Threads (1984)

“In an urban society everything connects, each person’s needs are feed by the skills for many others, our lives are woven together in a fabric, but the connections that make society strong also make it vulnerable”

 

A while back, I reviewed a 1965 faux documentary called The War Game that really creeped me out. I’m usually immune to the most brutal of all horror films as I seem unable to take the subject matter seriously, but the way The War Game was done got to me. The visceral bleakness of the subject matter and the realistic portrayals of human suffering put me in a similar mood as to when I originally watched Schindler’s List years ago. When I checked my comment box later on, I noticed a common thread (no pun intended) in most comments – I had to see a later film called Threads, because it also hits you like a ton of bricks. I’m no masochist when it comes to movies, so watching something just to make myself feel bad was out of the question, but I did want to see this. With all the North Korean sabre rattling as of late, I think I’ve been getting a taste of the uneasiness and fear felt during the worst parts of the cold war. In a weird way, I feel that watching stuff like this can “educate me” on what not to do, how bad people will act, and who you can trust.

While The War Game was essentially a strict documentary styled production, Threads actually has some semblance of a dramatic narrative in place. The plot focuses on ordinary people living in the city of Sheffield, and more specifically on a couple of young lovers that find themselves at the gateway of real adulthood. With an unplanned pregnancy looming, Ruth Beckett (Karen Meagher) and her boyfriend Jimmy Kemp (Reece Dinsdale) decide to get married, get a house, and all of the other things responsible people do in that situation. Their happiness is cut short as a crisis looms in the Middle East.

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In a fairly realistic manner, the news leading up to the impending disaster is shown slowly in the background with nobody really paying too much attention until it’s honestly too late. The signs are all there that the world is on the brink of utter collapse, but it’s just sort of washed over. People go about daily activities with the news on, glance at newspapers, and listen to the radio albeit only passively. Let’s face it; Jimmy and Ruth have bigger things to deal with in their immediate lives than world events. They have to deal with family pressures such as questions on whether they should get an abortion and if they can support a child. The news is the last thing they care about.

This peppering in of plot progression is done with fake archival news footage and other reports shown to set the scene. If one pays attention, the crisis escalates as Iran falls to a military coup, only to have Russia capitalize on the situation. Due to the complex web of alliances with other countries, places like America get dragged in early on. American bombers try to help fend off the Russian threat, inadvertently causing nuclear war to erupt. Russia first attacks the aforementioned bombers, and then gets hit with a retaliatory attack on an occupied air base. Russia launches an EMP attack over the North Sea, and follows it up with a barrage of strikes on key tactical points in all NATO countries with Sheffield being one of the targets.

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So that’s how the mess really starts, but that isn’t the real point of the film – now we get to see how messed up everything gets on a human level. Before the bombs go off protests ravage the streets of Sheffield as people from government positions try to calm the tension with claims of prosperity due to industrial growth – but this is Sheffield, one of the places hit worst by Margaret Thatcher’s mining industry clamp-down. Full-on riots erupt in East Germany and a mass exodus of large population centers commences. People go crazy to stock up on food, water and other basic necessities until the bombs hit. And boy do they hit. They hit hard, and not even Jimmy comes out alive.

I won’t spoil anymore of the plot here, but all I will say is simply that things get bad – really bad. And when you think you have seen the gloomiest, most depressing thing in Threads, they throw another fast ball at you. Scenes such as a Husband-less Ruth having to cut the umbilical cord of her own child with her teeth are the worst. One really gets a sense of despair and pain in this movie that you usually don’t end up with in other films. That’s why I compared this to a horror film earlier, as guys like Freddy Krueger don’t scare me. There is not a real-life demon killing random people in their dreams, but the stuff in this movie – it could happen. Threads is the ultimate disaster movie, and possibly one of the most depressing movies I’ve seen.

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Would I recommend Threads? Possibly, but only if you can handle this kind of movie. While it doesn’t exist as some kind of gore-filled exploitation movie, the plot is so bleak that I doubt my own wife could watch it without exploding into a fountain of tears. It reminded me of things such as the whipping scene in The Passion of the Christ, not really that bad in comparison to other movies, but so emotionally intense that it’s hard to sit through. While The War Game was shocking in the sixties, Threads has escalated the shock value to a level that I don’t think has been matched by another disaster film. Most films in this genre of speculative fiction turn into heroic action tales of a hero kicking a volcano’s ass or a scientist that saves everyone from a storm, Threads is watching the human race shrivel up and die.

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Doctor Who: Cold War (2013)

After The Rings of Akhaten puzzled fans with what is quite possibly the most unconventional (and divisive) episode of modern Doctor Who, this time we have something so conventional it feels almost retro! This is definitely helped by the fact that a returning villain, The Ice Warriors, make their modern era debut in Cold War, and with a make-over to boot. The recipe for tonight’s episode is easy: just take one part classic “base under siege” template, add it to one part Ridley Scott’s Alien then mix it all in a bowl of Hunt for Red October.

