I need to watch things die,
From a good safe distance,
Vicariously I,
Live while the whole world dies…
Much better you than I.

Tool – Vicarious

Is there an instinct, a desire to see horror and misery in others, some drive to observe the terrible chaos of life, as long as it happens to someone else? Rubbernecking on the highway, Law and Order: SVU, Jersey Shore- things we look at and go, “Well I’m glad that’s not me…” Do these things serve some sort of cathartic purpose, or are they there just to make ourselves feel superior watching these train wrecks?

In an urban society, everything connects. Each person's needs are fed by the skills of many others. Our lives are woven together in a fabric. But the connections that make society strong also make it vulnerable.

“In an urban society, everything connects. Each person’s needs are fed by the skills of many others. Our lives are woven together in a fabric. But the connections that make society strong also make it vulnerable.”

Watching the world suffer and die, as is the case in the various zombie movies and other disaster films, lets us put ourselves as one of the survivors, as one of the lone few, strong enough to eek our way through to another day of life while everyone else goes insane and fails. This movie, however, does not allow such fantasy. There is no room for empathy with a hero, because there are no heroes. There is no escape. There is no hope.

Threads. I remember seeing snippets of this movie on TBS when it was broadcast in the US in 1985. I remember very specifically one scene- a man on the toilet hears the beginning of it all and rushes to get his family into the shelter. They almost dragged the elderly mother down the stairs in panic.

That brief scene, and the knowledge of the subject matter, was enough to steer me clear of much of the rest of the film when I was 12. As I mentioned in my last post on The Day After, I watched Threads, well, the next day. What kind of reaction does a sane man have to witnessing something like this? For me, it was numb detachment. It was clinical, distant. I wasn’t putting myself into the film, I was keeping it squarely in it’s mid-eighties birthplace, keeping it in Sheffield, England, keeping it on my iPad, on YouTube. I would not allow it any closer. I couldn’t.

I don’t watch horror films. I really have no desire to do so. I have watched the classics: The Exorcist, The Shining, Poltergeist, all of which were exceptional films. I have never watched any torture-porn movies like Saw, and nothing in the reality-TV vein like The Blair Witch Project. Therefore I don’t know if it is apt to call Threads a horror film. You can get a good synopsis of the film from the Wikipedia entry, and also from the TV Tropes page. Here’s my summary.

Ruth standing next to a bit of a fixer-upper.

Ruth standing next to a bit of a fixer-upper.

Nuclear war happens. The English city of Sheffield takes some hits, and some ground-burst bombs nearby throw fallout across the country. Millions die in the attack. Millions more die from radiation poisoning. Millions more die from the aftermath of starvation and disease. Sensing a trend? The movie is a docu-drama that intersperses the scenes of the film with narration and overlays with certain clinical facts, such as the total megatonnage that is dropped on the city.

Well it's good there's some government still.  Right?  Guys... anyone...?

Well it’s good there’s some government still. Right? Guys… anyone…?

Unlike The Day After, Threads continues beyond the initial destruction wrought by the bombs, and peers into the possibilities of what happens then. It takes its data from what was known about the contingency plans at the time, about what the government had prepared for. And it showed the futility of any such plan. It was like putting up an umbrella for a tornado and expecting to be safe.

A series of videos created to be broadcast in case of imminent nuclear attack was created entitled Protect and Survive. They’re terrifying, and actually sampled in the movie to excellent effect.

The existence of such films and pamphlets may have only existed to ensure the public that there was something to be done, even if there wasn’t. I’m not sure about that, but the movie shows how difficult if not impossible it would be to implement any of the suggestions presented.

Who are these moochers who need functioning roads and available fuel? Bootstraps, people!

Who are these moochers who need functioning roads and available fuel? Bootstraps, people!

After the destruction of the city, food is used by the surviving dispersed authority figures as rewards for hard work, and withheld as punishment. At one point, one of the government employees orders caloric intake limited to 1000 for people able to work, 500 otherwise, per day.

But that doesn’t last. With no efficient way to resupply, even the limited food on hand dwindles. Army officers are ordered to shoot first when confronted with looters or hoarders.

But how long can the men with guns survive? Bullets are no guarantee of protection against hunger and radiation.

Sex for rats? Sounds reasonable.

Sex for rats? Sounds reasonable.

This is something I’ve wondered about post apocalyptic fiction- it’s always shown that the tough guys and the alpha males with the guns are the best survivors, but in such a scenario presented here, how are you going to be king of your own fiefdom if half your followers are dying of leukemia and the other half are starving? And what happens when you run out of bullets? Or get cataracts from the devastated ozone layer? Good luck shooting straight then.

Radiation is kinda like cooking, right?

Radiation is kinda like cooking, right?

The very title of the movie is about the necessary connections between people and systems that allow for modern survival. Removed form those systems, survival becomes nearly impossible for someone once reliant upon them. We’re all specialists, talents devoted to one part of our incredibly complex society. We can’t all be survivalists, that would stunt the ability for a society to grown and thrive. Specialization is what allows human culture to excel.

Children born malnourished and irradiated in utero make for the best building blocks of a new society.

Children born malnourished and irradiated make for the best building blocks of a new society.

But it’s also the bane of the species when the threads are cut.

Ruth’s child, born in a starved womb bombarded by radiation, winds up physically able, but mentally stunted. It’s suggested a whole generation of survivor children wind up that way- brought up on not enough food, and exposed to too much radiation in utero.

The movie jumps to 10 years later. Without any infrastructure for centralized education, or materials to learn from, the children are little more then feral scroungers with only the most rudimentary language skills. Not terribly different than today’s youth, in other words. Oh snap!

Children and parents spend most of their time working on ways to survive, and a lot of that centers around trying to farm the irradiated land using only hand tools, since fuel has long been unavailable.

Ruth dies and leaves her daughter on her own. Wikipedia’s summary of the end of the movie is apt.

Three years after Ruth’s death, Jane and two boys are caught stealing food. One boy is shot in the ensuing confusion, and Jane wrestles for the food with the other boy and ends up having what the script describes as “crude intercourse”.

Months later, and full term, Jane finds a makeshift hospital and gives birth. The film ends just as she is about to scream in horror as she looks upon her baby.

This is an important film. I know it is. I just┬ádon’t know if I enjoyed watching this movie. But I’m glad I did. I don’t think I want to watch it again though, not on my own. I want to share the experience, to talk about it, about what it says about society, whether it’s an accurate picture of the possibilities.

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