A whimper or a bang. Does it really matter if we snuff the match with our fingers, or a blast of air from our lungs? And when that bomb drops, is that really it for the human race, or will it “rebuild” as we’re so optimistically told in countless disaster flicks? The correct answers are: “bang” is very bad, and if your idea of “rebuild” is devastating nuclear winters and forlorn dirt crops, build away. This bleaker than bleak view comes courtesy of a legendary and sobering BBC Two TV drama from 1984 called Threads, and Severin Films’ stellar Blu-ray shows a new generation what would really happen in the event of a nuclear attack. Spoiler slert: nothing good. At all.
Directed by Mick Jackson (L.A. Story) from a teleplay by Barry Hines (Kes), Threads aired in September of 1984, pulling in 7 million viewers on its initial showing with a harrowing portrayal that became an overnight media sensation. As networks are wont to do, the BBC hedged their bets and didn’t put it on the mothership BBC One, something they quickly course corrected in short order for rebroadcast. Four months later, it drifted across the pond and TBS’ broadcast became the most-watched basic cable program up to that point. It’s hard to say if Ted Turner picked it up based on its reputation or if he was chasing records set by ABC’s own atomic take The Day After (1983), which devastated a nation not ready to see Steve Guttenberg get burned up real good.
That may come across as flippant, but it’s really just to contrast the two and show their different approaches to similar material; The Day After is loaded with recognizable actors like Guttenberg, Jason Robards, John Lithgow, and JoBeth Williams, while Threads uses a terrific cast laden with mostly TV actors from such series as The Gathering Seed and Coronation Street. To a British audience at the time they were perhaps familiar, but to anyone else their anonymity focuses the attention on the story itself and adds an extra layer of credibility. But whereas the former works as a sad, somber, but ultimately sentimental portrayal, Threads still resonates due to a quasi-documentary approach and the far-reaching (and lasting) effects that would actually occur.
The setting is Sheffield, England, the heartbeat of the working class, and the news, over several days, reports of growing tensions between the US and Soviet Union over occupation of Iran. As people go about their normal day-to-day lives, we meet Ruth (Karen Meagher) and her boyfriend, Jimmy (Reece Dinsdale). An unexpected pregnancy leaves them with the decision to marry just when the crisis escalates. As local authorities plan and brace for the worst, it happens: bombs are exchanged, and Sheffield, a no-nuke zone, is nearby collateral damage. What happens next is chaos. Destruction. Utter ruin. More chaos. And the rest of humanity becomes a sad epilogue that refuses to end, yet should.
Be forewarned, Threads has no use for sentimental tropes or cheap emotional trickery; "sobering" is a word that comes to mind often, as the constant typed scrawl catalogues every step of the inevitable: escalation, execution, radiation, decimation. Nor does the movie shy away from showing that decimation; charred corpses line the streets, catatonic mothers cradle their dead babies, people crying out as faces and limbs become distorted from fallout. All of it done in a non-exploitive manner that makes it all the more terrifying; the horror is in the solemnity of director Jackson plotting the exact course of mankind’s demise. Using Ruth and Jimmy as the through line helps to humanize the story, although their tale is so bleak you’ll probably wish they didn’t survive. I’m sure they don’t.
Leave it to Severin Films to give viewers the best seat in the house to view the apocalypse with a packed and informative Blu-ray. First up is an audio commentary with Jackson, moderated by Severin’s own David Gregory and writer Kier-La Janisse that chronicles the telefilm’s genesis from a documentary short Jackson made in 1982 to Threads’ surprise success; next is an interview with Ruth herself, who is full of good spirits, especially considering how things turn out for her in the film; then there are chats with director of photography Andrew Dunn and production designer Christopher Robilliard, both of whom are invaluable in bringing the teleplay to a horrifying reality; and writer Stephen Thrower sets the table with tales of the Cold War (which was at its peak), Jackson’s ingenious idea, the BBC’s surprising involvement in such a harrowing project, and how it helped to broaden their broadcasting standards at the time. The new 2K scan cleans up the material as much as possible, but keep in mind that you’re still watching a TV program from nearly 35 years ago. The disc is rounded out with the US trailer.
Recent global events show that the push of a button is always only a heartbeat away, and the power of Threads today is no lesser than it was when it premiered, but there is a certain sadness that nothing was learned from it. Severin Films’ disc is essential viewing for those who want (or need) a reminder of what there is to lose.
Movie Score: 4.5/5, Disc Score: 4.5/5