Currently viewing the category: "Apocalypse Project"

zn2ravyul9264mzv8cneJalopnik has the skinny on the video that Ted Turner wanted played before the apocalypse. Spoiler alert, is an Army brass and woodwind band playing one version of “Nearer My God to Thee.” That sounds inane, or a little too close to the maybe-apocryphal Titanic band’s choice of last song. However, if you have any spine-chills available for this kind of mood-piece (and I have it in excess), you should watch it all the same.

My favorite quote from the entire piece is in the image to the right: “HFR till end of the world confirmed.”

So modest, funny, and unnerving.

Even though the video is so insubstantial — though its simplicity, and its analog quality makes it appear to have crawled out of end of the world ’80s classics like Miracle Mile, Testament, or Threads — it has a creepy quality of belonging in two worlds. It’s a more true version of when real newscasters have bits parts in apocalypse or alien invasion films. Instead of imparters of fact playing a part, the video is the real real world playing at something that — thankfully — hasn’t happened yet, and so remains the stuff of nightmares and fiction.

I wonder if any other networks have such a thing on standby. I keep picturing Ted Turner planning this out late one feverish night after a bad dream.

Simply because I was only a toddler for the end of the Cold War, I cannot tell how true this idea of apocalypse in the air was; whether kids really thought they wouldn’t grow up; whether everyone was damn sure the big one would be dropped at some point. I can’t tell, because I wasn’t there for all intents and purposes so I can only trust a narrative, and a simplification. And because the simple version is, we all thought we were going to die from the bomb, and then in the world of This Bike is a Pipebomb, “everybody just forgot about it.” (As I read today, one reason the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists objects to the Manhattan Project National Historical Park is that is plants the threat of nuclear weapons as squarely in the past.)

Tell me how it was, readers. And tell me if you know of any other network or media versions of this CNN apocalypse video. I want to collect them all, like the morbid, gasmask-collecting lunatic I know I can be.

330px-This_Is_Not_a_Test_VideoCoverThis Is Not a Test (1962), directed by Frederic Gadette: This is a strange, low-budget, grim little movie. A cop who progressively becomes more and more creepy stops a few cars full of people in the hills above Los Angeles. The missiles (The Missiles) are coming, and they’ve got to prepare. Most of the characters are unlikable, as they include a murderous hitchhiker, one of those tediously self-sacrificial elderly characters, and the scary policeman. Oh, there’s also a woman who randomly cheats on her husband before the end. Basically, after yelling and flailing, the plan becomes let’s all secure this supply truck as much as possible, and hide in the back. The police officer gets more and more nuts, and the rest of the folks kick him out. The young and in love couple head for the hills, leaving behind grandpa. It’s supposed to be real people in peril, and perhaps it’s so realistic as to be unpleasant. Or it’s just not very good. The scary highlight is snatches of radio reports from the cop and other motorists’ radios. As is so often the case.

twd-season-1-main-590“Days Gone By” — The Walking Dead pilot: I long ago lost track of this show, having left it behind during the end of the God-awful second season of sniping. I may or may not ever pick it up again, though I’ve been meaning to read the comic for ages. Regardless of everything that came after, however, this is a hell of a pilot. Pilots are naturally awkward, much of the time — characterization and usually everything else is off. Even half-decent ones are still inferior to what came ever: The X-Files putting a much more timid Scully in her underwear for borderline-gratuitous reasons comes to mind. But, ah, The Walking Dead knew how to start things off, even if it didn’t know much of what else to do. Sheriff Rick Grimes gets shot, ends up in a coma (poor showrunner had to defend the coma thing, thanks to 28 Days Later), and wakes up three months later in zombie land. (Meanwhile his annoying best friend, wife, and child are busy being alive. Whatever.)

