Book: Watching the World Die: Nuclear Threat Films of the 1980s


Watching the World Die: Nuclear Threat Films of the 1980s

English Book Title

Watching the World Die: Nuclear Threat Films of the 1980s


Mike Bogue







By: Nicholas Driscoll

Disclaimer: Mike Bogue is my facebook friend and he sent me a free copy of this book for review. I bought my own copy, too, however.

I recently had a chance to read Mike Bogue's Watching the World Die: Nuclear Threat Films of the 1980s (from McFarland Press), a continuation of sorts from his previous book Apocalypse Then: American and Japanese Atomic Cinema, 1951-1967. Watching the World Die is not quite a sequel, however. Whereas Apocalypse Then specifically analyzed only films from the USA and Japan, Watching the World Die casts a wider net, with reviews of 121 nuke-related flicks from all around the world. Due to this volume’s more ambitious scope, though, Watching the World Die has less interest to the average Toho fan, given that far fewer Toho films are considered—basically Virus (1980), The Return of Godzilla (1984), Akira (1988), and Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989). (The Toho-distributed Vampire Hunter D [1985], which takes place in a post-nuclear wasteland, is missing.) Despite the relative dearth of Toho materials, Godzilla fans and movie fans of many a stripe should find something of value here, as the text gives considerable breadth to its subject matter, which in turn provides readers a rich understanding of the nuclear threat cinematic landscape from the time… even if the quality of the entries varies widely.

First, a general overview of what we have in this publication. Bogue’s second book is more straightforward than Apocalypse Then. Whereas that book was divided into sections covering particular subgenres (human-sized mutant monsters, giant monsters, more grounded atomic cinema) and included several essays analyzing the different approaches America and Japan took in their cinematic apocalypses, here, with Watching the World Die, Bogue dropkicks the categories and the essays (except for a prologue and initial chapter summary and an epilogue), and the chapters are organized by year (including several films from 1990, due to continuing Cold War worries). The great majority of the content consists of a series of reviews. The reviews are very inconsistent as far as length and content goes, but they always begin with basic staff and studio data, alternative titles, the country, etc. Sometimes Bogue includes a humorous introduction, and he always provides a summary of the story (almost always including spoilers). After that, the reviews tend to include critical comments, sometimes notes on production and reception, occasionally quotations from interviews, and generally a few notes on how the film in question handles the nuclear threat theme.

Let’s start with the positives. One hundred twenty-one movies is a LOT. We have TV movies like Deadline (1984), endless post-apocalyptic Mad Max style actioners (including most of the Mad Max films themselves), monster/horror movies like The Children (1980) and Parasite (1984), Australian movies of varying flavor, an Indian superhero film, Japanese anime, cheap-o actioners filmed in the Philippines, big-budget Hollywood thrillers, kaiju movies, dead serious dramas, and more. At times, Bogue will delve into considerable detail on select films—especially if he grew up with them. He applies liberal analysis and detail to the Godzilla films (naturally enough, given his decade-plus tenure writing the Kaiju Korner for Scary Monsters Magazine), but also really digs deep on serious dramas like The Day After (1983) and Threads (1984). On his longer critical essays, he provides more detailed summaries, often behind-the-scenes issues, longer critical reaction sections (such as quotes form Leonard Maltin and others), greater breadth of analysis (critiques of effects, acting, theme), and sometimes fascinating bits on how a particular film may have changed real-world events (such as inspiring Ronald Reagan to take nukes more seriously). His The Return of Godzilla review breaks down key differences between the original film and the Americanized version, with pointed commentary on how the reedited film made for the West villainizes Russia whereas the Japanese version paints both the USA and the Russkies as rather negative, as well as a list of many of the new sarcastic one-liners added in—among many other anecdotes and quotations. Other Toho films like Virus (1980) or Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989) also receive kingly treatment—though bizarrely the Virus review includes a poster from the 1979 film Plague. Outside of the well-known flicks, I learned about a lot of less well-known movies through reading Bogue’s book—many piquing my curiosity, such as Russia’s Dead Man’s Letters (1986), or the peculiar British animated When the Wind Blows from the same year. At times, Bogue finds some fascinating details to share. I am glad a book like this exists.

