Is the movie “Reservoir Dogs” an allegory on nuclear war?

“Reservoir Dogs” was Quentin Tarantino’s (bio here) first film, released in 1992, and typifies his film work.

On its face, it’s a crime noir movie about jewel thieves who come into conflict with the police and each other. Its explicit portrayals of violence grossed out audiences, and some moviegoers walked out of theaters. The plot climax is a Mexican standoff in which — spoiler alert — everybody dies.

Tarantino, who wrote the script, isn’t a political activist nor known for being outspoken on issues. This movie was made on a shoestring, and his goals in making it appear to have been to establish himself as a filmmaker and earn a few bucks.

But given the storyline, he probably couldn’t have prevented it from becoming an allegory even if he’d tried.

An allegory for all-out nuclear war.

Ever since humanity acquired means of self-destruction, the universally adopted strategy for avoiding that outcome has been M.A.D. (a pithy and cogent acronym for “mutually assured destruction”). As there’s no way to defend against incoming ICBMs, strategy focuses on deterrence, and every nuclear nation’s defense is based on being able to retaliate.

Against whom? The attacker, of course. But it doesn’t necessarily stop there, and that’s where things get complicated and dicey.

For most of the nuclear age, America’s SIOP (acronym for “single integrated operational plan,” our nuclear war-fighting strategy, details here) called for massive retaliation against both Russia and China if either of them attacked the United States.

The rationale behind this crazy idea was to leave no adversary intact enough to dominate the post-apocalypse world. (In the World War 3-themed novel “2034,” available here, India emerges as the dominant superpower after a limited nuclear war between the U.S. and China, in which both countries lose a few cities, and their governments are toppled.) And as crazy as that sounds, it was our actual strategy for decades.

Nobody knows what would happen if an actual nuclear war broke out. Would it be limited, or all-out? Would there be survivors? A whole genre of Hollywood post-apocalyptic films has tried to imagine life after a nuclear war. The 1983 TV drama “The Day After” (details here) posits the world would be rendered too uninhabitable for there to be any ultimate survivors.

The fact is, we don’t know.

The world is in a Mexican standoff right now. The popular belief, fostered and promoted in media, movies, and books, is that nuclear war leaves no one standing. That’s the allegory of “Reservoir Dogs.”

The movie’s climax can be interpreted as a making statement about humanity’s capacity and vulnerability for self-destruction. It reminds that the nuclear standoff isn’t a bluff, and if anyone calls the bluff, we’re all dead.

There are very smart people who spend their professional lives thinking about nuclear war. They’ve tried to find a way to prevent this outcome, should deterrence fail and somebody initiates a nuclear war. They work with ideas like tit-for-tat, gradual escalation, and proportional retaliation. But even if every country adopts those strategies, that doesn’t guarantee that a nuclear war wouldn’t keep escalating to mutual destruction.

Some people who think about this are fatalistic. (Others are fatalistic about climate change.) The real allegory of “Reservoir Dogs,” they might argue, is that we’re doomed. (The author of the book “10 Billion,” about population and climate change, available here, doesn’t believe we’ll save ourselves, and concludes by saying, “We’re fucked.”) In other words, we’re all reservoir dogs.

That remains to be seen. So far, we haven’t killed ourselves and each other. Take a deep breath, cross your fingers, and have more faith in humanity than history justifies so far. Because what other choice is there?

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