FALL­OUT FROM THE BOMB

The stream of apoc­a­lypse films since the 1950s chan­nels our fears of out-of-con­trol tech­nol­ogy, writes Tom Ryan

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Melbourne In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val,

ONE of the high­lights of this year’s Melbourne In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val will be a turn-back­the-clock screen­ing of Stan­ley Kramer’s On the Beach (1959), based on the 1957 novel by Nevil Shute, star­ring Gre­gory Peck, Ava Gard­ner and Fred As­taire, and shot on lo­ca­tion in Melbourne. An­other will be Fall­out (2013), the world pre­miere of Aus­tralian film­maker Lawrence John­ston’s ter­rific doc­u­men­tary about it.

The tim­ing of MIFF’s pro­gram­ming is ap­po­site, es­pe­cially given the present cy­cle of films about the end of the world, or at least the end of the world as we know it ( Take Shel­ter, World War Z, Man of Steel, Pa­cific Rim, This Is the End, and so on).

In their tar­get­ing of the dangers of nu­clear pro­lif­er­a­tion to hu­mankind, the what-if sce­nario of On the Beach and the com­men­tary pro­vided by Fall­out fo­cus on the dangers to the planet posed by so-called ad­vances in science and tech­nol­ogy and how mankind seems bent on de­stroy­ing it­self.

Nei­ther is alone in its con­cerns, which have been cen­tral to the de­vel­op­ment of the disas­ter movie ever since the US dropped atomic bombs, nick­named ‘‘ Lit­tle Boy’’ and ‘‘ Fat Man’’, on the heav­ily pop­u­lated Ja­panese cities of Hiroshima and Na­gasaki al­most 70 years ago.

As John­ston, di­rec­tor of Fall­out, notes: ‘‘ That was the turn­ing point for the no­tion of fear in the world be­cause no­body had ever done that on that scale, what­ever the pol­i­tics were. It’s hung over us ever since then. And all dif­fer­ent vari­a­tions on it.’’ Th­ese in­clude ev­ery­thing from mon­sters from the deep to plagues of zom­bies roam­ing the world and dev­as­tated post-apoc­a­lyp­tic land­scapes.

Dur­ing the 1950s, crea­ture fea­tures such as The Beast from 20,000 Fath­oms, Them! and Godzilla (which was re­made in 1998) de­liv­ered im­plicit warn­ings about the un­ex­pected side ef­fects of the bomb. Dur­ing the same decade, the fact of the bomb also lent an apoc­a­lyp­tic di­men­sion to Robert Aldrich’s pri­vate-eye thriller, Kiss Me Deadly.

From the fol­low­ing decade on­wards, though, the cau­tion­ary tales be­came far more ex­plicit in their con­cerns, as­sum­ing a wide va­ri­ety of forms that stretch from Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Wor­ry­ing and Love the Bomb and Fail-Safe in the 60s through to The Sum of All Fears, The Host, The Road and Me­lan­cho­lia in the new mil­len­nium.

Res­onat­ing through all of them, to greater or lesser de­grees, are the words of On the Beach’s res­i­dent sci­en­tist Ju­lian Os­born (As­taire), when he ex­plains, as the in­evitable end ap­proaches: ‘‘ The de­vices out­grew us. We couldn’t con­trol them.’’ Or the ob­ser­va­tions of an in­ter­vie­wee in Fall­out (cul­tural com­men­ta­tor and colum­nist for The Aus­tralian Gideon Haigh), who de­scribes the mod­ern world as ‘‘ a gi­ant am­mu­ni­tion dump await­ing com­bus­tion by a stray spark’’.

In gen­eral, there are two sub­sets of films about the threat of nu­clear an­ni­hi­la­tion. One con­fronts us with in-your-face im­agery of the hor­ror and its af­ter­math and was in vogue even be­fore the dig­i­tal era. One ex­am­ple in­cludes Peter Watkins’s riv­et­ing doc­u­men­tary style de­pic­tion of a nu­clear at­tack on Eng­land in The War Game (1965) — com­mis­sioned, then banned, by the BBC, it sub­se­quently, and bizarrely, won an Os­car for best doc­u­men­tary. Then there are Nicholas Meyer’s The Day Af­ter (1983), which deals with con­se­quences for a small town in Kansas; Mick Jack­son’s gritty, Sh­effield-based Threads (1984); and Aus­tralian di­rec­tor John Hill­coat’s The Road (2009), set in a dev­as­tated post-apoc­a­lyp­tic land­scape.

John­ston un­der­stands all too well why th­ese films set out to shock. He felt the need to do the same thing in Fall­out, which is about as far from a con­ven­tional be­hind-the-scenes ac­count of the mak­ing of a film as it’s pos­si­ble to get.

Haunted by the trau­ma­tis­ing hor­rors of Hiroshima and Na­gasaki and il­lu­mi­nat­ing the in­flu­ence they had on Shute and Kramer, it’s both a study of the im­pact of the bomb on the 20th-cen­tury psy­che and a cau­tion­ary tale in its own right.

