There’s something about this time of year that seems to put me in an apocalyptic mood. Maybe it’s because I read The Stand right before Christmas like 13 years ago, and oh holy crap did that book scare the living hell out of me. Yeesh.
And yet, despite the sometimes-nightmares that result, I do have a strange affection for a rather specific subgenre: fake apocalyptic documentaries. That is, I dig fictional films that ape the conventions of a news broadcast or a documentary in order to report the facts about a fictional, world-shattering event.
Here are a few of my favorites:
Alternative 3 (1977)
Ostensibly an episode of an ongoing British TV series, Science Report, “Alternative 3” was supposed to air on April 1, 1977. You know, on April Fool’s Day, because the episode’s premise is fiction: that world leaders, faced with the imminent destruction of the earth by pollution, have taken drastic measures to ensure that some of the human race, at least, will survive. However, due to an unfortunately timed labor strike at the BBC, “Alternative” didn’t air until June 20, 1977 in its regular time slot. And, as the broadcast itself contained no indication that it was fake–aside from its alternative history content–“Alternative” was taken by many of its viewers as true reportage, prompting legions of frightened calls to the BBC. Even today, the show’s so convincing and creepy–particularly the first 20 minutes or so–that there are some who insist that the events chronicled therein are true. Just google “Alternative 3.” You’ll see what I mean.
As a pedagogical sidenote: I’ve used this film in several writing classes as part of our discussion about how writers establish authority. We talk about why “Alternative” feels convincing, what it does to give the illusion of factuality, and why it’s so dang creepy because man, just the opening soundtrack gives me the willies. In general, the students dig it, too.
Special Bulletin (1983)
From the get-go, this movie is counterintuitive, starting with the basic set-up: a homegrown terrorist group takes over a ship in the harbor of Charleston, SC, and threatens to blow up their homemade nuke if the government doesn’t accede to the group’s anti-nuke demands. It’s the lowest level disaster on this list, in terms of potential destruction, but the smartest in terms of its prescient dissection of network news culture and the inexorable ties between the news media and disaster, an oroboro ever feeding upon itself. The movie neatly predicts the packaging of live, unfolding crises on TV, down to the special graphics and ominous tunes that are so omnipresent in the post 9/11 era (I’d argue post-Gulf War, actually) that they’re almost invisible, except to satirists like Colbert and The Daily Show. Overall, it’s deceptively quiet and businesslike, much of this film, and when the end comes, it’s not what you as a viewer expect.
Countdown to Looking Glass (1984)
This is a deeply unsettling film for me, if only because so much of it feels routine. There’s a banking crisis, some chest-thumping between the US and the USSR, a military showdown in the Middle East–all events that Don Tobin, the veteran anchor of fictional CVN news, has seen many times before. This time, however, circumstances keep pushing the world closer and closer to the edge, and soon, the US is staring straight into the unblinking eyes of nuclear annihilation.The vérité of Looking Glass is very much enhanced by the appearance of many real-life US political figures as guests on Tobin’s show, including Congressman Newt Gingrich–sounding remarkably reasonable, if still foolishly hawkish–and former senator Eugene McCarthy. Like Special Bulletin, this movie isn’t prone to bombast or excess, highlighting instead the slow steady creep from everyday international tensions towards the kind of destruction that no one in the film seems to believe is really possible–until it’s too late.
The War Game (1965)
Fun fact: this made-for-BBC film was banned from broadcast until the 1990s because the British government was afraid that any airing would lead to mass suicides among the British public. Good times! No, of course it wasn’t. It was Britain in the mid-1960s, just after the Cuban Missile Crisis and in the early years of NATO. I’ve always wondered why the Brits were so invested in making films about nuclear war, and now I know: according to Game, the UK had more nukes parked within its borders of any NATO country aside from the US, and, given its relative proximity to the USSR, a first strike might come with just a few minutes’ warning.
Ok, all of that said: the film is set up on two different tracks. There’s a contemporary (for 1965) discussion of the science and moral questions surrounding the use of nuclear weapons, which is terrifyingly blase and naive, as the film does a brilliant job of pointing out. The second track is a documentary of a nuclear war in Britain; specifically, the effects of nuclear weapons on a small area in Kent. While not as graphic in its depictions as later films on this subject would be–movies like American-made The Day After (1983) and the UK’s Threads (1984)–for me, it’s the measured documentary approach that makes Game so incredibly upsetting, even some 50 years later. It’s so blasted calm, at some level, even as it’s showing the citizenry suffocating, starving, or being burned alive.
Speaking of Christmas: the last five minutes of this film. Holy gods.
Now go watch A Muppet Family Christmas or something. Yikes.