Threads – A Cinematic Review


Author’s Note: As a computer gamer, I probably encounter post-apocalyptic scenarios more often than other people, and as a result, it may occur to me that I might survive better in these scenarios than my contemporaries. Sometimes, though, it’s useful to take a step back and realise that I am no less vulnerable than anybody else, and no film expresses this like Threads.


In the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union was at the height of its military power, possessing thousands of active nuclear warheads and vast conscript armies. With this overwhelming firepower aimed directly at them, it comes as no surprise that the prevailing mood in the United States and Western Europe involved a certain amount of paranoia. It was in this state of paranoia that a number of films, comics and other media were produced dealing with the myriad of “what if?” scenarios which the Cold War was rife with, and among these films was Threads, a BBC-made film dealing with the consequences of a Soviet nuclear attack on Great Britain.


Threads, made in 1984, is set in the city of Sheffield, one of Britain’s industrial centres and one of the prime targets for Soviet nuclear weapons. Part documentary, part narrative, Threads takes a narrow focus by focusing on a few select groups of people, but predominantly focusing on two families, the Becketts and the Kemps, who are entwined by an unplanned pregnancy and a prospective marriage. However, in the wider scope, the Soviet Union has invaded Iran following a coup d’etat, and American and Soviet forces begin to fight over possession of the oil-rich deserts of the Middle East.


The general premise of Threads is hardly unique – nuclear apocalypses have been a staple of fiction ever since the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, there is a level of detail and a realistic presentation in this film which sets it far apart from the fantasies which usually accompany the portrayal of the nuclear scenario in media.


In order to tell its story, a story of ordinary people subjected to extraordinary pressures, the film approaches the scenario in several ways. The predominant method is by using a standard narrative, following the Becketts and Kemps, along with several municipal government staff selected to lead the city in what were then current “continuity of government” directives. By focusing on a small number of people, the film enhances the emotional response towards the characters as well as the drama of the situation that the characters find themselves in.


Threads also takes a documentary approach, with informative details occasionally being displayed on screen and reinforced by the narrative elsewhere in the film, which graphically portrays the numerical and textual data shown on screen. With high-quality research throughout the film, including an army of researchers which includes the late Carl Sagan, the film ably manages to demonstrate its data in a realistic fashion, with as few concessions to fantasy as possible.


The realistic factor doesn’t just extend to the research – the actors manage to play their parts authentically and realistically, with proper accents and believable dialogue which makes it easier to sympathise and understand the characters. It could be counted among the greatest strengths of the film that it manages to portray such a harrowing and difficult subject without ever seeming mawkish and without hammy acting.


Another of the film’s great strengths is the detail and authenticity of the setting. Not only is the wider detail of the setting captured, with trade unionists protesting against the government and CND activists protesting against the potential use of nuclear weapons by the belligerent sides, the minor details are captured as well, including the use of the infamous Protect and Survive commercials which were designed to be played in the run-up to a potential nuclear attack.

I don’t think the irony was lost on the director.

It seems obvious considering the genre, but it stands to be repeated: Threads is not a happy film, nor is it optimistic. The film pulls no punches when it comes to its central message: In a real-life nuclear war, you are probably going to die, and if you don’t die, you will soon wish that you were dead. There is no happy ending – just a slow, horrifying decline towards the end of humanity.

As such, this movie is among the most frightening and disturbing things ever put to film. Unlike the horror films of that decade, though, this isn’t frightening because of cheap scares and sudden shocks – this is frightening because it could have happened and could still happen today. During the actual nuclear attack, people are burned to a crisp by the enormous heat-wave emerging from the hypocentre of the explosion, while in the aftermath, radiation poisoning has its slow, painful and terminal effects on many of the survivors. Yet, after all of this devastation, there is still more suffering to come – overwhelmed hospitals, plagues of cholera and typhoid and widespread starvation.

This film could be admired for its presentation and its detail alone, but even more impressive is the way it manages to portray its very important message without seeming over-the-top or exaggerated. Threads could easily be argued to be one of the most important and significant films ever discussing the subject of the nuclear apocalypse – as the tagline goes, it really is the closest that you’ll ever want to come to a nuclear war.

Bottom Line: Hard-hitting and uncompromising, Threads is a detailed and often-terrifying representation of one of the most powerful threats to ever befall the human race. If this film doesn’t make you think twice about nuclear war, nothing will.