Nuclear weapons have been around since 1945, when the Manhattan Project finally created a weapon that would end World War II. Since then, these weapons were the subject of Americans’ fear during the Cold War, and then both a taboo and a topic of fascination in American popular culture. Nuclear weapons and Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) have been portrayed in many different ways in the media and in popular culture. In the 1970s, you had songs about nonproliferation and raps about the different world leaders and their response to the threat of thermonuclear war. We also got representations in film and TV. Each TV show or film handled nuclear weapons differently, but the genre that does the most interesting representations are science fiction (sci-fi) and fantasy. The following paragraphs will discuss two of the most famous sci-fi/fantasy film and TV representations: those in the 2004 reimagined Battlestar Galactica and in the Star Wars films A New Hope (1977) and The Force Awakens (2015). Through looking at these cases, I will discuss how sci-fi/fantasy portrays nuclear weapons, as well as how the audience reacts to seeing mass destruction on screen.
In the Battlestar Galactica episode “The Eye of Jupiter” (season 3 episode 11), we have a situation where a bunch of Viper pilots are on a planet collecting algae to turn into food for the fleet, when the Chief wanders away and happens upon the Temple of Athena. Within this temple is said to be a map to Earth. Soon after this important discovery, the Cylons jump into the planet’s orbit and send a Type 3, a Type 1 and a Type 5 to Galactica to talk to Admiral Adama and President Roslin. The talks don’t go very well, and the Cylons end up sending three raiders to check out the planet, find the way to Earth, and even see the faces of the Final 5 Cylons. This causes Admiral Adama to consider firing long-range nuclear weapons to destroy the planet, killing all the people from Galactica that are already there searching for food. This is a classic dilemma of do we save the few and endanger the many, or do we save the many but endanger (or kill) the few. It’s the same dilemma that President Harry Truman faced in 1945 when he was making the decision on whether or not to drop nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Do we drop bombs, kill a number of Japanese civilians, or do we conduct a land invasion and risk American lives? The portrayal of nuclear weapons in this episode is one of a seemingly good character stuck in a moral dilemma, where he has a choice of how many people he wants to end up killing. Again, it harkens back to World War II, when most people saw Harry Truman as a good person who wanted to end the war quickly rather than risk American lives and drag the war on for potentially even more years. To put it simply, nuclear weapons are a means to an end in this situation.
By contrast, there is a different portrayal in the opening two-parter of the series, also known as the miniseries from 2003. In this opener, the viewer sees cylons attacking the twelve colonies with nuclear weapons in an effort to destroy the human race. In these episodes, it looks like nuclear weapons are only used by the bad guys just because they can, as well as to cause as much death and destruction as possible. There appears to be no thought put into the politics behind using nuclear weapons, as well as the reasoning why the cylons decided to use them. From a strategic point, it makes sense: obliterate your enemies’ means of counterattack and kill as many people as possible. But the viewer still does not see the same level of thought as there was in Eye of Jupiter. This makes the viewer think that they just use them because they are the series’ designated bad guys.
Let’s now compare the two situations. On the one hand, we have bad guys causing mass destruction, and on the other, we have a moral dilemma akin to actual history. What the show seems to be saying is that it depends on who holds the weapons. If a good guy holds nuclear weapons, he won’t use them unless he absolutely has to, and will give much thought to the matter and consider all options on the table. If a bad guy has nuclear weapons, he will use them against his enemies without much thought, to destroy his enemies’ means of counterattack, or simply because he is the bad guy and that’s what bad guys do. This dual portrayal has similarities to the real world, as well. The United States is the “good guy” in the world and does not use nuclear weapons unless they absolutely have to, and if they feel that sacrificing the few to save the many is the better option. By contrast, the US has painted Iran to be a bad guy, who will use their nuclear arsenal to go after Israel, just because they are the bad guy and want to cause as much destruction as possible. So, within this series, we see the fear of nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands, as well as a look into the dilemma that the US faced back in 1945 when President Truman was deciding whether or not to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The fear of nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands is very prevalent in US society. During the Cold War, Americans were terrified of the Soviets launching their attack Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) and destroying much of the US. Today, Americans are still afraid of countries such as Iran and North Korea acquiring those weapons, and the terror and destruction they could potentially unleash.
In the very first Star Wars movie, A New Hope (1977), we see Darth Vader ordering his Stormtroopers to activate the Death Star to blow up the planet Alderaan because Princess Leia refused to hand over the layout plans of the Death Star. Again, the reasoning behind using the Death Star’s giant laser gun is that “we are bad guys, and this is what we do.” It also devastates Leia, so it could have been destroyed in order to guilt her into handing over the Death Star plans. Basically, the Death Star blowing up Alderaan is a wartime technique of demoralization; if the enemy is demoralized, they’re more likely to give up, and then the side that you are fighting on continues to rule, or takes over rule. Now, let’s take a look at how the audiences react to this type and level of violence. In order to obtain this data, I went on YouTube and searched for a clip of the scene where Alderaan is destroyed. I ended up finding one, and it had around 2,000 comments. In order to properly sift through them, I looked at every 10th comment (so 10% of all the comments), to see if said comments were relevant to my discussion. A majority of them were not, but there were clearly two ways of reacting: talking about the power of the Death Star and categorizing the targeting of Alderaan as genocide. Here we have a comment from Nightcreature26, “At 2:08 if you look very closely, you will see Alderaan’s planetary shield being penetrated by the super laser. The shield was meant to protect Alderaan from planetary bombardment. This shows you just how powerful the death star really is.” This comment exemplifies how the audience might feel when they see destruction on screen: for starters, this commenter isn’t talking about lives lost or any of the politics behind using a nuclear weapon, rather he chooses to comment on the Death Star’s power. The fact that a super laser weapon (which is an allegory to a real-life nuclear weapon) can penetrate a defense system is ridiculously powerful, and on the same level as a nuclear weapon.
