On video, nuclear war always a possibility

February 10, 1992|By John Singh | John Singh,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

The world's superpowers would have us believe that the nuclear threat is over, thanks to arms reductions. Hollywood has always believed otherwise. There's a range of movies about the nuke threat, from the sober treatise of "The Day After" to the pop psychology of "WarGames," the possibility of nuclear war will never be further away than your VCR.

Here's a sampling of some of Hollywood's most memorable doomsday thrillers:

BY DAWN'S EARLY LIGHT (1990) -- Even though it was made for cable's Home Box Office, this hard-edged thriller can compete with the best of theatrical films. Starring Powers Boothe and Rebecca De Mornay (the evil nanny from "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle"), this is a taut thriller that's set aboard a military bomber over the former Soviet Union. When a nuclear war breaks out, killing the president, the crew is told to systematically destroy key Russian cities. Like "Fail Safe" (see below), "By Dawn's Early Light" is tough and realistic, even though it ultimately loses some of its edge.

THE DAY AFTER (1983) -- It may have been the television event of the '80s (next to "Who Shot J.R.?"), but Nicholas Meyer's version of what would happen after a nuclear war is dramatically weak. There are some stunning moments, but the movie's good intentions can't hide the same distasteful feeling that comes with most disaster movies: You keep wondering when and how the characters are going to die. As a curiosity piece, though, the movie serves as a grim reminder of how close we have been to the end.

FAIL SAFE (1964) -- Perhaps the most tense and suspenseful movie ever made, "Fail Safe" stars Henry Fonda as the president (that sounds like a bad Irwin Allen disaster movie, but it's not) who must decide what to do when a nuclear bomb is accidentally detonated over the former Soviet Union. It also features a rare serious performance by Dom De Luise. Unforgettable.

MIRACLE MILE (1988) -- This movie doesn't know whether to play the end of the world for pathos or for laughs and, unlike "Dr. Strangelove" (the best movie about nuclear war ever made) "Miracle Mile" can't quite reach a balance between the two. It begins when mild-mannered Anthony Edwards picks up a pay telephone in downtown Los Angeles. Even though he's dialed the wrong number, the caller still leaves a haunting message: A nuclear war has begun, and the world will end in 70 minutes. As the clock ticks down, the movie is a nightmare of warped fun with a very odd and sobering ending.

TESTAMENT (1983) -- A mother gets her children ready for school.One of them watches cartoons, the other eats breakfast. And then there's an eerie, high-pitched tone on the TV -- the Emergency Broadcast Signal. A flash of light and raging wind follows in an instant. The world is destroyed, and "Testament" shows how one small town might cope with the ultimate disaster. There are no million-dollar special effects, no grotesque makeup -- just a sobering message that makes it requisite viewing for anyone who thinks the nuclear threat is over.

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) -- Perhaps the most ambiguous and ambitious anti-nuke movie ever made, there's one scene in the movie that makes its political intentions known: A prehistoric ape discovers that a bone can be used as a weapon of destruction. He (or she?) throws it into the air and, as the bone falls through the sky, director Stanley Kubrick cuts to a nuclear warhead orbiting the Earth. Man has discovered the ultimate weapon, which, according to Kubrick, means it's time that man also discovers his destiny.

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