On the other hand, I found myself growing increasingly frustrated with some of the choices in Watching the World Die. If Bogue isn’t interested in the films he is writing about, his entries suffer; for many reviews, the summary can feel truncated to the point that they are hard to follow, and if he hated the movie in question, sometimes he includes a few dismissive comments without much more of substance before moving on. While long and loving reviews like Threads can stretch across ten pages or more with forty-plus references, movies he especially disliked (particularly Mad-Max rip offs and splatter horror) receive far less, the entries suffering from what feels like more hastily cobbled-together and impatient prose. Some examples include Stryker (1983) or Survival 1990 (1985)—Wheels of Fire (1985) barely rates a page, but there were enough of these negative mini reviews that I began to wonder why he included them. Given that he sat through so many of these kinds of films, I would have been interested to see an essay or a column covering some of the common themes or issues that arose in this kind of film. Bogue also seems to disregard any genre he doesn’t like, with snide comments about art films (including his blanket disregard for Ingmar Bergman—probably a joke, as he has written favorably of Bergman in his Kaiju Korner), and a flippant comment labeling all European films as overly sexual. While I realize that Bogue is going for a good-natured tone and most of the above probably was meant as humor, jokey comments are sometimes unclear in text, and the tone in general for the book is more serious, so this comment especially hit me as strange from a film scholar.

There were some other choices that got under my skin. Bogue’s entry on The Terminator skimps on key details, without even a mention of any of the sequels—not even the widely celebrated Terminator 2: Judgment Day, often regarded as one of the best action movies of all time! The Return of Godzilla has detailed passages on the Americanized version—but his Nausicaa review has no mention of the abysmal Warriors of the Wind re-edit, which dramatically transformed the movie and put Hayao Miyazaki off allowing his films to be released in America for years. Also, in his entry for Akira, why list the American dub cast from the early 2000s rather than the original actors who did the voices in 1988? I occasionally also found myself frustrated with Bogue’s critical comments, wherein he might note that a particular actor or concept is intriguing or interesting without much explanation, or he might have an occasional proclivity to bash a sci-fi or action film for being unrealistic, which surprised me given those genres tend to lean into the ridiculous. Finally, I really wish the table of contents listed the review entries by title, and not just by year for easier navigation.

One last little quibble—I wish Bogue had included the nuke-themed comedies he mentions in the intro and also the Barefoot Gen movies. Bogue takes some time to explain that he has three criteria for what movies he would include in his book—but comedies and Barefoot Gen don’t go against any of his criteria. I loved that he included the nuke comedy films in his previous volume (such as Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm (1951) and Dr. Strangelove (1964)—heck, King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) was a comedy, too), and I think funny films show a powerful way human beings try to deal with their fear. I think delving into humor and the nuclear threat would have been well worth the effort in this volume, too. I just missed them—though I would venture a guess that he excluded them because of concerns over time commitment, which is perfectly understandable. However, Barefoot Gen should’ve been included. The movie takes place in the past, true, but Bogue never states that movies that take place in the past are banned. If he were to follow a similar criteria for a follow up volume covering nuke films from the 2020s, he would need to exclude both Oppenheimer (2023) and Godzilla Minus One (2023)—two of the most acclaimed and influential nuke-threat films of modern day.  He also decided to include movies that just feature monsters created by radiation that completely eschew the bomb—stuff like The Trial of the Incredible Hulk. The Hulk wasn’t created by the bomb, and nothing in the stories of his TV films feature nukes. Yet Barefoot Gen, which explicitly is about the fear of the bomb and its dangers, was excluded because it was about an older time frame? Maybe it’s just because I recently read the Barefoot Gen manga to completion and was deeply moved, but I was disappointed not to see him tackle these seminal film texts.

Bogue’s return to the nuclear table with Watching the World Die features laudable breadth and occasionally scrumptious depth on some films, though the book still feels uneven. While I loved his longer analyses of particular films like Threads or Virus, and his ability to tie in his analysis with the insights from the first tome, some of his individual comments surprised me in a negative way, and I hoped for a bit more depth beyond a collection of individual reviews—I wish there had been a few essays on some of the overarching themes he observed, or on highly represented genre films, or a little column on Italian movies or the Filipino actioners. Absolutely there is value to be had in this collection, especially in the longer reviews—even if the shorter ones suffer by comparison, and I might have wished for a few other entries, tweaked phrasing, or polish here and there. Overall, this is an impressive book that is worth reading, but which also I think could be a great candidate for a refined and expanded second edition.