, their quality runs the gamut: For every The Road Warrior (1981), you have a 2020 Texas Gladiators (1983) (category 2); for every Robot Jox (1990), a Yor, the Hunter from the Future (1983) (category 3); for every C.H.U.D. (1984), a Creepozoids (1987) (category 4). At times, Bogue seems downright bitter over having sat through some of these releases (though he does display a soft spot for nostalgia trips like Yor). “If you’re watching a government conspiracy movie and the stupidity level of both the heroes and the villains reaches 9 on a 1-10 scale,” he opines in his opening remarks on Mark Sobel’s Access Code (1984), “you might be inclined to stop watching. Unless, like yours truly, you’re the author of a book on 1980s nuclear threat movies.”

Bogue offers an inventory – an initial, exploratory survey meant to map out areas for future scholarly development. In this respect, it lays what may prove to be essential groundwork.”

If cheeky quotes like this endear the author to his readers, others come across as oddly nitpicky. “Logic issues abound,” he says of Rats: Night of Terror (1983). “For example, while her friends lie in normal beds, one woman zips herself in a sleeping bag she can’t unzip when the rats attack her. Why wasn’t she in a bed like the others?” I would loveto have a few beers and watch Rats: Night of Terror. However, I suspect I would hate watching it with Bogue (every movie buff has that friend who thrives on tearing apart the “logic issues” in mindless entertainment). I can’t help but wonder if he even enjoys most of the movies to which he exposed himself for this project. The thought that he doesn’t is sort of depressing. But perhaps I should be thankful; he has suffered through all these fictional nuclear winters so we don’t have to.

Robot Jox (Stuart Gordon, 1990)

Each entry follows a similar structure: a plot summary, Bogue’s personal review, and an overview of the general critical/popular reception. Many also end with half-serious gestures toward how precipitously we teeter on the edge of extinction. Readers may wish for more thorough analyses – some of the canonical works receive more attention; the piece on The Day After (see top image) is nearly ten pages – though this approach was clearly not what the author had in mind. Instead, he has opted for breadth over depth, covering as many as 20 films for particularly prolific years. It may be more useful, then, to think of Watching the World Die as an inventory: an initial, exploratory survey meant to map out areas for future scholarly development. In this respect, it lays what may prove to be essential groundwork.

Whereas the introduction maps out the decade’s indebtedness to ’50s films, the conclusion points to the present day. “Do we need a The Day After for the 2020s?” Bogue asks, or “are the themes of 1980s nuke threat movies…now overly familiar?” It seems we already have a possible answer. After all, Oppenheimer just swept the Oscars after completing its run as one of 2023’s major blockbusters. Like the bomb stockpiles themselves, our collective fascination with nuclear destruction is probably not going away anytime soon.

Thomas M. Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy BeastBirth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International. His book Fate in Film: A Deterministic Approach to Cinema is available from Wallflower Press.

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