09/30/2013 - 09:16

Action flicks exploit the Bomb

Lovely Umayam

Lovely Umayam

Umayam is a graduate student at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and a research assistant at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. She is the founder and chief...

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The 2013 summer superhero film The Wolverine got movie critics excited about the big fireball scene depicting the August 1945 nuclear attack on Nagasaki, Japan. A Japanese soldier, clutching a knife as tears stream down his cheeks, is bracing for the nuclear blast when Hugh Jackman’s character, the Wolverine (also known as Logan), forces him into an underground cavern and offers him safety. Meanwhile, the Wolverine continues to look pretty-faced, despite his disintegrating flesh—the bittersweet benefit of possessing regenerative powers. In the end, our hairy hero survives the nuclear blast because of his mutant abilities. New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott wrote that this scene and other references to the Nagasaki attack gave the movie a somber tempo: “The atomic bomb casts its shadow over the rest of the movie—much as the Holocaust did in X-Men: First Class—in a sober, tactful way, a sign that the filmmaker is not simply stirring reality into fantasy but rather trying to think about the relationship between them.”

This is a strange observation, though, because the film fails to make a deep connection between fantasy and reality and only manages to turn the Nagasaki bombings into a fiery spectacle. Consider this: the movie was released just weeks before the anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings, which occurred respectively on August 6 and 9, 1945. These dates come and go every year without making many ripples in the virtual or physical lives of most Americans. And yet, according to Scott, a minute-long movie clip about a fictitious character somehow makes the audience “think” about the reality of nuclear devastation. I wonder how many people who saw The Wolverine in August knew that the bombings happened only 68 years ago, or thought in any serious way about what such an attack would mean today. There is something unsettling about going into a theater and watching an atomic assault while eating Milk Duds, as American—and global—society continues to suffer from collective amnesia about nuclear history.

For most of the post-Cold War generation, pop culture is the only vehicle offering any connection to the experience of nuclear war. It’s true that a pop-culture connection is better than nothing, and that blockbuster movies portraying nuclear devastation could link viewers to this intangible past. But running beneath the surface of films like 2011’s Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol (in which a mad scientist targets Seattle with a nuclear-tipped missile), 2012’s Batman: The Dark Knight Rises (in which the evil villain Bane targets Gotham City with a thermonuclear bomb), and The Wolverine is an implicit message that undermines our understanding of nuclear history. While using mushroom clouds and nuclear warheads as meaningless ornaments, these movies ignore the real past and thereby help ensure that it will go unremembered. Instead of making anyone “think,” they spread bad science—a blog post from the Center for Strategic and International Studies examined the plausibility of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and found it wanting—and use the nuclear plot line as an excuse to hire pyro-technicians or use computer-generated imagery. Inevitably, viewers develop an absurd perception of nuclear bombs and explosions as dangerous and cool, without actually thinking about lives lost. Watching these movies makes the prospect of nuclear annihilation feel like a distant dream.

There was a time when nuclear explosions were more than trimmings in an action scene. Cold-war films like the Japanese Gojira (1954) and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964), although fictional and frivolous in their own ways, encourage audiences to contextualize nuclear bombs and consider them as actual objects of destruction. A genuinely thought-provoking satire of the Cold War, Dr. Strangelove has the impossible-to-disable “doomsday machine” that is capable of destroying the planet. Inspired by real-life US nuclear testing in the Pacific, Gojira features a giant monster born out of a nuclear test.

Movies today, on the other hand, have hollow nuclear plot lines and capitalize only on the big boom. In Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, the nuclear attack that villain Kurt Hendricks plans to launch is a generic threat that could be swapped out with any number of fictional menaces. The bomb lacks a story. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare today’s blockbusters to a film like Dr. Strangelove, lauded by Roger Ebert as “the greatest political satire of the century.” But the fact is that movies today don’t challenge audiences to acknowledge the existence of nuclear weapons, even when using them as shorthand for the apocalypse. This reflects how out of touch we are from our past.

Roland Kelt’s New Yorker.com post on Hiroshima and Nagasaki examines the phenomenon of forgetting nuclear history with a provocative question: “The mushroom cloud and the skeletal Hiroshima dome are the two most recognizable images of Hiroshima, which remains a profound and endless human tragedy. But who really sees them?” We see excessive use of nuclear explosions as backdrops in action movies, but we don’t process their meaning. We embrace Hiroshima and Nagasaki as Hollywood props and place them in the pantheon of fictional doomsday scenarios next to alien invaders and zombie uprisings. But aliens and zombies are pure fantasy. Nuclear annihilation, on the other hand, is an ever-present threat. If we don’tundertake a more serious reflection about our nuclear past, we’re more likely to repeat it in the future.

A better way to remember August 1945 would be to read the beautiful speech given by Mikiso Iwasa, a hibakusha or survivor of the nuclear attack on Hiroshima. Iwasa, now 84, spoke in 2012 at a Preparatory Committee meeting for the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review. His statement was arguably the most important part of this weeklong event. His words recalled an uncomfortable, irrefutable fact that made handshakes, political commitments, and promised initiatives seem empty:

“On that day, August 6, 1945, I was 1.2 kilometers from the blast center of the A-bomb, and I went through a hell on earth. I was 16 years old. The atomic bomb yielded a tremendous destructive power that defies any human imagination, a combination of blast pressure, heat rays, and radiation. I was knocked down on the ground, hit by a strong blast that blew with a speed of more than a hundred meters per second, and in the next moment, the city of Hiroshima literally vanished from my field of view. I had never imagined that such a thing could possibly happen on Earth, but it just happened.”

This is how a real-life experience with the bomb felt for a teenager back in 1945. I would like to see the Wolverine survive that and live to tell the tale.