restricted access Atomic Bomb Cinema: The Apocalyptic Imagination on Film (review)
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Technology and Culture 44.1 (2003) 170-171

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Atomic Bomb Cinema: The Apocalyptic Imagination on Film. By Jerome F. Shapiro. London and New York: Routledge, 2001. Pp. 384. $85/$24.95.

In Atomic Bomb Cinema, Jerome Shapiro exhaustingly investigates the "apocalyptic imagination" in some eight hundred American and Japanese films. He is not interested in these films as consciousness-raising events or as art, but rather in what they reveal of what the bomb means in our imaginations. He remains "stridently and unfashionably" apolitical regarding the morality of the bomb. He argues that "the vast body of films that I call atomic bomb cinema is the most recent manifestation of the ancient apocalyptic tradition of continuance" (pp. 9-10). For example, Shapiro points out that Dr. Strangelove is more than just a story of Oedipal conflict; it is a warning that the events could be real. Warning, he tells us, is what this genre does best.

What does a study of the "apocalyptic narrative tradition" mean? Shapiro focuses on questions of death and rebirth, annihilation and salvation, [End Page 170] and on the individual and community in such films as Rocketship X-M, It Came from Beneath the Sea, Them, Night of the Living Dead, Dark Star, The Day After, Terminator, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and, of course, Dr. Strangelove and Gojira. For each film, he provides lengthy discussion of plot and character development (to the extent that such development exists). He shows how atomic bomb films revealed complex social issues (family, religion, gender, and race) with characters and situations that reflected wide-ranging political perspectives on these issues. He notes that some films considered how technological and social institutions and systems failed to save the earth because of racial, class, gender, cultural, and ideological divisions. Other films focused on apocalypse, illness, suffering, and death, and not the genre's paradigmatic morality of rebirth and continuance. A common motif couples traditional religious myth with liberal or progressive views concerning technology. One genre is defined as "postnuclear feminist weepie." Shapiro has spent his adult life in Japan, and his analysis highlights both American and Japanese attitudes toward the bomb, a plurality of visions in each culture.

As far as I can judge, most atomic bomb films are bad films. Shapiro manages to find social meaning even in the worst of them, and yet, for me, a person with little exposure to film history and criticism, this was a difficult book, primarily because I could not see the value in bad films. Though Shapiro writes well, sometimes he lost me. Even after looking up "matriarchal exogamic polygamy," I did not comprehend the solution to race fears and miscegenation in The World, the Flesh and the Devil. Shapiro tells us that "films employing traditional narrative structures use structures common with ancient apocalyptic narratives only when they can be embedded beneath the details of technology. Technology is not taking over but surfacing; it is being made feasible and ever present within these ancient narratives' structures" (p. 81). I suppose that is true. But he seems to be stretching a point when he says that in War of the Worlds "not only do the spaceships mirror the human beings' communion, they also represent a primitive forest that arises out of the forest—symbolizing the primitive forces that arise in Clayton Forester as he becomes increasing [sic] interested in Sylvia" (p. 86).

A website (, free to readers, with data, graphs, film stills, links to other sites) supplements the book. Although I could not always download the tables and charts, what emerges clearly is that there has been a relatively constant release of atomic bomb films over the entire period Shapiro addresses. Atomic Bomb Cinema discusses their importance to the apocalyptic imagination admirably.


Paul Josephson

Dr. Josephson teaches at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. His new book, Industrialized Nature, was published by Island Press in 2002.

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