The scenes of Rick waking up in the hell of the abandoned hospital; the barricaded door with hand reaching; the camera pulling back and showing more and more body bags in the parking lot — they are morbid perfection. Hell, I’d almost argue that the show went downhill the moment Rick meets the half-destroyed, crawling “Bike Girl” zombie. Except, no it didn’t, because there we get to see Rick’s complete horror, bordering on a conviction that he is still asleep, because he has to be. I love when heroes, especially male heroes who have been strong in their earlier lives, need a moment to gather their sanity while dealing with the new world around them. The rest of the pilot has great detail, and good characters. Rick hides with the dude from Jericho who isn’t Skeet Ulrich, and zombies claw at the windows, and things become more horror movie familiar. You get that amazing shot where Rick is riding his horse towards the dead city, with cars that were fleeing all piled up his left (where is that show? I want to watch the show on the poster). It’s all so good, and then it ends on a cliffhanger where Rick is about to met all the annoying people who made the show the worst.

scaled.reddawn1984Red Dawn (1984), directed by John Milius: I first watched the ’80s epic when I was 14, and though I saw the potential camp value, it was a little too violent and its ending a little too bleak for me to really feel the joy of it. Plus, C. Thomas Howell, man, I thought you were Ponyboy, sensitive greaser cleaning up the broken potential-shiv from the parking lot so nobody punctures a tire. This C. Thomas Howell whose hate for the Ruskies keeps him warm is a little too much for me.

Successive watching has made me appreciate this movie for the historical document it undoubtedly is. Every then-relevant ’80s teen together in the Rockies clutching firearms. Also, Powers Boothe is there. A vital lesson in guerilla tactics. Oh, right, it’s totally about the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. Awkward in the most fascinating way. Is it a conservative wetdream, or a secret bit of satire? It is all things.  It is idiotic, and it still a little disturbing.

It’s so stupid, and so unlikely, and on 9/11 — before I saw this movie, I think — I had a brief moment of imaging some imminent invasion, and all of rounded up into camps. Here you can almost get into the spirit of the horror of an invasion — the opening scene of the parachuters coming to the school, and then our heroes fleeing the town is cheesy, but not enough to escape its unsettling quality. Some of the violence is both campy and vaguey disturbing for what it suggests. I have never been able to fully laugh at most disaster movie violence, even when I know it’s funny as hell.  The group of patriots being gunned down while they sing the National Anthem comes is absurd, but reminds me of actually horrific scenes in other, real movies. Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen’s father yelling “avenge me!” like an angry ham is hilarious, but then Swayze gives his all, bless him. Nobody told him what movies this was. Nobody told any of these people how funny, dated, and awkward this movie was. (“Wooooooolverines!”) Everything about Red Dawn both mocks and endorses the most terrified of Cold War feelings. This movie is so weird, and it gets weirder all the time.

“London Calling” by the Clash: Stop pairing this in cheesy, cheery teen movies and sitcoms with your 7-10 shots of London that you purchased to prove that the characters are totally going to England. This song is about the apocalypse.

London is not calling you because you are going to have a super cute time “across the pond.” It is calling because it is drowning, and did Joe Strummer’s weird shrieks not hint to you that something has gone seriously awry? Even Paul Simonon’s bassline is menacing. It is wonderful.

endisnighThe End is Nigh, edited by John Joseph Adams, Broad Breach Publishing, 350 pages

Poor short stories. That near-dead art form which is represented at its very worst in The New Yorker, yet is a factory-regular writer like Stephen King’s best, most literary work should get more love. It doesn’t, no matter how much people who bemoan this keep right on bemoaning it.

As previously noted on Tuesday Apocalypse, while reviewing a piece by io9’s Charlie Jane Anders, the apocalypse goes rather well in a short format. I haven’t read enough sci-fi in my life, partially because of the genre propensity to give us novels 600 or 800 pages long. (I keep looking at Lucifer’s Hammer on Amazon, then thinking, “but it’s just so long.”) Not to mention, my lack of patience for sci-fi voice, which is all I can think of when I try to read David Brin.

Here, the vaguely artful, plotless quality of New Yorker short fiction (they’re all poor man’s Raymond Carver, except Carver had things happen, I swear) is replaced by ruminations on humanity, and the end; all that good, forever praying-it’s-not-topical stuff. And sci-fi voice appears in this June, 2014 compilation, but it does not take over.

