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The terror of waiting for a nuclear strike, by those who experienced it

‘On The Morning You Wake,’ a new VR film for Oculus Quest 2, puts a spotlight on the terrifying realities of nuclear war.

The terror of waiting for a nuclear strike, by those who experienced it
[Image: Archer’s Mark]

For much of the world, the growing fears of a nuclear attack are something new—or, in some cases, something they haven’t felt for a very long time. For the people in Hawaii, it’s all too recent.

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On January 13, 2018, 1.4 million residents throughout the state received an alert on their phones that transformed a sleepy Saturday morning into one of sheer panic: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

Reading about a sudden, unexpected nuclear threat is one thing, but now a group of filmmakers has created On The Morning You Wake (to the End of the World), a virtual reality film for Oculus Quest 2 that does an admirable job of relaying the tension and chaos of those 38 minutes, while also advocating for changes to nuclear policy.

[Image: Archer’s Mark]
It couldn’t be more timely. Global tensions about a nuclear conflict continue to rise since Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in February and put his country’s nuclear weapons on high alert. And while nuclear strategists insist that the odds of the situation escalating to one that would lead to such a disastrous scenario are remote, world leaders have acknowledged that the prospect is within the realm of possibility for the first time in a long time.

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On the Morning You Wake isn’t what you expect. It’s a film that relies chiefly on spoken words that are augmented by visuals. It’s a choreographed blend of particle animations and life-size hologram-like images of real people. It’s a narrative and an activist tool. And it’s a work that puts you at the center of a crisis, deftly pivoting you to the heart of a possible solution.

“The realities of nuclear war can feel incredibly abstract, something the majority of people have a very hard time imagining,” says producer Mike Brett, part of the documentary’s creative team and cofounder of Archer’s Mark, the video production service that worked on the film. “And it’s certainly something that they struggle to imagine happening to them. Often, it’s seen as something that is a problem in another part of the globe, or within another community. So as creators, we hoped that by placing users at the center of that experience and allowing them to feel that reality, we might help them understand the magnitude and urgency of the situation. As our cowriter Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio has said many times recently, ‘This experience is meant to make you feel uncomfortable.'”

It succeeds. Whether it’s watching from below, as parents send their children into sewers in hopes of protecting them—or hearing a Hiroshima survivor discuss what it was like to live through August 6, 1945, only to face the possibility of experiencing it again, 73 years later—it’s hard not to be affected. And while it’s largely a passive (albeit, 360-degree) experience, brief, unexpected moments of interactivity make it more compelling; a testament to the VR medium.

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The final third of the film, which is more activism focused, isn’t without chills, either—especially when the dispatcher who sent the false missile alert to the island addresses the incident and his feelings about the panic he caused that day.

Mike Brett [Photo: Archer’s Mark]
The jarring moments not only convey the helplessness the citizens of Hawaii felt, but they also can stir a sense of outrage, especially when the viewer contemplates their own helplessness in the current situation. And that’s when the call to action comes in.

“A lot of people fail to engage with the nuclear issue because they feel overwhelmed by the scale of the undertaking, or powerless as an individual to have any impact on the big decisions,” says Brett. “And so as much as we hoped to shake users into action by making them feel somewhat uncomfortable, we also felt it was vital to spend the final act underlining the message that we do in fact have the tools to lift the nuclear shadow, empowering them to take action and hopefully creating a sense of community.”

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Groups like the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) are leading the charge to change the thinking of nuclear powers. And the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which became international law in January 2021, bans the use, threat of use, and development/possession of nuclear weapons (though Russia, the U.S., and other nuclear states have yet to join the treaty).

[Image: Archer’s Mark]
But can advocacy work in an environment in which rulers like Putin dangle the threat of nuclear engagement, and extremists are willing to do just about anything to further their cause? Ray Acheson, director of Critical Will, the disarmament program of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and a steering-group member of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), believes it can.

“Change comes from ordinary people demanding better from our governments and each other,” says Acheson. “Even if it seems impossible, that is when it’s most important to push. Otherwise, we remain silent in the face of our possible extinction at the hands of a few so-called leaders.”

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About the author

Chris Morris is a veteran journalist with more than 30 years of experience. Learn more at chrismorrisjournalist.com.

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