Morbidly Beautiful

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Often hailed as one of the scariest films ever made, 1984’s harrowing depiction of nuclear war and its aftermath is suddenly more terrifying.

Our lives are woven together in a fabric. But the connections that make society strong also make it vulnerable.” – Opening Narration

The situation is rapidly deteriorating in Ukraine, where Russian forces have moved closer to Kyiv’s center and expanded their offensive to the west. Russia has threatened to fire upon weapons shipments to Ukraine, raising the risk of direct confrontation between Moscow and a NATO country. With Putin putting his nuclear forces on a higher state of alert and warning of significant escalation if the U.S. intervenes, the war in Ukraine threatens to end the “long peace” the world has enjoyed for the last few decades.

Enter 1984’s harrowing and unspeakably chilling docudrama Threads, a film that shattered audiences of the Cold War era — and one that feels terrifyingly relevant once again.

The infamous BBC film takes viewers through the impact of a global nuclear war through the perspective of two families and a few city controllers in Sheffield, Britain. The utter devastation and aftermath are graphically and gut-wrenchingly depicted from the moment the attack begins until 13 years after the initial impact.

And this is no Hollywood, big-budget disaster film where you can escape into the spectacle, distracted from the horror by romantic subplots and acts of superhero heroics. We are not shielded from a single moment of abject horror nor spared from any part of the sobering reality of what such a catastrophe would bring.

The audience at the 1984 press screening of Barry Hines and Mick Jackson’s film bleak and uncompromising film apparently walked out in numbed silence. One of them, the novelist Russell Hoban, described the unforgettable experience as follows:

This is not a film to be reviewed as a film; its art is that it cancels all aesthetic distance between our unthinking and the unthinkable: here is the death of our life and the birth of a new life for our children, a life … of slow death by radiation sickness and plagues and starvation and quick death by violence.

Threads, with its gritty and ultra-realistic approach, documents a past we narrowly escaped and portends a future we may not avoid.  

The early 80s were the first time in a generation that full-scale nuclear war seemed not only possible but probable as tensions escalated between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, with both sides understanding that a massive and all-encompassing preemptive strike was the only way to win a nuclear war. A generation was raised on the idea that the future was far from guaranteed and that, at any moment, the unthinkable might become inevitable.

But while talk of a nuclear future was commonplace, few had any idea what a nuclear war would actually look like. Threads would change all that.

It’s a film that unflinchingly displays the end of human civilization in a methodical, unemotional way. The camera is an impartial observer to the destruction of humanity — sickness, starvation, suffering, and death — and the casual nihilism makes the impact of the experience much more traumatic.

It’s a vivid and visceral look at a dangerous time that, in many ways, feels like ancient history. And yet, with Russia and the U.S. controlling 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, the very real threat of direct military conflict between the two superpowers is raising questions no one has seriously considered since the end of the Cold War. In fact, in January 2017, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists declared us closer to doomsday than we’ve been since the early eighties.

These scientists warn that even a so-called “limited” nuclear war involving less than one percent of the world’s current stockpile of nuclear weapons could result in a loss of 2 billion lives.


“There’s a national emergency going on, and all you can think about is lining your pockets.”

The date is March 5th, and it’s a lovely Spring Saturday in Sheffield, the fourth largest city in Britain.

A young couple is parked on the edge of a cliff in the countryside just outside of town. The woman, Ruth, dreams of living in the tranquil country, though her boyfriend, Jimmy, admits he’d miss the hustle and bustle of city life. As the two lovers canoodle, reports of a war raging in Iran are briefly heard on the radio.

We then fast forward briefly in time to May 5th. The news plays on the television in a local pub, warning of escalating tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. But it’s background noise.

Ruth Beckett (Karen Meagher) and Jimmy Kemp (Reece Dinsdale) have more pressing problems; Ruth is pregnant. And they’re not the only ones too distracted by day-to-day life to pay much attention to the ominous signs that a catastrophic World War is becoming an increasingly real and present danger.

The passing days are marked by title cards as geopolitical maneuverings play out over a period of a few weeks.

It’s a horror that unfolds casually in the background.

We see it bit by bit, in vignettes shown from televisions, newspapers, and radios — interspersed with the stress of planning a wedding, buying a home, and struggling to make ends meet.

The reaction to price gouging at the grocery store invokes far more passion and outrage than any of the increasingly alarming headlines. In fact, when Jimmy tells his parents Ruth is pregnant, his father laments, “It’s a hell of a time to be starting a family in the middle of a recession.”

A coup in Iran is followed by Soviet occupation. Heated words and veiled threats are exchanged between U.S. and Soviet leaders. Little by little, incident after incident, the tension ratchets up.

Observed as individual events, delivered daily via matter-of-fact news outlets, nothing seems so troubling that it warrants major consideration or anxiety. Taken as a whole, it constitutes a crisis. But it’s not until that crisis deepens that people start to pay attention. Even then, the fears are more of the nagging “what if” variety, lingering in the back of your mind as you continue to work, go to school, run errands, and plan for the future.

It’s never really real.

Until it is.

When the first bomb drops, in the middle of the day on May 26th, it’s every bit as devastating as you might imagine.

But it’s what happens next that puts your darkest nightmares to shame.

For the lucky ones, the impact from the blast signals the end. For the unfortunate survivors, it’s only the beginning of unimaginable suffering that lasts not just days but, for many, agonizing years and decades.

