Dir. Mark Cousins | UK | 2015 | 69 mins
Produced to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Mark Cousins’ Atomic: Living In Dread and Promise offers a powerful, visceral investigation of both the positive and negative ramifications of life in the nuclear age. An experimental essay film assembled solely using footage that Cousins has excavated from the British Film Institute, NASA and CERN archives, the film eschews narration for a brooding original score by Scottish post-rocker’s Mogwai.
At its core, Atomic shrewdly unpacks the implicit paradox that lies within its subtitle: ‘Living in Dread and Promise’. Never taking the easy route, this brave documentary explores not only the devastation wrought by nuclear power; showcasing footage of protest marches, Cold-War instructional safety videos and the disasters of Chernobyl and Fukishima, but also asks the viewer to consider the myriad benefits of living in an atomic age; where applications of nuclear energy like X-Rays and MRI scans help to vastly improve countless human lives.
While Cousin’s trademark narration may be absent, his authorial voice still shines through luminously in this post-modern montage that combines artful repetitions of material, poetic juxtaposition and arresting visuals of horrific beauty. Offering a refreshing alternative to the more prescriptive documentaries that saturate our screens today, Atomic recalls the documentaries of Adam Cutis (The Century of the Self) and the classic city symphonies of yesteryear, particularly Dziga Virtov’s The Man With a Movie Camera. As in these films, Cousins treats the viewer with the ultimate respect, never patronising or too quick to offer easy answers to questions as highly complex as those regarding nuclear energy. Atomic is an impressionistic kaleidoscope of a film, a sensory experience at once dream-like and nightmarish, that will undoubtedly move you to the core.