I think we have become de-sensitised to the idea of nuclear attack. Maybe it’s because we don’t have that threat hanging over our heads like they did for almost half of the 20th century or it’s because games like Fallout make the nuclear wasteland look like a fun time rather than the unending nightmare it will actually be. So maybe we need a good reminder that should the unthinkable ever happen that it will end up with most of us dead and the rest wanting to be dead rather than teaming up with other settlements to take on mirelurks and deathclaws. That reminder is in the form of Threads.
In Sheffield, Ruth (Karen Meagher, 28 Weeks Later) and Jimmy (Reece Dinsdale, Hamlet) are planning to get married after she unexpectedly gets pregnant. In the background, tensions between the West and Russia get increasingly tense until war begins and two nuclear bombs land in Sheffield, destroying the city and civilisation as we know it.
Considering that the few tales of nuclear war and bombs being used that are released now tend to be big action movies or sci-fi, going back to a movie which saw them in a completely different light is rather weird. This movie acts for the most part like any social realism you’ve ever seen. If you hadn’t seen the name of the movie or know the reputation that it has, you’d think this was a fairly standard but grim movie about an unlucky but loving couple having to get married because they made a mistake. This set-up does take a while but it’s what makes the movie work as a whole. There’s a lot of mundane things of people going out drinking, families having problems and everyone going about their daily business that you a drawn into a world that is very similar to your own.
But that threat of nuclear war is always there. Weirdly to begin with it’s like Shaun of the Dead in that everything about the war is in the background. As people work and live, you hear the news about the increasing tensions between the US and Russia in the background with not many taking much notice. But then as things become worse, more and more people start to notice and panic. So you have the rushes on supermarkets and people barricading themselves in their houses, basically what happens now if there is an inch of snow. But even then, the people don’t believe there will actually be a nuclear attack. Not even those at the top believe it. It’s all just in case.
Then the bomb hits. For a movie made in the 1980s with a BBC2 budget being shown to someone who has seen some horrific exploitation movies over the years, this still manages to be one of the most distressing things ever put on film. Firstly the terror of when people see a bomb has hit, the first bomb actually lands in Doncaster in RAF Finningley, now Doncaster Sheffield Airport where you can apparently fly to Orlando now, so yay us, and that all those worst fears they had have come true. That’s when the infamous part where a woman literally pees herself in the street happens. The terror is palpable until the next bomb hits which is just whiteout. For a few seconds there is just silence as Sheffield, and according to the text displays the rest of the country, is destroyed. It is chilling to the bone. Especially so for me being someone who has lived in Sheffield for the majority of my life and recognises a lot of the places which are destroyed and then getting mentioned as places that have been destroyed.
The movie then continues showing what happens after the nuclear blast and that’s where things get incredibly scary. That’s because unlike all those video games we’ve played over the last few years, nuclear fallout is miserable. It’s a grim battle for survival that makes you think that survival is not really worth it. This isn’t done through any fancy camera work or lighting effects, the way it is shot is the same as it is before the bomb hits, but just through piling on the worst things it can imagine. Pretty much all the characters we have got to know in the first half of the movie end up dying all in uniquely horrific ways. Those that do survive live such a horrible existence where it seems like they could die any minute that you just fall into this deep seated misery that doesn’t lift for days. Trust me, I cannot stop thinking about this movie days after seeing it.
There is one issue with the movie and it is the length. Now the actual length is not the issue, the movie clocks in at just under two hours, but it is a bit long for the story they are trying to tell. The overall point the movie is making is that a nuclear blast is going to cause misery for decades after the initial explosion and it has made that point way before the end. So when you are in the last ten, maybe twenty, minutes, you are in a state of just wanting the movie to end. This is where the amount of misery the movie piles on you works against it because you are aware of every minute because it makes them feel a lot longer.
But even if it is a little long, Threads is one of the most powerful movies ever made and possible the greatest TV movie in existence. Despite having a meagre budget and how the Cold War is a history lesson to many of the people who could watch this, it is still frightening with its vision of life before, during and after a nuclear blast. It’s one of those movies that is not a joy to watch but that’s exactly the point, it wants viewers to know the cost of a nuclear war and for you to remember that beyond the credits. And you will remember throughout the sleepless night this movie will cause.
Dir: Mick Jackson
Scr: Barry Hines
Cast: Karen Meagher, Reece Dinsdale, David Brierly, Rita May, Nicholas Lane, Jane Hazlegrove
Prd: Mick Jackson, Graham Massey, John Purdie, Peter Wolfes
DOP: Andrew Dunn and Paul Morris
Runtime: 112 minutes