This is only round one in the so-called Apocalypse Triptych, and it it deals with the cusp of things. It’s, as Adams writes in the introduction, the grizzled prophet with the familiar sign. Several authors’ stories apparently tie together across the trio, making me immediately prepared to fork over another $4.99 after digging the first story, and then wishing it were longer.

Like any good novel with different point of view characters, or even nonfiction that switches locale, a short story collection is always about wanting more. You resent each switch to each new place, person, and thing, and then you resent the fact when that in turn ends. Nearly every story in the collection provokes this reaction, to greater and lesser degrees. The only one that truly didn’t is the penultimate story, which brought only nausea. Each story is big, but small, and sympathetic, even in the face of everything coming down upon our point of view character’s ears. Here they are, in order:

“The Balm and the Wound” by Robin Wasserman: Charlatan gets his. A sympathetic enough portrait of a cult leader who pretends to be able to predict the end of the world, and what happens when he is left with a long-lost son who becomes all too true a believer.

“Heaven is a Place on Planet X” by Deserina Boskovich: Fun combination of alien invasion, oppressive government, and potential for it’s all a fraud anyway. (Because, oh God, the things our characters do, when they are told to. Terrible things.)

“Break! Break! Break!” by Charlie Jane Anders: As much as I dig Anders, I was vaguely disappointed at the ratio of unknown to known about the end here. On the other hand, she may have actually followed the guidelines most of all. “The match” that lights the end only happens after a character-heavy story of a boy obsessed with being a stuntman, and it’s in a great big mob that is about to turn into a massacre. The political situation, and the cult or militia that seems to be spreading is intriguing, but it is not enough.

The Gods Will Not be Chained” by Ken Liu: Girl loses dad, dad is turned into emoji-using AI, who still loves her, but often chats with other conscious computers who are losing patience with humanity. Good, touching look at death and losing someone, with a satisfactory level of open-ended “uh oh” at the end.

Wedding Day” by Jake Kerr: A sweet, sentimental, but still stomach-clenchingly anxious look at a lesbian couple trying to save themselves in the face of an asteroid headed squarely for the United States. (Gay marriage, y’all. In case of just such an event.)

“Removal Order” by Tananarive Rue: I always say I get bored by mechanism of survival stories, unless they’re survival in the wilderness stories, and I am nine (or they are true). Apocalypse-wise, I want my money shot of misery and dread when It hits. I want my waiting for the end and the incomprehensible horror that brings (Lovecraft ain’t got nothing…). And yet, this story of a girl staying in her ruined neighborhood her with cancer-ridden grandma as a plague draws ever closer, and fires burn, worked. Some people would read it and assume Nayima should have left her dying grandma ages before, and some won’t. And neither of them is wrong. I also like the cop character, who is both a human being, and believably menacing.

“System Reset” by Tobias S. Bucknell: Future hunters go after a cyber-libertarian-terrorist, who once tried to hack a senator’s car into crashing. But turns out he’s worse than that, and has a plan to set off nukes and EMP the whole damn world. His villain’s explanation is that governments leech off of the tech know-how of those who know, while trying to control them and their skills. Solution? Send the world back into the stone age, then flee to Nerd’s Gulch. Our hero’s partner scorns this Randian vision, noting that trade and exchange makes things possible, not hunkering down and hugging your server tight, while feeing superior. Villain sets off the nukes anyway, but hero’s partner manages to magically have the previously-hidden skills to hastily change the ICMBs to not spare Nerd’s Gulch. Misery must be equal. This bothered me, because dammit, even if it’s unfair and the creeps broke the world, you might want there to be working tech in the world somewhere. The entire story seemed to shift between condemning and then endorsing cyber-libertarianism multiple times. For a second, I really thought it was a libertarian response to Objectivism. Probably not. But the shift mostly works, and does the detective vibe, and the ending which really is properly “nigh.”

