24 February 2008


As somewhat of an entertainment masochist, I do some wierd things. I’ve collected (and listened to) rare bootlegs of bands I like that sound like they were taped on a micro cassette recorder stuffed down someone’s pants (and, come to think of it, probably were). I’ve sat through the extended four-hour directors cut of “Apocalypse Now” several times, having memorized the three-hour original version. I’ve watched every single bonus feature on my DVD of Pink Floyd’s movie “The Wall.” I’ve not only seen but also own the 1983 made-for-TV movie “The Day After” (starring Jason Robards), a movie about nuclear war still remembered by people who saw it when it originally aired.
Little did I know there was a British version of “The Day After.” It is called “Threads,” and, like its American counterpart, was only shown once and traumatized many who saw it. The story concerns the effect of a nuclear exchange between the U.S. and Russia (then known as the U.S.S.R. The U.K is targeted as part of the Soviet bombardment, including Sheffield, the town “Threads” is set in. The story opens up with a young couple in the park, and during the next few minutes of the movie, it unfolds that an unplanned pregnancy has resulted in them having to get married. The families (both of whom we follow through the movie) meet under those circumstances. Meanwhile, tensions between the U.S. and the Soviets over (some things never change) Iran lead to the brink of war. As the people we are focusing on go about their daily lives, the exchanges between the superpowers grow worse and worse until finally, a limited nuclear exchange occurs in the Gulf region.
After this, emergency councils are convened, and meet in underground shelters to try to be ready for the eventual collapse of civilization. Many of these people are local government representatives who’ve only found out about their emergency roles and aren’t trained. The situation deteriorates, until the air raid sirens go off and people scatter. The girl and her parents retreat to a basement shelter with a grandmother, who, being frail, dies not long after. The boy’s (who we never see again after the bomb drops) family isn’t as lucky. Their two younger children are buried under rubble, and the parents are badly burned in a makeshift lean-to made out of a mattress.
This movie does not pull any punches. Whereas “The Day After” only IMPLIED devastation, “Threads” wallows in it. When things begin to settle down, the fallout dust begins to fall, and people start to grow very ill. The government people in the underground shelter survive, but end up doing nothing, because there is nothing to be done. All is destroyed. Their situation deteriorates until the point in the movie when they realize they cannot escape the bunker due to collapsed debris. They end up suffocating – much like the government they were serving. The girl leaves her parents in the basement, and goes searching for her boyfriend in the rubble. Along the way, she sees dead bodies everywhere, many of them burned beyond recognition. She sees a young boy running up to her yelling “Mom! Mom!” clearly thinking she is his mother. She sees a mother cradling the charred remains of her baby, not realizing it is dead. It is enough to make the viewer ill.
What makes “Threads” truly thought provoking is that it takes a look at what happens 10 years after the bomb drops. The girl had her baby, and the baby is now 10. She doesn’t speak much, using only simple words and grunts to communicate. The movie makes the point that the entire generation born after the bomb hits wouldn’t really have a need for communication. Their education consists of repeated viewings of a British children’s television show on a VCR that somehow survived the bombing. In short, life after the bomb is more like the Middle Ages, only with a little electricity and a lot more rubble. The movie ends with the daughter getting raped by a fellow scavenger. She gives birth to a baby, but it is not shown. I believe the implication is that the baby is both deformed and stillborn. The final frame of the movie is a freeze on the daughter’s face as she looks at her baby and is about to scream in horror.
Even for an entertainment masochist, this was the most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen. Keep in mind, I’ve seen all of the gory World War Two footage you can imagine, I’ve seen a man commit suicide during a TV press conference (R. Budd Dwyer) and I’ve seen footage of a little girl getting hit by a train (coming apart in the process). I’ve even managed to sit through the entire Paris Hilton sex tape. But “Threads” was different. Unlike the other vicarious thrills garnered from gore, this was frighteningly plausible. The movie was so well done that it sucked me in, and I was utterly enmeshed in its terrible gears for nearly two hours. It was so much that it went over the top, and overwhelmed me.
I snapped out of my daze when my friend Scott came over and started talking to me about something work-related. I realized then that what I’d seen hadn’t happened. Our world was still there. Our power was still on. I wasn’t a medieval peasant harvesting weeds to stay alive for another day. The cliché was true – colors seemed brighter, my coffee tasted sweeter and there was joy in my heart at the prospect of another boring weekend coming up. There aren’t many things I can say this for – but this movie will make you appreciate the way things are, as unfair and soulless as they can be sometimes. After “Threads,” you’ll never take another “normal” day for granted again.

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