Written by author and playwright Barry Hines, Threads is not a globe-trotting disaster movie in the vein of a Roland Emmerich production. Instead, it remains solely focused on the city of Sheffield in Northern England. Young adults Ruth Beckett (Karen Meagher) and Jimmy Kemp (Reece Dinsdale) discover an unplanned pregnancy and decide to marry, planning for the baby's arrival and dealing with their respective families. Sheffield is also home to strategic military targets, including steel production factories and an R.A.F. base. A conflict arises between the Soviet Union and the United States of America, and, despite attempts to keep things peaceful, it culminates with nuclear blasts that bring an end to civilisation as we know it. Millions are killed across Europe in an instant, while the survivors face an uncertain future of food shortages, a lack of shelter, radiation poisoning, and endless labour.
Threads does not concern itself with the politics behind the war. Instead, it is more about the experiences of innocent civilians who can only helplessly watch the news coverage of the senseless conflict, endure growing government restrictions, and fight for survival after the nuclear blast obliterates virtually everything. The escalation of the situation is highly compelling, with Jackson portraying what could conceivably occur before, during, and after a nuclear conflict. Scenes of panic buying, travel restrictions, and anti-war demonstrations (that are violently shut down by police) look incredibly eerie and uncanny after the pandemic, which is a testament to the veracity of Jackson's exhaustive research. Furthermore, instead of endless money shots of explosions decimating landmarks, Jackson concentrates on the people caught in the nuclear blast, with grotesque and disturbing imagery of bodies being melted, a woman losing control of her bladder, and people helplessly trying to assist one another. Plus, scenes of mass panic and hysteria are genuinely distressing.
Unfortunately, Threads lacks a compelling protagonist to guide us through the horrific events, as this is more of an ensemble piece comprised of various vignettes with a range of characters, some of whom are recurring but none of whom we intimately grow to know. As a result, viewers are kept at arm's length, which is probably the intention as the movie plays out like a documentary, but it is somewhat disappointing nevertheless. The ensemble is gargantuan, and Jackson deliberately chose unknown actors to fill the various roles to heighten the film's impact. Thankfully, there is no single dud performer in sight, with all the actors confidently hitting their marks. This is most commendable in the aftermath of the nuclear blast, with the actors needing to convey the sheer depression and hopelessness of the nuclear winter, as well as radiation sickness and sheer weakness from malnutrition. Jackson convincingly portrays people from all walks of life, with no artificiality or showiness in sight, enhancing the production's laudable realism.
Accomplished on a small budget, Threads was shot on grainy 16mm film stock, which undeniably works in the film's favour. The dreary and unpolished 16mm photography augments the horrors and creates a realistic sense of immediacy that crisp digital cinematography cannot come close to achieving. Jackson intercuts lots of archival material throughout the movie, including shots of military forces, planes, and explosions, solidifying the documentary approach to the subject matter. Additionally, despite the limited budget, the makeup and prosthetics are effective and, at times, difficult to look at. Not all of the special effects stand up to contemporary scrutiny, as the compositing is a little on the dated side when the first bomb hits near Sheffield, but this does not matter in the slightest. Threads does not live and die by its special effects, as it is not about the money shots. The intimate dramatic scenes between characters are the main focus, and Jackson scarcely puts a foot wrong during these sequences.
Anybody seeking a conventionally entertaining disaster or apocalypse movie should steer clear of Threads, as this is not an enjoyable film or even a good-looking one, which is entirely by design. With any hope, this is the closest that any of us will come to experiencing a nuclear winter. Indeed, as the years continue to go by after the blast, life might continue for some of the characters, but it is arguable whether or not life is actually worth living in this sort of post-apocalyptic world. Gut-wrenching and disturbing, Threads is hard to watch and even harder to forget.