“This Unkempt World is Falling to Pieces” by Jamie Ford: Half-Chinese Hotel worker in San Francisco waits for Hale-Bop to kill everyone, or not, and pines for hotel maid. Nice mostly-historical setting, nice picture of idle/in denial rich waiting for the comet.

“BRING HER TO ME” by Jamie Winters: Oh man, this one is great, and this one KILLED ME with its ending. How dare it end there, and bless it for ending there, and all the other emotions one feels when something ends there. A collapsing cult city (the lack of clarity about the size of the outside world, or whether it is there at all is frustrating and intriguing) has almost reached the day it has been waiting for. A woman goes door to door to remind people. A mother is terrified that a secret about her daughter will be revealed, and she argues about it with her husband. The daughter can’t come on the journey that has something alarming to do with the careful preparation of poisoned meat. Is the daughter deaf, as seems to be suggested? No, she’s just deaf to the voice of God that has been booming in every single other person’s head for the past 30 years. The parents are hearing “BRING HER TO ME” but does that mean the daughter can complete the act, or that God has (somehow) even worse plans for her? She can’t hear, so she can’t believe. The night before the God-commanded ritual suicide that will help them all cross over, the deaf girl meets a boy who has a crush on her, who has his own unshareable secret. It’s human, and hopeful, and alarming, and sweet, and I punched the couch several times while reading. I love the lack of obfuscation: that yep, it’s just God in everyone’s heads. It just is. But run anyway.

“In the Air” by Hugh Howey: Michael Crichton-y, and not in a bad way, and not just because it’s a terrifying countdown to nanobot-induced armageddon. A stressful portrait of a dad trying to hide the truth from his family while saving them, and of a quiet war fought with nanobots, that feels more tangible than all that gray goo talk.

“Goodnight Moon” by Annie Bellet: A sad, carefully-paced story of residents of a moon base. This is the only story that ends not on earth (though earth is about to have a rough, albeit not-apocalyptic time). It has the boldness to involve heroic self-sacrifice for the sake of a pregnant woman, a drunk Russian, and colleagues facing death holding hands, without apologizing for how badly done that could have been. It therefore isn’t.

“Dancing With Death in the Land of Nod” by Will McIntosh: A loser with an Alzheimer’s-ridden dad who bought a drive-in on a whim faces what is basically a plague of advanced Parkinsonian paralysis. A neighbor girl helps him realize that helping people who are probably dead anyway is better than falling apart. Nice story; kind of “Testament”-like in its doomed optimism.

“Houses Without Air” by Megan Arkenberg: Finally, a real disappointment, though one with promising elements. As the earth dies of slow asphyxiation, thanks in part to the Yellowstone Caldera, a scientist working on perfect virtual reality and a woman whose job it is to build memorials for tragedies room together in DC, and try to pay tribute to the earth. There’s something trying to come out here with the woman’s polar opposite jobs, and the emptiness of the virtual reality that was supposed to include the five senses, but has no other people in it. It’s not there, though. The whole thing is ephemeral. I’d be pleasantly satisfied by this story in The New Yorker, but not in a collection this strong.

“The Fifth Day of Deer Camp” by Scott Sigler: Old Michigan men! Snow! Aliens! A stalwart older man who won’t let them panic, and then it ends! There had better be more in the next volume.

“Enjoy the Moment” by Jack Sigler: A well-crafted story of an astrophysicist trying to find a legacy, and who unfortunately discovers the rogue star that is going to smush us all out — albeit, in 20 years. The tone, and the weight of the characters, and the events feel like a novel, without feeling like you’ve missed the rest of the book. There’s a bit of the small things in life hope, hence the title. The only wrong note is the last paragraph, which is too much of a punchline.

“Pretty Soon the Four Horseman Are Going to Come Through” by Nancy Kress: A poor trash kind of mother wonders why one of her daughters is so passive, and why some of her schoolmates are the same. It has something to do with a volcano. And maybe aliens. Not a bad story, it just doesn’t quite work as credible.

