Humanity, it would seem, is intent on flushing this planet of its own species. Set aside the highly organized, methodical desecration of the Earth’s natural resources via deforestation, fracking, and the unchecked emissions accelerating global warming, and there’s still the matter of person-to-person extermination. Humankind has gotten really, really good at killing one another — too good, in fact, following the advent of the atomic bomb in the ’40s and the United States’ decision to cross a line that could never be uncrossed. The military physicists of the Manhattan Project kicked open Pandora’s box when they engineered the earliest nuclear weapons. They set off an arms race that continues still today, as nations amass arsenals capable of reducing the populace of the planet to dust, with only the tenuous principle of mutually assured destruction standing between us and total annihilation.
The prevailing sentiment of Tribeca Film Festival closer the bomb, in short: We’re all going straight to hell in a hand-basket unless someone takes major steps to scale back the nuclear program in militarized nations. But while “nukes = no good” doesn’t exactly qualify as a groundbreaking stance on the issue, the unique multimedia experience’s avant-garde approach to depicting this impending apocalypse conveys the urgency of the situation like no other plea for pacifism. To put the fear of the new hydrogen gods in their audience, creators Smriti Keshari and Eric Schlosser saw no better course than to place them inside the end of the world.
the bomb took over the humongous Grand Ballroom at New York’s Gotham Hall on Saturday night, converting the plush event space into an immersive art installation equal parts experimental documentary and concert. the bomb is a 55-minute free-form documentary about the loss of global innocence that accompanied the first bombings, the culture of impotent paranoia that sprang up in their wake, and the absolute necessity of disarming nuclear stockpiles worldwide. The film, which played simultaneously on eight towering screens encircling the periphery of the room, was only one part of the presentation, however. Post-rock/electronica outfit The Acid had set up shop on a circular platform in the center of the room rigged up with synthesizers, drum machines and keyboards, providing a soundtrack that amplified the shattering emotional underpinnings of the subject matter. Their mere presence in the room adds about as much as their soundtrack, incidentally; the threat of a nuclear holocaust isn’t a frightening concept in the bomb, it’s an immediate and present danger.
The presentation begins with news footage from the petrifying, inhumanly organized marches in North Korea, with the Acid’s driving four-on-the-floor house beats pounding out a militaristic accompaniment. In its first minutes, the bomb threatens to undercut the gravity of its own message simply by being a danceable show — nobody’s worrying about disarmament if they’re bobbing their head and locking into a groove. But as the video component progresses past some animated collages (from frequent Radiohead collaborator Stanley Donwood) detailing the creation of the weapons that would devastate Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it finds the emotional impact it’s searching for. The most disturbing, stomach-churning scenes draw on Cold War-era bomb preparedness film strips, where a friendly cartoon turtle teaches grateful children that crouching beneath furniture will prevent the shockwave from dissolving their organs and flaying the flesh from their bones. The absurdity of these drills becomes cruelly apparent as children repeatedly hit the deck in parks, on school buses, in church. When the bombs fall, assuming the fetal position won’t save anyone. By that point, it will be far too late.
Scarier than any horror picture released in the past calendar year, the bomb renders a hot-button controversy with terrible beauty and haunting audiovisual novelty. The presentation eradicates apathy, leaving a trail of trembling believers wherever it might travel, like An Inconvenient Truth as watched through the cracks in your fingers during hour three of a 25-i trip. (After concluding their run at Tribeca, The Acid and the film’s creators will take their hallucinatory prophecy of a manmade armageddon on the road to San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Berlin, Paris, Sydney, Boston and Santa Fe over the course of the coming year.)
Robert Oppenheimer, one of the fathers of the atomic bomb, has claimed that witnessing the earliest tests reminded him of a passage from the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” Legend also has it that Oppenheimer’s colleague Kenneth Bainbridge was present at the first Trinity tests, and turned to his contemporaries with a decidedly more candid soundbite after the bomb went off: “Now we are all sons of bitches.” the bomb splits the difference between mystical koan and nihilist declaration of imminent doom, drawing equally from expressionist art and 1950s jingles for a singular pastiche. The closing sequences offer an ember of comfort through a potent anti-war image lifted straight from Slaughterhouse-Five, in which nuclear explosions play in reverse and return to the bombs from whence they came, never to hurt anyone again. After creating an unforgettable simulation of the end of days, it’s a deeply reassuring sight to see the bombs un-detonated, un-dropped, un-armed. There’s still time. We’ve still got a chance.