People just don’t want to see mushroom clouds anymore. The nuclear holocaust sub-genre of the post-apocalyptic lexicon of films is the rare example of a niche plot device that we will most likely seldom, if ever see again. You could say that other, much broader genres are equally vacant from the pop culture consciousness at this time, westerns and film noir come to mind, but few other genres are so blatantly indebted to the state of international relations. Unlike other genres that rely on the bedrock reality of historical events, the catastrophic global events of nuclear armageddon never happened in reality. The nightmares only occurred in the minds of billions of human beings for decades of the 20th Century. The threat of a nuclear event isn’t out of the question in 2015, and plenty of films still use the threat of such an event to drive it’s hero towards the big, red off-switch, but the idea of total nuclear annihilation brought on by the two superpowers volleying endless supplies of large scale death at each other is no longer a viable scenario and without the reality to base people’s fears upon, so go the fantasies.
This lack of further additions to the nuclear apocalypse narrative makes scrounging through the bargain bins for less known or applauded examples of the sub-genre more interesting, as we can look at the entire mass of varying narratives completely in the past tense. A greater story that has said what was needed to be said with the darkest of voices: the end of all life through the very relatable cornerstones of human psychology, the desire for power and the fear of the power of others. From this completed genre you could place the extremities of tone into two ends of a spectrum. On one end of this radioactive line is the cautionary, sombre depictions of society being rocked by distend and not so distant nuclear warfare and slow horrifying march to the grave such as Threads, When the Wind Blows, and the Day After, the last of which scared incumbent president Ronald Reagan so much that he allegedly changed his mind on his foreign relation policy with the USSR to begin the reduction of nuclear armament. On the other end is the Mad Max series and regardless of how much of it is based on tragedy, loss, and nihilism, what we are left with is the exhilarating glee of anarchy in the face of little to no resources or reason and the ever present glimmer of hope and heroism. The examples on both sides found huge success in what they set out to do. Those in the middle less so.
Enter Def-Con 4, a low budget Canadian film whose questionable title only means slightly above normal alarm in nuclear defense terms, written and directed by Paul Donovan of Lexx fame. The film follows a trio of astronauts who witness the nuclear exchange from orbit on a NORAD defense satellite and reenter a world ravaged by the initial devastation and the radiation and disease lingering in the prevailing winds. This film fits somewhere in the middle of the Nuclear Holocaust Spectrum (NHS) leaning strongly to the sombre side but is ultimately undermined by the energy of its own narrative. If ever there was an example of a movie fighting itself to death, it’s Def-Con 4 demanding that you watch a smug prep-school teenager put on a judge’s cloak and condemn the protagonist to death in a courthouse made of garbage and then expect you to consider it a truly cautionary tale of the near future.
Regardless of its micro budget and the aforementioned touches of camp, the first act of the film is very effective in setting a despairing mood as the three astronauts butt heads in their claustrophobic voyeur’s booth to the apocalypse. As the missile’s fly and they sit on their hands, waiting for a green light that will never come, they watch society collapse live as broadcast after broadcast cuts out (the death of television, truly the greatest fear of any red blooded Westerner) and listen to recorded messages from their loved ones describing the cruel, helpless state their world has become. When they are forced to land by an unseen hand manipulating their computer, they quickly make contact with someone knocking on the outside of the satellite. As they dig through the sand to reach their welcoming party, the lead astronaut begins to get pulled out with too much force. His partner comes to his rescue only to be completely pulled out in his stead and killed just outside the craft. With the final member of the team still unconscious, our protagonist exits hours later fully conscious of extreme danger with no idea of what to do next.
Despite the film maintaining that same degree of horror and despair throughout (cannibals slicing up cooked astronaut meat and the protagonist’s blind panic in the standoff by the boat come to mind) the film misses the mark not because it failed to balance the action and fun of Mad Max and the horror of Threads but because it attempted to combine them in the first place. You can’t maintain revulsion at the survivalist keeping women locked in his basement and very calmly telling the protagonist how he is going to kill him if the filmmaker develops a running joke that he’s really into women’s “air-reolas”. Likewise, you can’t maintain despair if you are excitedly anticipating the dormant nuke ticking down in the middle of the garbage fortress prison camp and the protagonist and the few remaining allies stage a jail break/rebellion against the fascist leaders. There is a limit to the true grief and horror a viewer can express towards a film if they are thrilled or entertained by it. Threads is a consistent decay of a society contorted by war and the worst of science, while Def-Con 4 takes the astronauts, and in turn the viewer, into a horrific new world to explore whether they like it or not and that morbid curiosity and disconnect from the world itself keeps the anti-nuke and anti-authoritarian message drowned out by the action. To summarize what I have learned from watching and thinking about why this film did not succeed in entering the pantheon of it’s now concluded sub genre is this, an adventure through hell is still an adventure.
"How Ronald Reagan Learned To Start Worrying And Stop Loving The Bomb.” Empire. Nov. 2010: 134-140. Print.