Spores” by Seanan McGuire: An OCD-ridden lab tech and her wife and daughter, plus some deadly mold that resulted from the lab tech’s colleagues playing God, all for a crisper apple and more succulent peach. The love and the snotty teen daughter the couple shares, and the horror of the mold are all equally well-described.

“She’s Got a Ticket to Ride” by Jonathan Macberry: Hard-boiled snatcher of youths who end up in drug houses or cults has to go after a serene 19-year-old who is right about the end of the world after all.

“Agent Unknown” by Dave Wellington: Is it zombies? Plague? No, just virulent prions. And the only way to potentially save humanity is such a horrifying bummer — especially to a libertarian — that it’s harder to leave the story than some. It also opens the possibility of a novel-length story about what happens after. Even if it’s not feasible. Decent story, with only so-so, thriller-type writing.

“Enlightenment” by Matthew Mather: Fuck you, Matthew Mather. Is this story about eating disorders, sustainability, collapse of society? Is it an indictment of sacrificial religions, self-harm, or meat-eating? I don’t know, but fuck you, the only thing I have had close to meat since reading it is tuna salad. Autocannibalism cults: officially the worst way for us all to go out. The writing is okay, then excessive. Because come on. Come on, dude.

Shooting the Apocalypse” by Paolo Bacigalupi: Decent story of a photojournalist roaming the Southwest, in a world where all of dehydrating Texas is desperate to cross the border back into the United States. Journalists in the bad future thing could be fun, but this feels like a chunk of a novel in the more unfinished way. I wouldn’t mind more of it, though.

“Love Perverts” by Sarah Langan: An asteroid is coming to hit earth, and a very messed up teen is trying to save himself and his equally messed up friend — or, more to the point, save his baby sister from his creep, abandoning parents who have left their blue collar horror town with her in tow. Ugly, but well-written, it might be my post-“Enlightenment” uneasiness that made me not appreciate the story as much. The final lines are fitting to end the compilation, but I almost wish it had ended on “She’s Got a Ticket to Ride.”

Conclusion: Not enough aliens, but more than worth the $4.99 I paid. No story was a complete waste of time (just dinner), and each had impressive world-building, and a palpable, lingering feeling of the decay, exhaustion, and ruin of those worlds.

r4ru2qdrwzm954iylcmr“As Good as New” by Charlie Jane Anders: Anders is the best full-time staff member who has ever worked under the banner of anything remotely affiliated with Gawker. Her short story, unlike so many short stories, contains happenings — big happenings. The end of the world is already over and done with when our story begins, but that’s just the start. The end of the world, a genii, and lots of quips about theater, this story has most everything you need. It’s funny, it’s unexpected, and the disparate elements work much better together than they have any right to. The ending is touching as hell, and doesn’t go for the most obvious “and she didn’t remember anything” trope. The prose is witty, smart, and not New Yorker obtuse. It’s direct, but it’s not simple, or stupid, no matter the fanciful absurdity of the plot. Read it.

Leven 7 by Mordecai Roshwald:  This 1959 novel has some of those short story-like problems with (arguably) unnecessary opacity. We do not know the enemy country of our protagonist’s country. His name is X-127, and he’s among the crowd of special military folks who are to be send underground permanently in case of nuclear war. Not for safety reasons, but rather so that the most well-protected people in the nation are those who are able to push The Button. These individuals are to marry and have children and have a whole new society without ever leaving the bunker again. [Spoilers ahead] X-127 doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life under the ground, but he doesn’t really question his situation until another man has a mental breakdown rather than push The Button once the war begins. During life below, X-127 gets a horrible mate, he tries to cope, he learns about music, and eventually those on Level 7 realize that radiation is affecting the folks in different bunkers all over. Eventually it hits their neighbors at 6. It also hits the unnamed enemy. There is communication with them, and exchange of of oddly juvenile quips, and then they go silent, too. Finally X-127 is the only one left, and he passes away on the final page. The book isn’t bad, but it’s less artful in its basicness than the Anders story, say. The details of the conflict are missing for a logical, albeit every society sort of reasoning. We do eventually learn that the danger of automation is part of the message — The Button didn’t need to be pushed, it pushed itself. The world blew itself up. As far as humanity (or some version) going dark novels, Leven 7 is not one of the best. Worth a quick read, however, as it still brings the vital nausea that nuclear doom fiction must.

