In “Superman in Exile,” a 1954 episode of the TV series Adventures of Superman, Superman (George Reeves) has a problem. In the course of saving Metropolis from an experiment gone out of control, he’s become irradiated. What the Geiger counter suggests, a flip of the light switch confirms when he begins to glow in the dark. “No, it can’t be!” says one of the scientists he’s just saved. “Your whole body radioactive … forever!” Fortunately, being Superman, radiation affects him differently, but this does mean he’ll have to live away from humans, even his pal Jimmy Olsen and the fair Lois Lane, for the rest of his (presumably long) life. So Superman finds a quaint little cabin in which to brood until, by chance, he discovers that a lightning bolt’s direct hit will cure him of his affliction, allowing him to return to his friends just in time for Jimmy and Lois not to put two and two together about his secret identity. The day is saved!
One of TV’s first depictions of the effects of radiation, “Superman in Exile” stands in stark contrast to one of its latest, the HBO miniseries Chernobyl. In its third episode, “Open Wide, O Earth,” Chernobyl portrays the effects of radiation on a non-Kryptonian body in graphic detail, watching as a first responder loses virtually all resemblance to a human being as his body deteriorates. It’s an almost unthinkably horrific fate, made all the more terrifying by radiation’s invisibility and its ubiquity. Radiation is a force humanity has harnessed, but also one that threatens unspeakable destruction should that harness slip. And that destruction isn’t just theoretical either: Nuclear power entered the world as a destroyer in the form of the atom bomb, but even its more constructive uses have had disasters of their own, from Three Mile Island to Chernobyl to Fukushima. We’ve seen the awful costs of the nuclear age. Now we have to live with them.
From the start, film and television have served as both a warning and a coping mechanism to help us process the invisible terrors of radiation. That Adventures of Superman episode arrives at a happy ending, but only after suggesting radiation’s irreversible effects. Superman might be doomed to a lonely existence away from the world he loves, but others would not be so lucky.
In the years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, sometimes escapism didn’t offer much escape: The 1954 film Gojira (Anglicized, sort of, as Godzilla) uses a rampaging dinosaur as a stand-in for the atomic bomb. Its monster rains terror down on an unsuspecting city while causing destruction on an unfathomable scale, and director Ishirō Honda made the parallels hard to ignore. Beyond the obvious monster-as-bomb parallels, it features stark images of Gojira’s hospitalized victims that echoed those of the bombs’ survivors by then familiar from news footage and described in graphic detail in John Hersey’s Hiroshima.
Godzilla arrived in America, where it was preceded by the similar The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, in a sanitized version that made the connection more oblique. That didn’t stop it from helping to usher in a new wave of giant, often radiation-powered beasts across the globe, from the radioactive octopus of It Came From Beneath the Sea to the Chicago-eating grasshoppers of the MST3K favorite “Beginning of the End.” But even the less distinguished entries in the genre drew from the same fear: that we’d unleashed forces that might end up destroying us.
Elsewhere, movies made more direct acknowledgment of this fear. A graceful, disturbing play of memory, yearning, and regret, the Alain Resnais–directed, Marguerite Duras–scripted 1959 film Hiroshima Mon Amour uses the affair between a Japanese man (Eiji Okada) and a French woman (Emmanuelle Riva) to reflect on the recent past. They connect in the still-scarred city of Hiroshima, where she’s traveled to appear in a movie about peace. She insists she’s seen Hiroshima — its hospitals filled with radiation victims, its museums filled with photographs of bombing victims — while he insists she can’t have seen Hiroshima, that nothing could capture the experience of being there. But her visit captures the experience of many in the years after the bomb: The pictures of destruction, footage of survivors, and accounts of the aftermath made the ever-present threat of a slow death by poisoning even more horrifying than being vaporized in the first round of a nuclear exchange. What’s come before is never really settled. Sometimes it seeps into the groundwater of collective memory, keeping generations up at night with horrors that might again recur.
As another 1959 film illustrates, radiation itself has a collapsing effect, its power making the world seem smaller in the worst way possible. In Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach, adapted from Nevil Shute’s novel of the same name, the nation of Australia waits for the radioactive fallout that’s seemingly wiped out the rest of the globe to reach its shores. Set largely in a Melbourne that’s settled into a kind of resigned funk, the somber film makes catastrophic destruction feel real by portraying its effects on a handful of people, including a U.S. naval commander (Gregory Peck) who finds himself falling for an Australian woman (Ava Gardner) without any way of knowing for sure that his family has died, and a pair of young parents (Anthony Perkins and Donna Anderson).
