I see that I’ve had a lot of visitors for Little Lady Fauntleroy. Is it because these readers all love Keith Allen? I hope not. Well, if you do love Keith Allen, don’t bother reading past the cut, just take my recommendation and watch another jolly little film! Go ahead, click the link.
All right, now that I’ve had my petty, probably extremely unsuccessful revenge on Keith Allen lovers, I have to warn the rest of you. In commemoration of World War III trending on Twitter today, I’m reviewing Threads. Threads is a nuclear apocalypse movie. It’s also one of the most depressing movies you will ever watch. Grave of the Fireflies? Naaaah. The Road? Forget it. Dancer in the Dark? That had songs!
“But magpie,” you may say, “those movies weren’t about nuclear war!” No. This movie is depressing for a movie about nuclear war. If you want something about nuclear war that isn’t quite as heavy, try The Day After Tomorrow or When the Wind Blows.* I’m just giving you a heads up. Be prepared to lose all hope for at least a good 24 hours after watching this.
Threads doesn’t begin with utter despair. It actually begins with romance, of a sort. Sheffield couple Jimmy and Ruth plan to get married after they find out Ruth is pregnant. We see their day-to-day life—meeting each others’ parents, picking out a flat, nights out at the pub—interspersed with reports of rising tensions in the Middle East. Threads avoids high politics. Instead, the impending war is depicted almost entirely through the eyes of bystanders like Jimmy and Ruth, who are torn between worrying about their wedding and wondering whether they’ll live to see another day.
About halfway into the running time, the strikes occur. Usually this would be a bit of relief, at least suspense-wise, but everything that happens afterwards is just so horrific that there’s no sense of “well, at least that’s over with.” Ruth survives the attacks and the rest of the plot, such as it is, follows her attempts to survive. It doesn’t end well—I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s pretty much “everybody dies,” only somehow worse.
What sets Threads apart from your run-of-the-mill atrocity film is its unrelenting focus on the sheer futility of human effort. Anti-nuclear protestors gather in the days before the strikes, but their opinions, just like the opinons of their opponents, have no effect on the eventual outcome. People attempt to flee to the countryside but are turned back by military patrols or just get stuck in traffic. The city council prepares for the attack and, after it occurs, attempts to control the situation from a bunker. But they are buried by rubble and eventually starve to death after a long struggle to communicate with what’s left of the outside world. Ruth’s struggle to find food and shelter for herself and, eventually, her child don’t represent a possible new beginning.
And there isn’t even the promise of a shiny chrome future. Unlike other post-apocalyptic worlds, in which survivors trade the comforts of civilization for unlimited personal freedom and possibly some freaky fun, central authority survives long after the exchanges stop. However, it’s only successful in committing violence upon its starving citizens. People are locked up behind fences; a man is executed for looting. The state can’t recreate community or empathy, as Ruth finds out when a policeman tries to get her a bed for the night in a private residence. In fact, any sense of community is gone—the few people who are left are either mute from horror or crazed with hostility towards any other survivor. Human emotions, like grief or joy, have been blasted away.
Threads does show its 30 years, though, not because nuclear war is an impossibility (I wish) but because the characters themselves seem like they’re from an ancient time—it’s not just that they don’t have cell phones or personal computers, it’s their lines of work and their lifestyles. Are there really any steel factories left in Britain, let alone Sheffield? And pigeon coops and overalls? Really? I know it’s grim up north and all, but really, nuclear war is grim enough. (I wonder if the effects of Thatcherism had anything to do with the hopelessness of the film—the idea that there is “no such thing as society.” Possibly in full play at the time, even without bombs going off?)
If, after all that, you’d still like to watch Threads, it’s available here at Vimeo. Follow that up with some “Protect and Survive” informational shorts, each one of which is guaranteed to give you nightmares. There’s an interesting video essay on Threads and The Day After here, although the political conclusions at the end are a bit hysterical.
* I watched When the Wind Blows years ago, and thought it was shocking, but on a rewatch I’m not quite sure now how anyone could be that cheery about dying from nuclear fallout. It’s almost enough to make me sympathize with Morrissey. Every day is like Sunday, indeed.