Ashfall by Mike Mullin: To clarify, there’s nausea like the ending of A Canticle for Leibowitz, or even the more prosaic On the Beach, which is welcome. And then there’s just unrelentingly unpleasant. Strangely enough, this Young Adult novel that doesn’t even involve the end of all humanity manages to be grimmer still than we’re all doomed stories. Perhaps because nuclear war fiction, even when the worst happens, can be seen as a crisis to be averted — with Rod Serling saying this is only one of many possible futures, so beware. A novel about what happens after the Yellowstone Caldera goes off has no teaching moments, just the unsatisfying message that nature will fucking destroy you if she feels like it. But it’s not just the bleak descriptions of endless ash, and dark skies that makes this book such a slog. There’s rape, murder, more murder, probably cannibalism (our hero is given meat by a scary guy, and it tastes like wild pig, but it’s got a disturbingly long bone) and none of it is literary, and none of feels like it has a purpose. I am usually not one to complain about survival tales, since they were my obsession as a child, but this book just feels like a laundry list of one. And it certainly seems absurd to complain in an apocalypse themed review series that there is nothing redeeming about this tale of woe. Yet, in spite of Alex, our 16-year-old protagonist, finding love, it feels that way. Life is going to be exhausting in the wake of the supervolcano going off, and that’s all. Maybe at the end of the day, I prefer the tales of human annihilation to the paint by numbers survival descriptions — and this is long-ass book. Perhaps it’s the vintage, yet rarely kitschy threat of the big one. Anyway, perhaps I’m the nihilist, but somehow this book still feels more like one. (I’ll probably still read the rest of the damn series if I get bored.)

Silo, a short film by David Soll: This is a short film that feels like it should be a cartoon — so much so that I can picture how it might look. It’s kind of silly, and I have a million questions about the ending. On the other hand, as io9’s Lauren Davis noted, the setting of an actual ICBM silo makes it fascinating to look at. This film is cute, I just am not sure it should be, all things considered.

There Will Come Soft Rains, a Soviet short film based on the short story by Ray Bradbury: This is is a haunting little piece of art. I don’t know the short story, but I do know enough of Bradbury to be unsurprised that the robot with its deep, scary Russian automation is first disturbing, and then I feel bad for it. I won’t spoil anything, because it’s all about the animation, and its deeply distressing loveliness. I will say that in the first two minutes, I got a genuine chill down my spine. I stopped chewing on gummy bears and just watched. Do the same.

[Via: Jesse Walker]

testament-1983-ross-harris-roxanne-zal-jane-alexander-lukas-haas-rebecca-demornay-kevin-costner-pic-2A PBS production from 1983 that ended up in theaters, and with an Oscar nomination for lead Jane Alexander, Testament came at the end of the last Cold War hot flash, along with Threads and The Day After. Those two were all big, showing every grim — television budgeted — detail of the end of the world, or at least western civilization. Threads, bizarrely, is so excruciating that a numbness — albeit a queasy type — starts to set in by the time nuclear winter rolls round.

In Testament, you wish that were the case. This sneaky, understated movie is the Platonic ideal of real horror. Most nuclear war fiction, even if it is all about one family, town, or city plunged into uncertainty, shows you some pieces of the story. Jericho, Alas, Babylon,  On the Beach, they tell you how we got here, even though there is always a fog of war element. Testament is not interested in the why of anything, it just wants you to look until you can’t stand it anymore. This is just the story of a mom, her three kids, and her husband who never comes home from work in San Francisco on the day the bombs are dropped.