On the other hand, we do see some audience members reacting to the lives lost. For example, we have another comment from Great Western MGM, “Tarkin was the one who aimed, fired and destroyed an entire planet with a big laser gun (Vader didn’t authorize it, just simply watched on), thus committing genocide in the highest form possible, up until 30 years later General Hux (his spiritual successor) did way worse by destroying multiple planets with Starkiller Base, 20 times bigger than the Death Star.” This comment exemplifies how the audience might be thinking about the level of destruction and even goes as far as to call it a genocide. Although the term genocide is usually used when a certain race or ethnicity is being targeted and killed, this is still the destruction of a particular political ideology, so the term can still be applied. It can also be thought of as the strategic killing of an ideology to demoralize supporters of that ideology and will force Princess Leia to hand over the Death Star plans because her home is now gone.
In looking at the rest of the comments, discussions of death and destruction were extremely rare. The comments used above were merely the two best examples of the sides of how audience members can react. The fact that a lot of commenters choose not to react is very telling of societal norms. In the US, there is a phenomenon known as the nuclear taboo, which was discussed extensively by Nina Tannenwald in her book on the subject. What Tannenwald says is that the nuclear taboo is when there is a widespread fear of using nuclear weapons, as well as discussing the consequences of using them. Tannenwald discusses the fact that the world hasn’t seen the use of a nuclear weapon since 1945, and that there is now a fear that when one country uses nuclear weapons, it can serve as a signal to others that it’s also okay to use their nuclear weapons. If that occurs, then the world is in trouble because then nuclear weapons will become normalized in war, instead of being a rarity. When A New Hope came into theatres in 1977, the Cold War was raging and Americans everywhere were legitimately afraid of the Soviets launching their nuclear weapons towards America, so there was less taboo surrounding the subject then. Today, it’s much more prevalent since the Cold War ended, and no one wants to think about how all nuclear-armed countries in the world combined have enough firepower to destroy the planet. This is also explored in the newest Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens. This time, we see a giant planet-turned-nuclear-weapon-allegory firing a super laser and ultimately destroying three planets in a single shot. One could make the argument that Starkiller Base is an allegory for the entire world’s nuclear weapons stockpile whereas the Death Star was a single weapon. In one scene in The Force Awakens, General Leia and her soldiers are looking at a side-by-side comparison of Starkiller Base and the Death Star, and they comment on the extreme size difference. Not only is Starkiller Base around three times the size of the Death Star, it’s also three times as powerful. It could be argued that director JJ Abrams was making a comment on nuclear power in the modern era. The nuclear taboo still persists because of this reason, and because of the level of power humans wield. This taboo, again, worms its way into our conversations about nuclear weapons, because very few YouTube commentators are discussing it. In short clips of the moment when Starkiller Base is fired, there are very few relevant comments. There is, however, one from VWintermule, which can provide an interesting perspective, “This scene was fantastic. Destruction on that scale seen from the planet’s point of view made for an emotionally disturbing sequence.” This comment makes an excellent point about how the scene is shot from the affected planets’ perspectives; we see a red laser coming, a flash of light, and then nothing. The cinematography is extremely powerful and evocative. However, the rest of the comments simply made the obvious connection between the First Order and Nazi Germany, among other things. To sum it all up, people are not talking about the usage of nuclear weapons, which is evidence of the nuclear taboo.
In conclusion, we see that sci-fi/fantasy is usually a product of their time when it comes to representations of nuclear weapons and WMDs. In Battlestar Galactica, we see the portrayal of both the moral dilemmas of using nuclear weapons, and also a depiction of what happens when the “good guys” have nuclear weapons versus what happens when the “bad guys” have that level of power. In the Star Wars franchise, we take a deeper look into what happens when “bad guys” have nuclear weapons. In looking at the comments sections on YouTube for videos of scenes of destruction in Star Wars, we see the nuclear taboo at work. Not very many people are talking about this, and when they do talk about it, it’s not very in-depth. No one really thinks about the consequences of portraying nuclear weapons in a certain way, or what it tells us about the society we live in. The fact that not very many people talk about it tells the viewer that we have been conditioned not to talk about it, because of the Cold War paranoia, and because of the fear of what happens when “bad guys” do obtain nuclear weapons. To sum it all up, sci-fi/fantasy provides a unique look at nuclear weapons, the consequences of their use, and the potential repercussions of who has them to begin with.