One of the most frighteningly real and, the way things are going, most plausible mega-disasters that might befall society come in the form of EMPs.
Whether they’re astoundingly powerful cosmic phenomena, generated by a high-altitude nuclear detonation or instigated by a specialty EMP weapon, these electromagnetic events have the capability of plunging entire regions, maybe even the world, back to the Stone Age.
If all of our electronics, communication systems, and indeed the very power grid are knocked offline temporarily or permanently, that is going to change everything about the way we prepare and try to survive what comes after.
To help you contemplate the effects of an EMP, and just as importantly, have a little bit of fun while doing it, I’m bringing you a list of nine movies where EMPs play a significant role in the plot. Some of my favorites are on this list, and you’re bound to find a new one or two yourself!
The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
A remake of a classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still centers on a mysterious alien visitor named Klaatu who threatens to wipe out all life on Earth if humanity won’t get its act together.
But, just before the end of a countdown that signals his ultimatum, the mysterious being changes his mind and activates an incredibly powerful EMP generator mounted on his ship.
This EMP affects the entire globe, disabling the swarm of nanobots with which he would have affected Armageddon, but at the same time sending the whole of humanity back to a simpler, pre-industrial age.
Ostensibly a happy, or happier, ending compared to the complete annihilation of all life on earth, it is nonetheless a sobering notion of what could happen if the globe is struck by significantly powerful cosmic phenomena, or if there is a non-nuclear exchange of EMP weapons.
This is a cool film, and I think an underrated gem that holds up really well here nearly two decades on from its release. Keanu Reeves as ever is a great actor, and here he plays an enigmatic and inscrutable villain.
This might be one of the most brainless films on our list, centering as it does on humongous alien beasts invading Earth through underwater portals in the ocean.
It’s a premise that’s been done to death, but what’s amazing is seeing equally humongous fighting robots piloted by a pair of bonded humans tackling the beasts- often literally!
The scale and scope of the action are nothing short of incredible, and this is a film that the whole family is likely to enjoy.
While monsters and robots tearing each other to pieces and smashing whole city blocks around them is the real payoff of the film, there is a point at which a particularly advanced robot, Striker Eureka, falls victim to a biological EMP emitted by one of the biggest monsters fought to date.
Deprived of the heavy hitter on the force, an older machine, Gypsy Danger, has to take down two menacing monsters by itself so Striker can be rebooted for an important mission later.
Red Dawn (2012)
A lukewarm remake of an undisputed what-if Cold War classic, this most recent reenvisioning of Red Dawn capitalizes on very real fears of what might happen if America overextends its military might abroad.
Taking advantage of very few US troops being left at home on the mainland, North Korea sneakily manages a surprise transcontinental invasion of the US after deploying a Russia-supplied EMP device that knocks out our infrastructure.
Now, armchair generals and strategic minds in the audience are probably already going berserk at how implausible that exact scenario is, but what’s not implausible is that these sorts of weapon systems do exist, and the U.S. as a whole is incredibly vulnerable to the disruption of the power grid and other electronic infrastructure.
The film does not hold up nearly as well as its classic progenitor, but it’s definitely worth watching to see what might happen if the worst comes to pass.
The War of the Worlds (2005)
Another remake, another use of EMP technology as a plot point. Pretty peculiar if you ask me! Nonetheless, this Tom Cruise-led epic is exciting and terrifying in equal measure.
When strange, freak electrical storms and lightning strikes start occurring in cities around the United States and the world, no one knows what to make of it. These storms knock out all electricity and electronic technology over a wide area.
Scary enough, but then emerge colossal, alien walking machines referred to as tripods. The tripods, naturally, go on a rampage and fire disintegrating beams of otherworldly alien energy that turn organic matter into ash. Talk about a double whammy!
Not only are we getting invaded by aliens, again, but they use a dirty trick to knock out the technology we need to resist.
A really cool film, and although quite fantastical it is thought-provoking: there is much to consider about how an EMP event might just be the first stage of something even worse to follow. Worth thinking about!
