A weapon so heinous, so vile, yet so human. A testament to the technological development cultivated through centuries of discoveries manifested in a bomb that may someday wipe out its own creator. An apathetic bomb that, in a sense, ended warfare. Imagine the Earth as a bomb, with every major power wielding its detonator, one spark of conflict guarantees mutually-assured destruction. A false peace, a peace built on the suffering of those who have tasted its devilish touch. To die from it immediately is a mercy, for those who survived, only guaranteed suffering followed. The atomic bomb — nuclear warhead. With Hiroshima and Nagasaki as grim examples, we live in a constant precipice of annihilation. Onward, as we march on until the eve of the doomsday clock’s midnight.
Such is the premise for director Callum Wilkins’ Unto Midnight, a short film that is as much as it is an anti-war, denuclearization film as it is a painting of the filmmaker’s own nightmare vision of the future. This documentary is presented through a poignant display of curated archival historical footage, a juxtaposition of the victory for the allies at the cost of the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A deep masculine voice looms in the background (voiced by Peter Jakeson), recounting the harrowing tale of the birth of the atomic bomb to its usage in World War II. The film also begins with Albert Einstein’s warning that World War IV would be fought with sticks and stones, a quote that while historically it is anecdotal and unproven that he said such things verbatim, still resonates with the message of the film.
Soldiers become instruments of war, politicians become monsters, and scientists, gods. While it can be argued that the soldiers have always been instruments of war and politicians have always indeed turned to amoral decisions for the interest of the nations — or themselves — as historically atrocities are committed and the powerful monarchs and general decide the lives of young conscripts and peasants, the advent of the so-called “modern” states in a Western-centric, European-led notion of sovereignty and the proliferation of industrialization and globalization since the start of the 20th century have caused states to engage with international politics in a realist manner. A manner that engages in Realpolitik, a pragmatic view of humanity and decision-making that disregards ethics in favour of practicality; a political end that justifies their means. Unto Midnight epitomizes this in some manner in its juxtaposition and contrast of the plights of the Japanese nuclear victims and the celebration of the end of the war in the United States. It does not, however, tread into the nuances and grey morality, a criticism I have for the film for more than this particular point. For instance, Imperial Japan during World War II was both a victim and a perpetrator, a sufferer of war crimes and also a party who committed them. Such is the complexity of war, the defeat of the Japanese meant the freedom of its colonies, such as Korea and my own country Indonesia. However, it is also true that such a huge loss of life in Hiroshima and Nagasaki cannot ever be justified, especially since it signals the impetus of our march toward the apocalypse. One could argue that this would strengthen the message, for however intense the conflict, such blasphemous destroyers of worlds as the atomic bomb should never have been used, for not only would it impact the innocents, humanity as a whole would forever be irreparably damaged.
Unto Midnight, instead, excels in its personal, humanistic point of view. Indeed, it is a window to the soul and thoughts of Wilkins, the director, and writer. A psychological and spatial distance can be inferred from some of the narration, for what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki is referred to as authentic historical testaments to why it would be terrifying if it happens to ‘us’ —a peaceful country in a time removed from those tragedies. Nonetheless, this spatiotemporal distance and separation from the events are precisely the probable cause of the paranoia. The decision to use archival footage depicts a temporal distance — for it happened in the past — and a spatial distance — as the victims are not of their kin and proximity. A mirror is constructed, and one could see themselves in the melted, disfigured faces of the victims. The black and white archival footage acts like a carbon copy of the present day, the derelict ruins of Hiroshima a shadow of cities standing tall and proud. A nightmare vision is created, a possible future that cannot happen. However, you can also consider thus: that we have lived in constant fear of a nuclear holocaust since the Cold War and now with such happenings as the Russo-Ukrainian War — less than a century has passed, a blip in the grander scheme of history.
The paranoid lens on a potential nuclear holocaust in Unto Midnight— this fully founded fear of everything that we have ever known disappearing and for your life to end in a flash — reminds me of Akira Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear (1955). The Kurosawa film tells the tale of an elderly businessman (played by the brilliant Toshiro Mifune) in constant fear of an imminent nuclear attack. It’s a film with a closer spatiotemporal proximity to the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, set just a decade after the bombing in Japan. This businessman’s fears have led him to consider purchasing land in Brazil and bringing all of his family members with him, much to the dissatisfaction of his children. The film deals with the businessman’s utter disgust for the invention of the atomic bomb, a fear that grips him so strongly that he is willing to throw everything away just to survive an attack. Is he simply a crazy person for having such fear? or is he the only sane human for realizing the truth? such is the message of that film. Unto Midnight echoes this sentiment in the director’s confrontation of their own primal fears and anxieties, a nightmare scenario where everything humans have ever achieved would be reduced to cinders in one fell swoop.
Unto Midnight is an admirable anti-war effort that emphasizes the humanistic aspect of denuclearization, while also acting as a stethoscope to the director’s neurotic fear of a nuclear holocaust. While it does not tread deeper into the historical and philosophical nuances of the events depicted in the short film, it makes up for its exploration into the primal fear of the atomic bomb and the dangers of a civilization lost to time. It’s an important short film that depicts what is possibly the near future, as the doomsday clock ticks closer to armageddon.
You can find information about Unto Midnight here, it will also soon premiere in film festivals in the United Kingdom.