The story follows The Doctor and Clara stumbling in on a Cold War era Soviet submarine at the height of tensions with the U.S. The crew is taking part in a routine test to see if they have the testicular fortitude available to nuke everything if the call was ever made to start a nuclear war. It seems that the crew has taken a bit of “extra cargo” in the form of a huge ice block with a presumed mammoth inside. Of course, this isn’t the case, and we have a loose Ice Warrior running around. His name is Grand Marshall Skaldak, and the poor guy thinks that he is the last of his people. In fact, he is utterly devastated that his family, including his daughter, aged to dust by the passage of almost five thousand years in his icy tomb. When faced with losses of that sort combined with his militaristic nature means that he may just cause a nuclear incident because he has nothing to lose.

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First things first, I’d like to discuss the changes made to the ice warrior costume itself. The new costume, as we see with Grand Marshall Skaldak, is a vast improvement on the older suits, without losing the iconic look of the classic series version. Really the only BIG change was the hands, and let’s be honest, most people are happy that they lost their robot claws/Lego guy hands in favor of three-fingered Ninja Turtle-like ones. The problem I always had with the 1960’s iterations are that they looked so much like a guy in an overdone fiberglass and fur suit that I was expecting Godzilla to fight them off. You could tell the actor’s visibility was bad, and the mobility was clunky and slow. The new suits look somehow more maneuverable and more armor-like at the same time despite being obviously made from a less rigid material.

As for one controversial aspect of the episode, I quite enjoyed seeing Skaldak outside of his armor. It seems like I am the only one out there, but the effect wasn’t so bad. Yeah I know his face was computer generated, and that folks are averse to any CGI creatures, but the unusual take on them was interesting. I think many people figured that there would be a random make-up faced dude under there, but what we got was more alien. Let’s be honest if it was just somebody with lizard make-up they would have been too similar to the Silurians.

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Another big plus for me was the guest cast. It was almost refreshing to see a bit of media based on Russian soldiers to escape the almost propaganda-esque portrayal found in most shows. Instead of a crew of militant Stalinists hell-bent on the decimation of the United States, we have a level-headed crew of guys that look like they’d be fun to hang out with. The inclusion of veteran actor (and former audio-only Doctor Who actor) David Warner as professor Grisenko especially stood out. I’m not sure if it was the adorable grandfatherly wacko-vibe (the one that made me love Wilf so much in season 4) or his love for new wave music that I enjoyed so much, but Warner delivered the goods. I’m one of probably four people who have yet to watch the blockbuster show Game of Thrones, but I hear Liam Cunningham is quite good in it. I’m not familiar with him much aside from smaller roles, but if his stint as Captain Zhukov is any indication, he is pretty good.

On a side note while we are discussing the ship’s crew: That the guy that originally released the Ice Warrior from the block of ice was comically inept to such a hilarious degree, I’m amazed that he didn’t inadvertently kill the entire crew long before the Doctor even showed up. He causes the whole catastrophe simply because he couldn’t wait to see the mammoth they found, and took a blowtorch to it like a naughty child on Christmas Eve peeking at their presents.

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The way the whole episode was put together was very good. I really enjoyed the script, which is amazing since it was penned by Mark Gatiss. I’m no Gatiss hater by any stretch of the imagination, but he has had troubles for some reason or another doing solid scripts for the new series. I loved The Unquiet Dead, but was let down in most of his other episodes. Cold War contained his old-school sensibility and his attention to historical detail very well, and unlike Victory of the Daleks, it didn’t fall apart in the end. The direction was very well done as well and retained the cinematic feel that Douglas McKinnon got so right in The Power of Three. The claustrophobic feel of all the steamy, drippy submarine corridors and the attention to shadows and darkness gave this episode a nice nod to the Ridley Scott Film Alien.

Cold War is quite possibly the best episode this half of the season so far. Keeping the tense mood and claustrophobic vibe ramped up to eleven was great, as it really helped the “mini-film” nature pop out. Skaldak is a great adversary for the Doctor, and I really hope we see him again at some point. His honor code mixed with his refreshingly real emotions and motives are a nice change for a show usually populated with villains that are evil for the sake of being evil. You really feel for the guy, even though he decides to handle his predicament pretty poorly, but honor wins out in the end. He honestly reminds me of Klingon characters throughout the many Star Trek shows. While they are usually the antagonists of any given story, rarely are they doing any action solely based on bad intentions alone. That’s what makes them so iconic in that universe, and I hope this carries over to Doctor Who. Move over Sontarans, I think the show has rediscovered its resident “Klingons”.

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In closing, I really hope that professor Grisenko is still alive in the modern Doctor Who world and is enjoying the recently re-united Ultravox; hopefully he never gave up hope after they broke up around the same time as the fall of the Soviet Union!