Nothing goes better with popcorn than plutonium, except possibly uranium. The inherent danger of nuclear weaponry has given it a central place in film history. Nuclear weapons mean drama, high stakes, and big explosions that any audience can understand immediately. It's a well-mined area for Hollywood and international filmmakers over the last 75 years.
Here's a dozen movies that are either directly about nuclear war or use a nuclear threat as a plot device. We've listed realism scores and entertainment scores on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the most realistic and most entertaining. Movies are listed alphabetically.
It gets better, folks. We promise. The idea of an American bomber pilot going rogue and stealing a nuclear weapon is unlikely. But the idea of an American nuclear weapon going unaccounted for after being involved in a crash is something that has happened.
It's not the best nuclear missile submarine movie, but it'll do. Viggo Mortensen, James Gandolfini, and Steve Zahn all have supporting roles in this Denzel Washington/Gene Hackman showdown, making it worth your time.
The Day After
This made-for-TV movie in 1983 so panicked Ronald Reagan, according to lore, that it changed his outlook on nuclear weapons. It's not a fun movie by any means, but was important for the impact it had on the American public in its time.
Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Some realism, some absurdism, but still one of the most important films in history. It holds up remarkably well, though it certainly wouldn't be considered an action movie.
The updated edition in 2000 is also worth viewing. This can almost be seen as the more serious version of Strangelove, produced at about the same time and with a very similar presence.
The Godzilla monster and the kaiju phenomenon was born out of Japanese fear of nuclear weapons in the postwar period. Godzilla's origin story is that its growth was stunted by US weapons testing in the Pacific, and it came to attack Japan. It's a fascinating premise to emerge from the only nation to suffer a nuclear attack.
The Hunt for Red October
The idea of a Soviet submarine commander turning over a brand-new Typhoon is far-fetched, but large pieces of this movie are plausible enough to cover up that fact. The Soviets try to convince the Americans that their rogue captain is intent on starting a nuclear war, while the Americans want to steal the high-tech submarine.
It's not completely implausible that Russian nuclear warheads in the post-Soviet era might fall into the wrong hands, but the rest of the movie is pretty light on plot. If you want to revisit George Clooney's "ER" era without watching re-runs, this is a decent option.
Planet of the Apes
It isn't until the final scene of the original 1968 movie that you realize what has happened, and isn't until the second movie (Beneath the Plant of the Apes) that a nuclear weapon makes an appearance. We'll leave the rest of this one in the dark to avoid spoilers if you aren't familiar with the premise.
The Sum of All Fears
This movie, about fascist terrorists setting off a nuclear bomb at the Super Bowl, finished filming in summer 2001 but wasn't released until 2002. Its timeliness, in the run-up to the war on Iraq, is worth remembering as context if you view it. It's a weaker entry in the Jack Ryan universe but still decent.
Don't forget that the Terminator universe isn't just about humans vs. machines, but about self-aware machines using nuclear weapons to attempt to wipe out the human race. It's not the only film to explore the dangers of technology and nuclear weapons, but it's maybe the most iconic.
Don't confuse Hollywood with history, but this movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis is largely historically accurate. It's a strong cast, and compelling story. This is worth your time if you haven't seen it yet.
A young Matthew Broderick (co-starring Ally Sheedy before her John Hughes turn) hacks into the NORAD computer system to play a game of "Global Thermonuclear War," and in doing so accidentally sets off a countdown to Armageddon. It's more fun than it sounds, and it's currently free on YouTube. Like "The Day After," it also came out in 1983, and like "The Day After," it reportedly frightened Ronald Reagan into asking his aides how realistic it was.
The World is Not Enough
Plenty of James Bond movies have used nuclear weapons as plot devices. Only one has had the audicity to make Denise Richards into a nuclear engineer. It's a fun Brosnan-era bond movie, but has few distinguishing features.