The movie takes its time on the family, the totally banal family living in the little California town. It’s about them and how they could be anyone. This could be happening for any reason, and whichever reason that is is bullshit. Even near the end, when Jane Alexander’s matriarch Carole falls to her knees and cries “Who did this?! God damn you!” she’s not asking about the socio-political explanation. It, in some ways, doesn’t matter. There is one tiny glimpse of television new that says nukes have been dropped, then there is a bright light. A few radio broadcasts tell us little later, but they mostly just mean a fraying connections to the outside world.

Things seem alright for a while in town, and the acting and the terrible regularness of it all confirms this. I find myself again feeling skeptical about the lack of hysteria. Hell, maybe “The Shelter” is most accurate then I thought. Why does nobody crack up? Haven’t they seen movies like this one? Jane Alexander is good, but she is mostly a little too composed.

But the everyday living facade, and the ease of watching it for the audience, starts to crack after the town puts on the school play that Carole was preparing for when the movie began. Twenty Kindergartners preform the Pied Piper, and the adults in the audience watch and cry because the see the familiarity: mistakes were made, and the children are going to pay for it. They cannot be trusted with the children. They are why they won’t get to have lives at all.

There are several more plateaus of regular living. Surviving requires working with the other people on town, and it does seem to work. Then another spike of horror comes when Carole’s friend is wandering in the rain holding a drawer that will serve as a coffin for his baby. Still, the food rations, the lines, the organization of everything sends the inevitability of thing back a few weeks. There’s the symbol of hope that is the radio, manned by a level-headed old neighbor. Carole’s oldest boy visits him, and then helps him check on the rest of the townspeople. He rides his bike, which is his talisman that reminds him of his dad, who would pester him into riding with him. Near the end, he has to ride his dad’s bike. He rides it past scenes of graves, and of graveyards filling past capacity. Eventually the bodies are burned instead.

This movie is a sneak, in the most stomach-aching fashion. The town is staying organized, until the police chief suddenly has a subtle, and entirely real nervous breakdown during a town meeting in church. The kids are bratty or earnest in turn until they are quieted by radiation sickness. The daughter is daddy’s girl, and rather dull, until the conversation she has with her mother about sex culminates in her tearfully saying that that love, and sharing, and all that will never happen for her, and she knows it. There are sentimental trimmings, including– like On the Beach — an overly intrusive soundtrack.

But the horror wins out. Fiendishly abruptly, things falls apart and the graveyards fill, the littlest boy is suddenly sick in the bathroom. After a few minutes, he’s wrapped in a sheet. That’s the progression of the movie now. It picks up speed as the family runs out of time.

Good parents are heroes in the most terrifying way. A good parent is supposed to give up their life for their child. The only thing more frightening an idea than that is the parent who can do nothing except watch their children slowly die. It’s happened, and it will always happen because of cruel accident and disease. But movies like this can’t help but remind me of what the US did to parents in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It — the government that is just another word for things we choose to do together — made parents watch their children die. The power of the bombs were the way they killed slowly or in a millisecond. The latter gave us shadows on sidewalks, grim poetry and metaphor, and at least a complete lack of suffering for the victim. Radiation sickness, on the other hand, is slow agony. Nothing artful in that, just vomiting, and diarrhea, and hair loss, and nausea, and dizziness, and death. This movie, and other apocalyptic fiction, were intended to ward off what they showed on screen (though nothing is as grim as it would be, not even the ’80 dread trio). And they worked, if the tales of Reagan watching The Day After are as simple as they sound. But I can’t help but be reminded that that nightmare already was done to thousands of people. Our Cold War fiction is the horrors that were avoided. We are never as interested in the ones we caused. Too prosaic.

