Nuclear Weapons: The Pop Culture Villain You Might Not Have Noticed

Nuclear weapons have long played a role in popular culture – in films like Dr. Strangelove, The Hunt for Red October, and The Day After. We’ve all rooted for James Bond as he rushed to stave off nuclear catastrophes, and we’ve cringed watching a radiation-fueled Godzilla terrorize Tokyo.  More recently, we’ve even seen Madame Secretary wrestle with how to handle Iran’s nuclear program.

But there are many more nuclear references in pop culture sliding right under most people’s radar. Did you know, for example, that the desolate wasteland in the Mad Max series is the result of a nuclear apocalypse? Or that the rise of 1984’s fictional world order followed a supposed nuclear war in the 1950s?

Nuclear weapons often provide a more subtle – sometimes maybe unintended – backdrop to stories in pop culture. Consider these examples, from well-known movies and shows:

Familiar with the song 99 red balloons? You might have heard it in the movie Wedding Crashers or Watchmen, or in a scene from Gilmore Girls

The lyrics, originally written in German, describe a military escalation that begins when red helium balloons that have been innocently released into the sky by an anonymous civilian, are registered as missiles by a faulty early-warning system. 

The error results in panic and eventually a nuclear war. Not quite the image conjured when you think of Rory and Lorelai.

What about The Hills Have Eyes? Originally released in 1977, and remade in 2006, the popular scary movie chronicles the plight of a family targeted by a group of savages after being stranded in the Nevada desert. Where did these savages come from? 

It turns out they’re descendants of Nevada miners who have become genetically mutated due to the radiation caused by atomic tests in the Nevada desert.

Nuclear weapons and radiation poisoning are an implicit villain in quite a few popular movies. In the backstory of The Planet of the Apes, Earth comes to be ruled by apes because a nuclear war destroyed mankind.

More recently, in the cult-favorite TV series Lost, in which survivors of a plane crash are stranded on a remote island for years, it comes to light that a hydrogen bomb named “Jughead” had been buried on the island in 1954 when it eventually begins to leak radioactive material (“Jughead” is also the name of a real bomb built by the U.S. military). 

The survivors are later forced to detonate the bomb in order to prevent what they imagine would be an even more dangerous future.

At NTI, we’d rather see story lines where nuclear weapons are dismantled by characters working to build a safer world.

That said, I won’t be denouncing my love of Lost any time soon.

April 27, 2017
Meaghan Webster
Meaghan Webster

Communications Manager

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