Yesterday, after I watched the 1984 film, Threads, I sat on my couch for about ten minutes trying to catch my breath and trying to vanquish a sudden wave of anxiety. I then watched old episodes of The Office and King of the Hill because I desperately needed to laugh. I needed to get my mind off what I had just seen.
Threads is one of the most depressing films that I’ve ever seen. It’s also one of the most disturbing. The film opens a few days before a nuclear attack on the UK and it ends thirteen years later. We meet two families, the Kemps and the Becketts. The two families live in Sheffield, the fourth largest city in England. The Kemps are working class while the Becketts are middle class. They both seems like nice enough families. Due to an unplanned pregnant, Ruth Beckett (Karen Meagher) and Jimmy Kemp (Reece Dinsdale) are planning on getting married.
While the two families get to know each other, we hear news stories in the background. Russia has invaded Iran. America has said that this act of aggression will not stand. The world is heading towards war but hardly anyone seems to notice. People are used to bad news and besides, what can be done about it? The best assurance that the British government can offer its citizens is a series of out-dated public service announcements. The Kemps build a makeshift bomb shelter out of a door and a mattress. The Becketts prepare to head into the basement. Over the radios and the television, an official voice informs listeners that, in case of a bombing, the safest thing to do is to lie down and be perfectly still. The Sheffield emergency management board sets up operations in an underground bomb shelter, located underneath the city hall. The members of the board chain smoke and argue. No one really seems to know who is in charge.
Though the war starts with America and Russia launching missiles at each other, it’s not long before the UK is hit. Sheffield is bombed because of its steel and chemical factories and the fact that a nearby airfield would probably be used to house American forces. When we last see Jimmy, he’s running down a road, trying to get to Ruth. The city becomes an inferno. Those who aren’t killed in the fires are left to try to survive the nuclear winter, the radioactive fallout, the looters, and the heavily armed policemen who attempt to maintain order through fear, intimidation, and executions.
Ruth is the first to explore the remains of the city and her exploration becomes a literal walk through Hell. Charred corpses and dead animals litter the rubble. A woman sits in a corner, holding a dead baby. A trip to the infirmary reveals people screaming agony as limbs are amputated with anesthetic. Angry survivors demands to be given food, just to have tear gas fired at them by scarred policemen. Every minute of the film, society collapses just a little bit more until soon, Ruth has gone from being a hopeful soon-to-be bride to being just another person desperate for a piece of bread. Indeed, for me, one of the most disturbing parts of the film was that, after the bomb dropped, Ruth largely stopped speaking. It makes sense, though. What’s the point of talking when there’s nothing left to say?
But it doesn’t just end with Sheffield. We follow Ruth as she leaves the city and then we watch over the next 13 years as the UK is reduced back to medieval levels. Ruth gives birth to a daughter named Jane (Victoria O’Keefe), who grows up in a world where there is no structure or education. How bad do things get? At one point, we see Ruth prostituting herself in exchange for three dead rats, just so she and her daughter can eat. Jane, for her part, is so poorly educated that she can barely speak in coherent sentences.
And the thing is, it just keeps going. Every moment when you think that things can’t possible get any worse, Threads keeps going and shows you that things can and do get worse. It’s a relentlessly grim film, a vision of a future that offers up zero hope. It’s a thoroughly bleak film, one that’s made all the more powerful by the fact that all of the characters just seem like ordinary people who you could meet on any street corner. As opposed to something like The Day After, in which the main characters included a doctor and a soldier, the characters in Threads have no idea what’s happening to them or what the future might hold. (One character talks himself into eating a dead sheep despite the fact that it probably died due to radiation poisoning by pointing out that it’s possible that it died of something else. The Day After at least had John Lithgow around to explain to everyone how radioactivity works.) Instead, the Becketts and the Kemps simply have to try to survive day-to-day. Most of them don’t make it.
Threads left me drained and exhausted. It’s one of those incredibly powerful and grim films that I’ll probably never be able to bring myself to watch again.