Since the invention of nuclear weapons, Hollywood has been making movies about nuclear war. Whilst it’s a fairly sobering subject, the genre has endured throughout the history of film, bringing us some truly epic as well as truly terrible nuclear war movies. Critics are unsure why this oftentimes bleak category has endured so strongly, perhaps it is because the threat of nuclear war continues to hover over the world.
Top 10 Nuclear War Movies of All Time
On The Beach (1959)
A love story set amidst the ruins of a nuclear holocaust, “On The Beach” is set in 1964 and shows the aftermath of a war that has wiped out all human civilization in the northern hemisphere. Only a solitary American submarine has survived the carnage and manages to make it to the relatively untouched shores of Australia. People who survived soon learn, however, that the toxic nuclear dust is slowly blowing towards the southern continent, and in just a matter of weeks, they too will be wiped out. What would you do if you knew the world was going to end in 4 weeks’ time? “On The Beach” just shows you that!
Fail Safe (1964)
Came to the second nuclear war movie on the list. “Fail Safe” focuses much of the drama on events leading up to a nuclear strike, raising probing questions with regards to computer controlled weapons and what could happen when both computers and humans make careless mistakes. The President of the United States is horrified to learn that the US Air Force has unwittingly sent a squadron of nuclear bombers to the USSR with commands to destroy Moscow. When the backup protocols fail, the moral question arises: do they work with the Soviets to try and contain the error, or press their advantage and declare all-out war?
Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
A scathing reminder of how absurd politics can be, “Dr. Strangelove” has been described as one big inappropriate joke, the kind that you laugh at even though you know you shouldn’t. The premise for this black comedy is the Cold War, when a suspicious General Jack Ripper (yes that is his character’s actual name) orders an unauthorized nuclear strike on a Soviet airbase and then calls for a total communications lockdown. The US government must then try and prevent a nuclear apocalypse that could destroy life as they know it…and all caused by one man’s paranoia.
The War Game (1965)
Originally deemed as “too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting”, this nuclear war movie hasn’t been shown on TV until 20 years later after it was first scheduled for distribution. A disturbing film (although it is relatively short - only 45 minutes), “The War Game” focuses on the ruthless decisions made by governments when threatened by nuclear war (such as who does and does not deserve to be evacuated), as well as the horrifying reality of how much damage is caused to the human body when subjected to the force of a nuclear bomb, even at a distance of 60 miles from the point of impact.
The Day After (1983)
“The Day After” was considered so effecting upon its release that it was said to have impacted President Ronald Reagan’s decisions, regarding the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Broken up into more or less three parts, the film shows how the lives of various small town citizens are affected by the escalating military tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, the inevitable nuclear disaster that wipes out the citizens’ way of life, and then the tragic aftermath as they struggle to make sense of the chaos and forge ahead with what little they have left.
"Threads" is a little special among all the nuclear war movies that have been ever released. Shot in a documentary style, “Threads” is set in the mid 1980’s during the height of the Cold War. The film depicts escalating tensions between the Soviet Union and the UK, contrasted against the normal day to day lives of a family in the city of Sheffield, England. The movie powerfully demonstrates how a nuclear strike can shatter a society in a matter of minutes, destroying power, water, food, and ultimately, civilization itself. “Threads” continues to show the struggle for survival for more than a decade after the strike takes place, delving into the physical, mental and emotional hardships suffered by the survivors.
When The Wind Blows (1986)
Perhaps one of the only animated nuclear war movie, “When The Wind Blows” is a juxtaposition of lighthearted viewing and sinister meaning. The movie shows an elderly English couple pottering about their home as they prepare for impending nuclear war. The studious preparations turn out to be in vain, as the elderly couple survive the initial strike but then slowly succumb to radiation poisoning whilst waiting for a rescue mission to arrive. The recurring theme of this animated film is that, regardless of the precautions we take, there is still so much we can do to survive a nuclear holocaust.
The Sacrifice (1986)
“The Sacrifice” raises many philosophical questions about the state of mankind, the futility of war and the self-sacrificing love for family. A philosophical man, who seems to have everything, is gathered with his family and friends when suddenly World War III breaks out and fighter planes begin flying over his home. Threatened with losing everything he loves to a nuclear holocaust, the man tries to bargain with God, offering Him anything if He will only stop the war. This nuclear war movie then looks at the sacrifice he is willing to make for his family and whether or not the aftermath of that sacrifice was actually worth the cost.
By Dawn's Early Light (1990)
One of the last movies to be made during the Cold War, “By Dawn’s Early Light” focuses on how much the attitude of the commanding officer matters in times of crisis. When the US government receives notification that Soviet rebels have fired nuclear missiles at Washington, they must decide whether or not they can trust their Soviet counterparts and whether or not retaliation is called for. When the cautious President is injured and presumed dead, his successor decides to take advantage of the situation and attempts to destroy the Soviet Union, regardless of the repercussions.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
To complete the list, here is another representative one of nuclear war movies - "Terminator 2: Judgment Day". Set in the 21st century, a computer known as Skynet begins to wage a brutal war on humankind. Only a small resistance, led by a man named John Connor, have any chance of saving humankind. In order to eliminate their enemy before he becomes a threat, Skynet send an advanced cyborg, known as a Terminator, back through time to kill John Connor whilst who is still a defenseless young boy. John Connor’s only hope is the arrival of another Terminator, whose mission is to protect him at all costs so that he can grow up to save the human race.