A heist film with an ensemble, an all-star cast, and another enjoyable, rollicking ride of a movie. Here we see a team of criminal specialists brought together to rip off a casino, and they are depending on an implausibly small but incredibly powerful EMP device created by their technical wizard.
They plan to deploy this device in the middle of Las Vegas to temporarily shut down the local infrastructure and, most importantly, the security systems of an otherwise unbreachable vault in order to carry off their heist.
Definitely some movie magic going on with the magnitude of power such a portable EMP could cause, but not by much.
It also begs the question of what kind of particularly savvy or well-funded criminal syndicate or other organization could use such tech to pull off a big payday- and say to hell with anyone else that their efforts affect!
You have to admit; such a device would have lots of advantages for such operations, and would also be unlikely to raise immediate alarm compared to an explosive or direct attack on a power supply!
The Matrix Revolutions
Whether you loved or hated the Matrix movies after the first one, there is no denying that the exploration of technology in the films was ironically interesting: Humans being utterly subjugated by machines, only to be dependent on different machines in their resistance efforts.
The hovercraft fleet that the human resistance uses to move around the ruined, subterranean remains of Earth have very little in the way of defenses against deadly-precise patrols of squid-like Sentinel bots, but they do have an ace in the hole: a powerful EMP generator built into each and every ship.
If they are cornered, or if there is no other way to deal with attacking Sentinels, the captain of any hovercraft could order the EMP deployed. It would fry the machines but also fry the ship, though it would leave the human crew alive. Alive, but stranded in enemy territory with precious little hope of rescue.
Near the climax of the film, a ship uses its EMP to buy time during the final machine assault on the human city. It makes you wonder if our own military will ever be in such a situation that it will be forced to deploy an EMP in an area to knock out machines or robotic threats at the cost of knocking out our own infrastructure.
Escape from LA
An epic, cheesy, and in my opinion seriously underrated Kurt Russell movie that is a worthy follow-up to Escape from New York, the story centers around Snake Plissken being sent into Los Angeles to retrieve the controller for a doomsday EMP device that can plunge the entire world into darkness.
As you might have expected, after many trials and tribulations, Plissken pulls it off with the same panache that he always does, but in a twist and a final F-You to the people who extorted him into doing the job he triggers the device himself!
This knocks out the world’s electricity and all of its electronics, with nary a reaction from Plissken himself. What a dude! The movie ends at this point, but it definitely underscores the stakes when powerful EMP weapon systems are misused.
Probably the best Bond movie from the Pierce Brosnan era, the story of GoldenEye centers around an antagonist who has seized control of satellite-mounted precision EMP weapons that can effectively switch off the electricity, electronics, and associated infrastructure of an entire city at one time and on command.
The villain won’t be using this weapon for any ideological means, of course, but is intent only on carrying off theft and manipulation of financial markets to benefit himself and his organization.
Naturally James Bond, 007, spends the entirety of the movie putting the pieces together and then slowly but surely dismantling the people in his way until he comes within striking distance of the bad guy himself, dealing with him as he always does.
I cannot help but wonder whether such weapons as depicted in this film actually exist, and if they do what they might be used for: how would such tools change the scope of warfare in the world?
If EMPs can be deployed with precision instead of as a wide area, indiscriminate weapon, there is no telling what might happen!
The Day After (1983)
A made-for-TV movie that centers around the instigation and aftermath of a genuine nuclear exchange between Eastern and Western powers after a series of escalations in Europe.
The bottom line is that, after a shooting war erupts in Europe nuclear weapons are deployed by both sides. Their effects, along with the attendant effects of the EMPs they create, are explored in detail.
It is no exaggeration to say that this film, coming out as it did in the middle of the Cold War, very likely played a genuine part in actually ending it.
Then-US President Ronald Reagan saw the film and was gravely disturbed by it, and afterward acted with renewed vigor to end the Cold War peacefully with his counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev.
This is one film that is still just as sobering today, and shockingly it seems that the lessons explored in the film are more relevant than ever with ever-increasing tensions boiling between superpowers in our own era. Despite efforts from various organizations and countries, nuclear weapons continue to cast a deep shadow over the world…
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.