Testament is propelled by its characters — simple ones, who by rights should have stayed that way. We shouldn’t be watching them at all, because this shouldn’t have happened. But it’s not nihilistic. It’s not Threads, where it just pounds at you, screaming that this must never be, and if it does we’ll be brutes, and then there will be nothing left of humanity — because, seemingly, humanity is a thin skin over a pit of savagery. For a movie about the complete lack of control over saving yourself, and your loved ones, Testament highly values the idea of being good and decent as you die. It’s a feeble fading away with nothing to be done in one way. In another, you remember your loved ones who left, you help your neighbors, and you don’t become a monster. The smaller this movie gets — and it is oh, so small by the final — the more clearly it demonstrates that one family is the world, and the world is just about to end, but perhaps it ended as well as it could.

Ansel_Elgort_43600Once, unsure what sort of movie I was in the mood for, I asked twitter if I should go for nuclear war or ’80s teen movie. My then-colleague Tim Cavanaugh answered the only logical way — why choose, when there’s WarGames?

Matthew Broderick, Ally Sheedy, earnest ’80s pleas for peace, and menacing Cold War terrors, and the impossibility of computers that can actually communicate with computers; this movie fulfilled those two genre urges like no other one can. It is dated in all the right ways. (Why is dated a pejorative again? I love dated.)

I don’t presume to know anything about hacking, except for what I learned from Cracked lists about what it doesn’t look like. But WarGames, the story of Matthew Broderick’s David Lightman almost starting global thermonuclear war when he thinks he’s playing a game with a computer named WOPR (War Operation Plan Response)/”Joshua” is reportedly a pretty solid portrayal of it. The exception is the cinema-ready self-awareness of the computer itself, but certainly the scene where David calls different computers to find one with a modem — thereby finding his way to Joshua — is the opposite of the Hackers-style flash and dash bullshit. The movie explains backdoor passwords, and shows much more than frantic typing in order to explain how computers function or react. This seriousness is why the Vegas hacker conference is named in the movie’s honor. Or rather, confusingly, it is called DEFCON — for the NORAD levels of defense readiness which we all learned from various alien/nuke movies. (DEFCON is important to the movie, and puns are great, but that’s still a silly name. Why not JoshuaCon? WOPRCon? MatthewBroderickCon?)

This is a fairly slow-paced movie. The acting is good enough to go unnoticed.  The hackerness is all respected, meaning the computer intrigue before the accidental near-nuclear war is given its due. Later there’s David being taken by the FBI into NORAD. He escapes, and he and lady friend Ally Sheedy make their way to Joshua’s creator to plead with him to save the day. In true Cold War (movies, if nothing else) nihilism style, Joshua’s creator is initially too depressed about the inevitably of nuclear doom to do anything to stop the events. But just in time, he is convinced, and the three heroes make their way back to NORAD just in time to play the great, metaphorical tic-tac-toe that ends Joshua’s attempts to kill us all with the terrifying fiction of a Soviet ICBM assault.

The computer’s famous ending lines are cheesy, and they somehow work within the earnestness of the moment. Tic-tac-toe/Mutually Assured Destruction is a: “Strange game, the only winning move is not to play.” (So “How about a nice game of chess?”) Notably, before Joshua is tricked, then taught — an AI that learns, also an alarming concept! — with the game of tic-tac-toe, the military men at NORAD must be convinced to hold off on a counter-strike against the (non-existent) Soviet assault on their own.  Now, there’s an endlessly topical lesson, applicable to the US and Israel and other muscly nations — maybe you don’t automatically fire back, melting a few civilians in the process. Maybe you take a minute to consider your options, even when you are being attacked. Maybe you just don’t play.

In spite of the evergreen lesson of don’t kill everybody — and don’t let it happen by automation, which pops up in all manner of cold war fiction, for good reason — WaGames is solidly of its time. This makes talk of remaking it particularly baffling. What is a WarGames from 2014 or ’15 even about? Preventing a fake 9/11? There could be espionage and government secrets, but any variation would logically make this a different movie altogether. Personal computers are not the aliens that they were in 1983 — we now check them like we used to smoke cigarettes, with the same thoughtless tic. And we may be looking nervously at Russia more often than we were a few months ago, but fear of The Bomb is more passe than even space travel. Whether that is unwise remains to be seen — hopefully forever.