The film’s characters say a long good-bye not just to their own lives but to humanity itself, and the focus on a few characters living in a country far away from the action makes it all the more effective. Their fate, and Australia’s, has been sealed not by their own choices but by those made by faraway strangers. Though Kramer can’t resist some moralizing in a heavy-handed (if effective) final scene, it plays less as a cautionary tale than an attempt to come to terms with what at times seems an inevitable apocalypse. But at no point does the film sell short the horrors of the radiation poisoning that’s slowly, but inexorably, making its way to Australia’s shores, describing what follows the early symptoms as a fate worse than death. The most chilling scenes belong to Perkins and Anderson, who have to discuss killing themselves, and their infant, rather than suffer the agonizing effects of radiation poisoning. Sometimes an unthinkable act can be a mercy.
Of course, you didn’t have to live through nuclear war to die of radiation poisoning. The introduction of nuclear energy raised the possibility that some combination of human error and corporate greed could seal our fate, letting loose an invisible force that can burn our skin, unleash cancer, or warp our genes. Chernobyl is far from the first to depict the hazards of nuclear power, whether drawing from real life or extrapolating worst-case scenarios. A film made all the more effective by its no-nonsense direction, The China Syndrome features a nuclear power plant in which corner-cutting threatens to take out Los Angeles, with only a whistle-blower (Jack Lemmon) and a pair of journalists (Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas) standing in the way. The nuclear industry dismissed it as irresponsible upon its release in 1979. The Atomic Industrial Forum even sent critics packets of pro-nuclear information in the hope of heading off bad press. Twelve days later, the Three Mile Island accident took place.
Drawing on a real-life case, Mike Nichols’s 1983 film Silkwood casts Meryl Streep as Karen Silkwood, an Oklahoma worker at a plutonium fabrication facility who died under mysterious circumstances shortly before a meeting with a New York Times reporter. Nichols’s commitment to depicting the facility as a high-pressure environment run by those willing to cover up a few errors here and there in order to make a quota is terrifying, almost as terrifying as the film’s revelations about how little we know about what amount of radiation a human body can sustain before suffering irreversible harm. Its famous flesh-scouring showers seem as effective as placebos against an invisible threat that could be poisoning those hired to harvest it, or if Silkwood’s accusations of sending subpar product on to nuclear plants were accurate, could be poised to wipe out whole swaths of North America.
Nothing, however, drove the fear of radiation home quite like the 1983 TV movie The Day After, which landed with the impact of, well, a bomb, when it aired on ABC in the fall of 1983. Set in Kansas City, Missouri, and Lawrence, Kansas, it depicts with chilling plausibilities the escalation of Cold War tensions until a nuclear exchange starts to seem inevitable. Then the inevitable arrives, wiping out much of the population and leaving the survivors to mourn those they’ve lost as they wait to become sick themselves. Written by Edward Hume and directed by Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), the film arrived after weeks of buildup presenting it as an unusual, disturbing, and important TV event. The 2016 episode of The Americans in which virtually everyone seems to be watching didn’t have to exaggerate for effect.
The Day After delivered on that hype in every act, from the increasingly disturbing news reports to the terrifying attack to the disease and chaos that followed, including a chilling speech delivered by Steve Guttenberg’s character explaining the inescapability of death by radiation even in the middle of a field on a sunny day in the middle of what used to be America: “You can’t see it. You can’t feel it. And you can’t taste it. But it’s here. Right now. All around us. It’s going through you like an X-ray. Right into your cells.” No less than Ronald Reagan watched, saying through a spokesperson that his policies were “designed to prevent” such an event. Four years later, he signed the INF treaty.
Fear of radiation poisoning didn’t end with the conclusion of the Cold War — a moment hastened by the Chernobyl disaster — but portrayals of it became less frequent. The Simpsons has made Homer’s nuclear power plant job a dark running gag, though one that’s lost some of the pointedness of the show’s early seasons. (And the less said about Woops!, a short-lived 1992 Fox sitcom about the stereotyped survivors of a nuclear bomb, the better.) Elsewhere, the 2014 reboot of Godzilla drew on the Fukushima meltdowns in its opening sequences, but made the nuclear connection much less central than in the original film.
But if our concern about dying from radiation has grown less pronounced, it hasn’t entirely faded away. Chernobyl’s decision to depict its central catastrophe in exacting detail is part of what makes it so effective, and so disturbing. We see, step-by-step, how the meltdown happened, learn how close it came to being much worse, then watch as those caught up in it die excruciating deaths, knowing that one false move could bring us to the same fate — and that not even Superman could save us.