It sur­veys the spe­cific his­tor­i­cal events that gave shape to the book and the film, and their per­sonal im­pli­ca­tions for both men, but it’s also a wake-up call to those who may think the nu­clear de­mon has been put to rest. For John­ston, ‘‘ mak­ing a film about sub­ject mat­ter that is his­tor­i­cal means tak­ing on a re­spon­si­bil­ity to an au­di­ence, par­tic­u­larly a younger au­di­ence that might know noth­ing about that ma­te­rial’’. And if that means con­fronting them with an un­palat­able re­al­ity, then that’s the way it has to be.

‘‘ When I first saw the footage of peo­ple who had been phys­i­cally af­fected I was hor­ri­fied. But I thought it was im­por­tant to share that,’’ John­ston says.

‘‘ We’re so anaes­thetised now by what we see on TV, and the world has be­come so nar­cis­sis­tic, it be­comes a mat­ter of mak­ing peo­ple think when they see that footage, ‘ What if that ever hap­pened to me?’ Show­ing some­thing that shock­ing is like a pin­prick in the film.

‘‘ And then there’s the im­pact of the bombs them­selves as they ex­plode and the im­mense scale of it. We use that footage to show peo­ple what ac­tu­ally hap­pened. And that tech­nol­ogy is still some­where. It’s not like it’s un­der the ground or that it van­ished in 1959. It still ex­ists. It’s in the hands of man to use it, or use it as a con­stant threat.’’

The sec­ond sub­set of films about the nu­clear dan­ger chooses to leave the hor­ror of the hit and its af­ter­math to our imag­i­na­tion. In­stead, th­ese movies ask us to pon­der what it might be like to know it’s about to hap­pen, to be help­less to do any­thing about it and to have to come to terms with the ap­proach­ing dooms­day: films such as Aus­tralian di­rec­tor John Duigan’s One Night Stand (1984), Amer­i­can in­de­pen­dent Steve De Jar­natt’s Mir­a­cle Mile (1988), and Cana­dian ac­tor-di­rec­tor Don McKel­lar’s Last Night (1998). Ar­guably, this low-key and of­ten low-bud­get ap­proach is even more ef­fec­tive be­cause it gives us time to pon­der the char­ac­ters’ mor­tal­ity and room to muse on our own.

On the Beach, in fact, gains much of its power from the eerie sense of quiet with which it sur­rounds the group of char­ac­ters it gath­ers to­gether in and around Melbourne to face the end. It’s Jan­uary 1964, the rest of the world’s pop­u­la­tion has fallen to the ra­di­a­tion now be­ing borne Down Un­der by the trade winds. All that’s left of life for the crew of the Amer­i­can sub­ma­rine docked at Wil­liamstown and the lo­cals is about five months. There’s noth­ing else to do but go about their ev­ery­day busi­ness un­til time runs out for them, and for the hu­man race.

‘‘ I’ve come to like Stan­ley Kramer’s film a lot more over the years,’’ John­ston says. ‘‘ Peo­ple’s eyes some­times glaze over when you start talk­ing about nu­clear is­sues, or they glaze over when they hear that the film was made in 1959 and that it’s in black and white and that Fred As­taire is in it [in his first dra­matic role]. But I think the con­cept in it, which comes from the Shute novel, is very strong and still per­ti­nent.’’

One of the most strik­ing fea­tures of On the Beach, in fact, es­pe­cially for Melbourne au­di­ences — note: plot spoiler ahead — is the con­trast be­tween the shots of the city’s streets filled with peo­ple and the fi­nal se­quence when, sud­denly, there’s no one there. No life as we know it. No fi­nal sur­vivor wan­der­ing a de­serted metropolis, as he does in The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Quiet Earth (1985) and I Am Le­gend (2007). No hope. Just a sign left over from a Sal­va­tion Army rally that took place ear­lier on the steps of the State Li­brary, read­ing, ‘‘ There is still time, brother.’’ The dec­la­ra­tion is bru­tally ironic within the world of the film.

Ac­knowl­edg­ing that On the Beach and Fall­out share a fear about the in­evitable con­se­quences of a nu­clear in­ci­dent — As­taire’s sci­en­tist in Kramer’s film tellingly in­sists it would be folly to think of such an oc­cur­rence as an ac­ci­dent — John­ston also sees Fall­out as a con­tin­u­a­tion of the con­cerns of his ear­lier work.

‘‘ I didn’t make the film in any way as a po­lit­i­cal flag-wav­ing film be­yond my be­ing a hu­man­ist,’’ he says. ‘‘ I guess that’s some­thing that has per­me­ated my past work. I see Eter­nity as my Syd­ney film and Fall­out, in a very dif­fer­ent way, is my Melbourne film. They’re both about mor­tal­ity. They’re both about liv­ing in the world and how we go about liv­ing in the world, what­ever their other mo­ti­va­tions.’’

On the Beach, Fall­out

Gre­gory Peck and Ava Gard­ner on the set of

right; and di­rec­tor Lawrence

John­ston, be­low

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