Continuing with the essay film form for which he has become so revered (see The Story of Film), Mark Cousins’ Atomic – a BBC Storyville film initially made to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima – is an artful, poetic and haunting, archive film based exploration of the ramifications of nuclear energy, both positive and negative.
The film’s subtitle Living in Dread and Promise accurately describes both the emotional and historical avenues that the film travels and it makes a paradoxical and compelling 69 minutes. The film takes on the subject of atomic energy from several angles, beginning with how to prepare for a nuclear attack and moving on to nuclear explosions, medical advancement, power plant meltdowns and space travel. It is cut together in a post-modern montage, which includes repetitions of material, poetic juxtapositions and horrifyingly beautiful visuals.
The film’s poetic essay style is excellently underpinned with an original score by Scottish post-rock band Mogwai, who provide a keyboard and bass laden soundscape filled with sparse drums that crescendos and diminuendos in hypnotic fashion. The music carries the viewer through this unusually avant-garde BBC production, which sits more comfortably alongside the likes of Adam Curtis’ extraordinary iPlayer epic Bitter Lake.
Missing from the film is Mark Cousins’ now iconic voice over narration, which was so compelling in The First Movie (2009) and The Story of Film (2011), yet Atomic is not a personal project in the way that these former films were. That said, Cousins’ voice as a filmmaker comes across, with his keen eye for finding ‘luminance’ in every frame (as he said of making The Story of Film).
In his Telegraph review of the film, Rupert Hawksley declared that the film “an art installation masquerading as television” due to comprehensive, but non-informational construction, which is a valid point. However, what Cousins has achieved here is a film that is both alluring and memorable on a visceral level; it conjures a complex range of emotions. Nuclear power is an issue about which we must both think and feel strongly and Atomic certainly helps us do the latter.