The atomic bomb has such a rich role in film history, we’re kind of surprised it doesn’t have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame yet.
Christopher Nolan’s hit Oppenheimer adds one more compelling chapter to the tradition. And what a compelling and extensive tradition it is. By our count, nearly 150 feature films, documentaries, and series have been made that address nuclear weapons or atomic power either directly or metaphorically, and many more that use the weapon as a plot device.
And there’s no mystery as to why. Few devices or developments in science offer such a fertile mix of intrigue, wonderment, and abject terror. The idea that splitting an atom – the tiny, basic compound of all matter – can trigger the end of all life as we know it can, and should, keep us all up at night.
And unlike vicious space aliens or homicidal supercomputers, this is no hypothetical boogeyman we’re talking about, but run-of-the-mill, everyday science that we use to run our laptops and power our Pelotons.
The Beginning or the End, cited by many film historians as the first full-length nuclear bomb movie, debuted in 1947, just two years after the US tested the first atomic bomb and then dropped two such weapons on Japan, killing or seriously injuring over 200,000 people.
The 1980s saw an explosion of atom bomb-themed movies, and Cold War movies in general, as US-USSR relations became especially tense during the Reagan administration and the fear of a nuclear confrontation grew anew.
Like The Beginning or the End (which was a box office flop), Nolan’s new film Oppenheimer centers on theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his oversight of the Manhattan Project, which developed the US atomic bomb.
Oppenheimer stars Cillian Murphy in the title role, along with a large star-studded cast including Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Casey Affleck, Rami Malek, and Kenneth Branagh.
And in what seems a rare occurrence in the movie business these days, it is opening against another summer blockbuster, Barbie, Greta Gerwig’s movie based on the iconic doll and starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling. The unlikely pairing has been dubbed Barbieheimer and Oppenbarbie by movie fans – or, as one writer put it: “Armageddon now comes in pink.”
Meanwhile, if the arrival of Oppenheimer heightens your interest in atom bomb films, there are a great many cinematic options available to rent or stream. Here are 10 of the better-known ones (nine films and a TV series), arranged in chronological order.
Most people think of Godzilla as a B-movie villain, played by an actor in a rubber dinosaur suit. But the original Japanese film (Gojira) about “the king of monsters” is a serious, black-and-white allegory of nuclear destruction, directed by Ishiro Honda, a colleague of Akira Kurosawa.
The movie opens with Japanese freighters being destroyed by an ancient sea creature that scientists theorize has been reanimated by hydrogen bomb testing – a storyline that mirrors the real-life saga of a Japanese fishing boat that was showered by radioactive fallout from the March 1954 H-bomb test at the nearby Bikini Atoll.
For Godzilla’s rampage through Tokyo, Honda and his special effects team tried to mirror the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, unleashing a relentless and amoral monster that’s a symbol of a world gone wrong.
Where to see it: Available via the Criterion Channel, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Max, and Roku.
Fail Safe (1964)
Henry Fonda was one of those actors capable of appearing on screen like he’d be a fine US president. In this 1964 thriller directed by Sidney Lumet, Fonda plays a president who is thrown into a seemingly impossible situation after a computer error orders a US Air Force bomber squad to launch a nuclear attack on Moscow.
Assuming that the US is under attack by Russia, no one questions the action until it is apparent that the US is about to start a war that really will end all wars. Much of Fail Safe, filmed in stark black and white, centers on president Fonda in the Oval Office grimly trying to scuttle the attack and conferring with his Russian counterpart, trying to forestall disaster and speculating on what can be done if the bomb mission “succeeds.”
The gripping film, released at a time when Americans were still rattled by the Cuban Missile Crisis, captures US fears over three related developments, the Cold War, the threat of nuclear annihilation, and the growing control of technology over our lives. It received strong reviews but suffered at the box office because of the next film in this roundup.
Where to see it: Available for rent on YouTube, Apple TV and Google Play. A black-and-white “broadcast play” adaptation starring George Clooney and Richard Dreyfuss debuted on CBS in 2000 and is available on iTunes and Amazon Video.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Technically, this dark film comedy came out before Fail Safe but many people in hindsight understandably still mistake it for a satirical response to that drama. Such is the nature of the odd, and combative, relationship between the two post-Cuban Missile Crisis movies.
Strangelove, a widely revered film directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Peter Sellers (in three roles), George C. Scott, and Slim Pickens (in a memorably unhinged performance) follows what happens after an unbalanced US Air Force general orders a preemptive nuclear strike on Russia. The film was based on the 1958 thriller novel Red Alert by Peter George – and therein lies the connection between Fail Safe and Strangelove.
Because the former bore such a strong resemblance to the storyline in Red Alert, Kubrick and George sued for copyright infringement. The suit was settled and resulted in Columbia Pictures owning both films and conceding to Kubrick’s demands that his film be released first, which many historians credit for Fail Safe’s early box office problems.
Where to see it: Available to rent on Vudu, Apple TV, and Google Play.
The China Syndrome (1979)
The tense drama about a near-disaster at a troubled nuclear power plant was at first derided by the energy industry as no more than liberal antinuke, anti-capitalist, fear-mongering that had no basis in fact. Two weeks later, a real-life accident occurred at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania, throwing cold water on those claims and turning China Syndrome into even more of a talker.
Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas star as a TV news team trying to get to the bottom of a nuclear near-disaster and Jack Lemon plays a plant supervisor who gradually discerns that corporate cost-cutting has turned the plant into a ticking time bomb. The title comes from a phrase describing a nuclear meltdown, in which the radioactive core burns through its container and sinks deep into the ground.
Where to see it: Available on YouTube, Google Play, Amazon Prime, and Apple TV.
The drama is both hard to watch and absolutely riveting. A mother in a Bay Area suburb (played by Jane Alexander in an Academy Award-nominated role), her three children and their neighbors (including future stars Kevin Costner and Rebecca De Mornay) slowly succumb to famine and radiation poisoning after nuclear weapons strike San Francisco and other US cities.
Testament is a tragedy about survival and humanity, asking how we’d treat one another and “how our values might stand up, in the face of an overwhelming catastrophe,” as Roger Ebert wrote. Referring to the last scene, when Alexander’s mother, he says “expresses such small optimism as is still possible” he calls it “one of the most powerful movie scenes I’ve ever seen.”
Where to see it: Available via Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Paramount+, and Google Play.
The Day After (1983)
This ABC made-for-TV movie about nuclear war with Russia remains one of the most-watched shows in broadcast history. More than 100 million people tuned in on Novemeber 29, 1983, to follow several families in Lawrence, Kansas, become aware of escalating tensions in Europe, then watch nuclear blasts level their neighborhoods, incinerate their loved ones, and fill the air with deadly radiation.
The two-hour special event was a once-in-a-generation cultural moment that sparked national conversation and controversy. Today’s viewers might find the movie’s special effects dated and some of the plot elements clunky, but they can still be moved by the performances of Jason Robards, John Lithgow, JoBeth Williams, Amy Madigan, John Cullum, and Steve Guttenberg.
One very important viewer was particularly moved: President Ronald Reagan confessed in his diary that The Day After left him “extremely depressed” and contributed to him changing his mind “about the idea of a winnable nuclear war,” as director Nicholas Meyer said.
Where to see it: Available on YouTube.
War Games (1983)
The idea of a mild-mannered high school kid (Matthew Broderick) who thinks he’s playing a video game hacking into the defense department with a dial-up modem and launching a series of nuclear attacks around the world seems pretty far-fetched today.
But in 1983, well, it seemed pretty far-fetched back then, too. But like Fail Safe nearly 20 years earlier, it reminded people that an indispensable and lethal process like nuclear weaponry was controlled by an automated system largely out of our control.
And at a time when some are warning that AI could bring about the end of civilization, that theme is gaining new traction. The film, cited by historians as the first mass-market film about computer hacking, was well-received and a financial success ($125 million box office on a $12 million budget).
Where to see it: Available on Spectrum TV, Sling TV Roku Channel, Amazon Prime Video, Vudu, Redbox, and Apple TV.
Black Rain (1989)
Japanese director Shohei Imamura uses the bombing of Hiroshima as his film’s starting point. Yasuko, a young woman who was hit by contaminated “black rain” after the blast, her family and neighbors grapple with the slow-developing consequences of the fallout – hair falling out, cancer, and slow deaths from radiation poisoning. But the consequences go beyond the physical.
When Yasuko’s uncle tries to find her a husband, families of potential suitors reject her, and not just because they worry she’s not healthy enough to have children. According to Imamura, there was a stigma to being a survivor in post-war Japan, as if someone like Yasuko was marked by defeat or impurity.
Where to see it: Available via Amazon Prime.
Fat Man and Little Boy (1989)
Whereas trailers for Oppenheimer show Matt Damon chewing the scenery as Leslie Groves, the army general assigned to push J. Robert Oppenheimer and his team of elite scientists to build the first atomic weapons at Los Alamos, Paul Newman plays Groves in the earlier drama, Fat Man and Little Boy.
About the Manhattan Project, the film shows screen legend Newman leaning into the persona of a tough but savvy military commander. He grumbles about the “longhairs” and “prima donnas” he has to supervise, deftly spars with Oppenheimer’s liberal wife Kitty (Bonnie Bedilia), and strokes the scientist’s ego by telling him that he’ll get “to be the one who won the war.”
When Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz) voices moral conflict, Newman’s Groves lays down the law: “Conscience? You’ve got one job, doctor: Give me the bomb!” Directed by Roland Joffe, the film also showcases the early talents of John Cusack as an idealistic physicist and Laura Dern as a nurse who witnesses the horrifying results of a radiation test gone wrong.
Where to see it: Available via Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Pluto TV, Google Play.
Images of Russian soldiers occupying the Chernobyl nuclear power plant at the start of the ongoing Ukraine war sparked fears that a dark moment in Cold War history would repeat itself when the 1986 spread of radioactive contaminants over a wide swath of Europe after one of the plant’s reactors exploded.
That catastrophe was probably fresh in the minds of anyone who had seen Chernobyl, HBO’s gripping five-episode miniseries, which aired three years before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The series, powered by taut writing and powerful performances by Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgard, and Emily Watson, unfolds as a combination of disaster movie, hospital drama, and courtroom thriller.
It reveals that Soviet-era incompetence and mismanagement led to the explosion and that this same culture of bureaucracy and corruption failed people in the aftermath.
Back to the present day: While Russian soldiers retreated from the still-polluted Chernobyl Exclusion Zone after a month, international concerns are now focused on the risks of an attack on the large nuclear plant in Zaporizhzhia in southeastern Ukraine, which has fallen into Russian control.
Where to see it: Available on Max and via Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube TV, Vudu, and Google Play.