Destruction, radiation burns, sickness, starvation, nuclear winter, forced labor, economic and social collapse. Each day is more horrific than the last. And just when you think it can’t possibly get any worse, it does. Your brain — trained on Hollywood storytelling – patiently waits for the dawn of a new day, when hope emerges and society rebuilds. But that day never comes.

Told through a cold and detached lens, where even the most devastating events are presented as mundane, the horror becomes amplified through the ultra-realism of it all. Nothing is sensationalized or glamorized. It all feels sickeningly real and profoundly unsettling.

There are images you won’t be able to shake and scenes that will haunt you long after the movie is over. Bleak, hopeless, and upsetting beyond all comprehension.

It’s not unusual to fantasize about an apocalyptic ending to human misery — something quick and painless that resets the scorecard. And this fantasy makes it easier to disconnect from the reality of the situation, to avoid losing sleep worrying about some nightmare scenario that may or may not happen. At least, if the end comes in a 100 megaton explosion, we hope to go out with a bang. But the real horror doesn’t happen the day we light up the sky with radioactive fire. The real horror happens after the sky goes dark and quiet.

A new Dark Age has begun. Mankind survives. But life as we know it ends. We don’t go out with a bang. We linger on in agony, left with only a whimper.


“Jesus Christ, they’ve done it. They’ve done it.”

While Threads is a product of its time — with its old cars, hairstyles, and technology – it never once feels quaint or outdated. It’s just as affecting and mortifying today as it was in 1984…and every bit as plausible.

Presented in the style of a documentary, with stoic narration and simple title cards, what strikes the viewer most in the first half of the film is the banality of it all. As the news trickles in — via snippets of television reports or briefly glanced at and quickly forgotten newspaper headlines — the ordinary citizens, living their perfectly ordinary lives, remain blissfully unaware of what’s really happening.

As the stage is set for a life-altering cataclysm, evolving over a period of a few weeks in May, there’s a vague sense that none of it is good. And yet, nothing feels particularly irreversible either.

The residents of Sheffield, like anyone watching politics play out in a place that feels worlds away, assume cooler heads will eventually prevail. At the very least, they assume the horror is too far away to really matter. Other people may suffer, people that matter only in the abstract sense, but suffering never feels real until it lands at your doorstep.

Each day brings our characters one day closer to the brink, but every day until doomsday feels like any other day.

May 5th: Soviet convoys enter Iran. The Soviet President blames the U.S. for escalated aggression in the area.

May 12th: The U.S. President issues a sobering message: “I have to warn the Soviets in the clearest possible terms that they risk taking us to the brink of an armed confrontation with incalculable consequences for all mankind.” 

May 19th: The U.S. accuses Soviets of moving nuclear warheads into Iran. The British government quietly prepares for war while making sure not to cause panic or alarm.

May 21: Britain decides to reinforce the European commitment to NATO, sparking protests from its citizens who chant “Jobs not bombs”.

May 22: A protester raises the alarm, warning, “You cannot win a nuclear war”. She’s mocked and told to go back to Russia.

May 25: “There’s still time to avert disaster.”

May 26: Sirens wail. Panic ensues. A single warhead explodes over the North Sea. It begins.

As Britain tries to prepare for an unwinnable war, Jimmy’s father constructs a homemade fallout shelter in their kitchen, much to the annoyance of his wife. His youngest son thinks it’s all a game, quipping, “It’s like going camping.” It’s all just a heartbreaking reminder of naive optimism and the belief that real danger is reserved for those less fortunate souls in other parts of the world.

The people of Sheffield believe, as so many of us do, that nothing too bad can really happen in a place like this, to people like us. 

Amidst an atmosphere of apathy and ambivalence, life marches on.

Before the bomb drops and her life is irrevocably altered, Ruth imagines a future with her husband and new baby. She’s so full of hope and optimism. “It will be lovely,” she says, “I just know it will.”

When Jimmy discusses the possibility of war with his friend, he’s met with an attitude of indifference. There’s no need to worry because what good does it do? “There’s nothing we can do about it anyway.”

But it’s not really a resolve against an unchangeable fate. It’s the fundamental belief that, ultimately, it will all be ok.

Threads asks us to consider an unthinkable question: what if it’s not ok? More terrifyingly, it asks us to not just consider the remote possibility of if we might one day destroy ourselves in the worst way imaginable. It’s not a matter of if. The real question is, when?

It’s both a horror film and a history lesson. Of course, it’s a history that, thankfully, never came to pass. We got lucky. But luck doesn’t last forever, especially when we so often seem incapable of learning from history — or protecting our future.

The day before the bomb dropped in Threads, the government tried to maintain order by reassuring its citizens that a crisis could still be averted. Everyone assumed that was true. And it was true.

Until it wasn’t.


“A lot of people are going to die anyway.”

With a minuscule budget but a high level of filmmaking expertise, Threads delivers something so simple and unsanitized that it ends up being one of the most devastating films you’ll ever see.

With its no holds barred approach, it offers an unflinching look at what might happen if an insane Russian dictator decided to start a nuclear war. It’s a monument to a dark time in history and a somber warning for today that should make what’s happening in Ukraine feel much bigger than rising gas prices.

I could tell you everything that happens in Threads, describing every scene in painstaking detail, and you still wouldn’t be prepared for the experience of watching it yourself.