Witnesses to the Trinity test, the inaugural atomic bomb experiment in 1945 portrayed in “Oppenheimer,” described the billowing blast in various ways. It was said to resemble a chimney, a parasol, a raspberry and — shades of science fiction — a “convoluting brain.” The physicist Enrico Fermi and others likened the furiously rising cloud in the New Mexico desert to a mushroom, and that became the shape now inextricably associated with nuclear explosions.
The enduring shorthand of the mushroom cloud has taken on different meanings over the decades, reflecting fantasies and fears as it boomed and bloomed across American culture, including, most recently, onscreen in “Oppenheimer” and “Asteroid City.” A multiplicity of meanings is appropriate for a weapon that was partly conceived as a symbolic demonstration in the first place, meant to cow Japan into surrender in World War II.
Once the cloud appeared, it quickly stood in for that watershed moment in history. By the beginning of nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll in 1946 — meant to measure the effects of such blasts on warships — one reporter referred to the mushroom as “the common symbol of the atomic age.” At a reception to celebrate the first round of tests, the commander of the operation, Vice Admiral William H.P. Blandy, even cut a cake shaped like a mushroom blast.
From Armageddon to dessert decoration in a little over a year: The rapid progression captures the wonder-horror duality that the bomb elicited. On the one hand, the looming form fed easily into a military and jingoistic pride. What other instrument of war essentially left a trademark in the sky? On the other, it provoked sheer terror with its vision of godlike destruction funneled straight up to the heavens. The co-pilot of the Enola Gay bomber put it more succinctly: “My God, what have we done?,” words that Oppenheimer echoed with his momentous quotation from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
And yet something so novel and dazzling couldn’t help but make its way into popular culture. If the Bikini test could inspire the name of a swimsuit, then of course the mushroom cloud would be picked up as a titillating marketing gimmick. A few beauty queens were deployed as “Miss Atomic Bomb” and the like, wearing mushroom-shaped headgear or swimwear, part of a general fad for atomic-themed kitsch (as memorably chronicled in the documentary “The Atomic Cafe”). The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce offered calendars with detonation times for watching the mushroom clouds from desert tests. In Wes Anderson’s desert-set “Asteroid City,” characters also observe an atomic test on the horizon, trooping out of a diner to watch with nonchalance.
But a golden era of sci-fi movies in the 1950s ensured that the deadly possibilities of the atomic age were also explored in vivid visual fashion. These mushroom clouds directly addressed new sources of anxiety: the arms race (set off after the Soviets’ 1949 atomic test), the effects of radiation, and the hydrogen bomb and its even bigger boom. Monster and alien movies (and sci-fi book covers) featured the cloud as a modern Pandora’s box, a foolish unleashing of unknown forces.
From early on, it could signify the unthinkable — the erasure of civilization — as in Arch Oboler’s movie “Five” (1951), which opens with explosions and a montage of historical monuments. The cloud could represent the beginning or the end (to echo the title of a 1947 docudrama about Oppenheimer). It might be the prelude to a plot about surviving the aftermath of a nuclear blast, or the doomsday finale to a story that has gone very, very wrong. Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove,” from 1964, falls into the second category, concluding with a montage using footage from explosions (including the Trinity test).
But Kubrick alters our understanding of the mushroom clouds with the ironic usage of Vera Lynn singing “We’ll Meet Again,” originally a British World War II standard. Viewed silently, the explosions might have induced the usual dread, an emotion that in a way also fed back into awe and fear of military prowess. Kubrick’s peerless satire redirects our focus toward those in power, the absurd-sounding game-theory strategies at work, and the self-serving vanities involved — including the image of Slim Pickens riding the bomb, bronco-style, American soldier as cowboy.
All of which undercut the mushroom cloud as totemic image that ends all discussion. It wouldn’t last long: President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 campaign ad “Daisy” distilled the nuclear menace in just under two minutes. This is the cloud as the eternal “or else” of the protecting patriarch. The stakes are too high to ignore, Johnson intones in voice-over, as a girl counts the petals on a flower; the audio segues into a countdown toward an explosion that fills the screen. So, you know, get out and vote!
The horrors of the mushroom cloud approached new levels in the 1980s thanks to realistic depictions of global nuclear war. As tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union reached a fevered pitch during the Reagan administration (as if fulfilling the fears of “no nukes” protesters), “The Day After” (1983) broke television ratings records portraying explosions from incoming missiles and the ensuing graphic suffering in Kansas. In Britain, “Threads” (1984) did much the same, while in Japan, Shohei Imamura’s 1989 “Black Rain” dramatized the Hiroshima bombings anew. These films reconnected the near-cliché of the mushroom cloud with its human context of death, destruction and chaos.
But in the ensuing decades, the mushroom cloud became the ultimate special effect for blockbusters. James Cameron’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991) faithfully replicated the fiery annihilation of a bomb blast, hauntingly explicit but still part of a science-fiction thriller with robots. Three years later, a nuclear explosion was just the icing on the action-adventure cake in Cameron’s “True Lies.” Call it the decadent era of nukes onscreen: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis embrace after the umpteenth thrilling escape, with a warhead’s mushroom cloud for a romantic backdrop.
The entertainment value of disaster briefly lost its appeal in the wake of Sept. 11 (when a number of films were postponed or altered). But atomic devices were useful plot devices with increasing prominence in 2010s blockbusters, deploying the shock of the mushroom cloud whenever useful, as in the jaw-dropping World War II-set opening of “The Wolverine” (2013). When Nagasaki is bombed by the United States, Logan (Hugh Jackman), prisoner of war, shields a Japanese soldier from the blast, thereby rendering the cataclysm as simply part of the X-Men back story.
Will the mushroom cloud reacquire the same foreboding quality it had at the height of the Cold War? David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: The Return” (2017) demonstrated one possibility in its genuinely destabilizing Episode 8, drawing out the full uncanny horror of the atomic age and the possibility of evil. The Trinity test is depicted with a hallucinogenic slow camera movement into the cloud from far away, and in one of the ensuing surreal sequences, a mutant creature hatches on the bomb site years later. Oppenheimer said that his scientists had “known sin,” and Lynch, a voyager into the American unconscious, restores some sense of the atomic blast as locus of a 20th-century original sin.
“Oppenheimer,” directed by Christopher Nolan, presents the latest entry in the iconography of the mushroom cloud with its chronicle of the Manhattan Project’s explosive results. We do see the traditional rising plume, but at a certain point, this turns into an IMAX-size wall of flame, blotting out the landscape. It’s a fearsome sight, yet the reaction shots of the observers are just as important. Cillian Murphy’s title character — who is more or less haunted by subatomic particles even in his dreams as a student years earlier — looks briefly disarmed or stricken by the infernal sight of the blast. We hear the famous words from the Bhagavad Gita, but in Nolan’s telling, they’ve been previously uttered in a wildly different context that suggests the atomic bomb as the ultimate psychosexual release.
It’s a depiction that manages to fulfill and tweak expectations at the same time. Nolan returns the nuclear explosion from the realm of symbolism to a primal zone of fears and urges — a cataclysm created by other human beings like us.