Our Favorite Gas Masks in Movies: 5 Great (and Not So Great) Examples

Our Favorite Gas Masks in Movies: 5 Great (and Not So Great) Examples

by Matt Collins

Gas masks are ubiquitous in American cinema.

They’re used as a costume on characters ranging from SWAT team members to bank robbers, axe murderers, and more.

And they make the perfect dramatic addition to a costume. The mere sight of someone wearing a gas mask is enough to provoke a reaction in most viewers. Gas masks in movies can make a villain look imposing, alienating, or downright inhuman.

Of course, just because gas masks are a familiar sight in movies doesn’t mean they’re being portrayed accurately. Michael Bay’s The Rock has become notorious for its fantastical portrayal of VX gas. And when it comes to personal protective equipment (PPE) protecting you from these kinds of threats, plenty of movies make the same mistake.

(Image courtesy of The Guardian)

The most common gas mask blunder in modern movies comes after our hero makes their way to safety. They’ve already navigated the toxic environment. And then they go home only to rip their mask off before decontaminating their gear. In reality, if you don’t thoroughly decontaminate upon arriving home, you’d be exposing yourself (and others) to the threats your gear just saved you from.

There are plenty of other deadly sins regarding the depiction of gas masks on the big screen. But instead of zeroing in on the bad examples, we instead focus on the outstanding successes… the mega-blockbusters that showed PPE equipment working as it should.

Oh, and we also included one stinker in there–for good measure.

Once we’re done looking at the fun stuff, we’ll pick a winner—with the best PPE/Gas Mask Gear shown in any of these movies.

Let’s get started…

Table of Contents

  • 01

    Movie #1: Terminator 2

  • 02

    Movie #2: Tenet

  • 03

    Movie #3: Contagion

  • 04

    Movie #4: The King’s Man

  • 05

    Movie #5: Chernobyl

  • 06

    Honorable Mentions: 10 Cloverfield Lane gets the “MacGyver Award”

  • 07

    Our Favorite Movie Gas Mask: The CM-6M from Tenet

  • 08

    What are YOUR Favorite Gas Masks in Movies?

Movie #1: Terminator 2

It’s arguably the most perfect action movie of all time.

The movie features Arnold Schwarzenegger in his acting prime, reprising his role as the infamous T-800 Terminator, along with jacked Linda Hamilton and many outstanding performances from folks like Robert Patrick and Edward Furlong. It’s wall-to-wall action with some of the first decent CGI effects and James Cameron (director of Titanic and Avatar in the directing chair).

Released in 1991, Terminator 2 came to us at the peak of action movie mania. And at the time, most of those films weren’t especially bothered with the accurate depiction of firearms and gear (looking at you, Commando). Instead, it was all about adrenaline, slow motion, and great camera shots. So our hero might grab a mac-10 submachine gun and rip hundreds of shots without once appearing to reload. The audience didn’t complain!

But James Cameron has always been built differently. His action scenes have always come with depth and consideration—finding tension in the tiny, realistic details that make any thrilling moment.

And in Terminator 2, that moment comes at the very climax of the movie.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 has just used a foot-mobile minigun to wound (not kill) dozens of cops, blasting their cruisers to pieces and burning through thousands of rounds of 7.62x51mm ammo. He takes John and Sarah Conner to an elevator, hoping to escape the building after an entire floor has exploded.

In the lobby, they’re greeted by a SWAT team decked out in gas masks and body armor. As gas rolls into the elevator, John and Sarah trade breaths through a shared respirator while the T-800 steps out to deal with the cops. He fires a few shots to immobilize the cops before hitting the last few with tear gas grenades.

Then, in one of the coolest shots in action history, Schwarzenegger softly asks a cop to “hold this” and hands him the grenade launcher before pulling the poor man’s mask off.

RATING: 9/10 Gas Masks

PROS: James Cameron takes special care with his subject matter. From lever action shotguns to Harley Davidsons, his dedication to realism shines through in Terminator 2. Down to filming actual motorcycle jumps and blowing up entire office buildings in Central Florida just to get the shot he wanted.

As a result, scenes like this one are perfect—even if they came years before anyone cared about realism in their action movies.

The movie’s depiction of tear gas or CS gas as an agent that incapacitates individuals quickly is relatively accurate. The type of weapons and respirators they’re using and the fact that the police officers aren’t really trying to shoulder their rifles while wearing panoramic visors … it’s all accurate. Much like the Army’s CBRN combat training, their weapons are used more as an area control tool than for pinpoint accuracy.

CONS: It’s hard to criticize a masterpiece like this, but there’s no reason John and Sarah Conner should’ve been sharing masks. Lachrymatory agents work on the soft tissue of your face even if you’re not inhaling. So you might take a deep breath off that respirator, but the moment you pull the mask away from your face, the tear gas will work on the tissue inside your nose. They’d likely both end up coughing and hacking in a real-world situation. But that’s a minor criticism.

Another interesting consideration in the movie is when our three heroes retreat to an ore refinery/processing plant. Having already been exposed to a strong dose of tear gas, they’d still carry the residue on their clothes and skin. Exposing that residue to the extreme heat and steam of the refinery could essentially re-sublimate the gas. This happens more often than you might expect—especially when someone takes a shower after being exposed to tear gas at a riot or protest.

Movie #2: Tenet

We first heard about this movie at MIRA Safety when famed director Christopher Nolan’s office contacted Roman Zrazhevskiy (MIRA Safety’s founder) to ask for 100 CM-6M and CM-7M gas masks. Roman shipped the masks immediately, and now you can see MIRA Safety gear every time this movie is onscreen.

Tenet is a complicated movie, even by Christopher Nolan’s standards. It features a new technology that allows users to travel backward in time. That technology propels the story leading up to a potentially devastating future—and it lays the groundwork for the film’s most exhilarating action sequences.

Our nameless hero begins his journey with a raid on an opera house before having his death faked and joining the ranks of an elusive agency known only as “Tenet.” With the help of his handler Neil, he begins chasing a man named Sator, who’s seeking the nine pieces of the Algorithm—a device that would erase the past. I know, just go with it.

The film culminates with a massive raid on the enemy’s stronghold, utilizing a “temporal pincer movement” involving different commandos traveling both forward and backward through time. To safely travel backward through time, characters must breathe from a special air reserve through a respirator.

RATING: 10/10 Gas Masks

PROS: We’re a bit biased due to Nolan’s outstanding choice of gas masks (always shop MIRA Safety, folks). But it’s also hard to criticize his implementation of gas masks in relation to an utterly fantastical technology.

In the context of the film, respirators are a visual cue to show the audience when someone is traveling backward in time. They’re also shown in the everyday context of being worn by SWAT teams and armed commandoes. On more than one occasion, this is used to disguise a familiar character who may be traveling back in time through the movie. So Nolan makes the most out of gas masks as a dramatic device in Tenet.

In terms of practical use, this is still a great depiction. You don’t have actors ripping off masks so that you can see their million-dollar faces. And in the final battle, you can see that the soldiers traveling backward through time are using hoses (feeding from their onboard air supply), while those traveling forward through time are breathing filtered environmental air through what appear to be particle filters.

CONS: Only tiny details. Instead of particle filters, those commandoes at the end may have been better suited with something like an NBC-77 SOF in case their enemy decided to deploy gas or chemical warfare agents. They communicated while wearing gas masks without apparent Voice Projection Units (VPUs) or microphones. Outstanding action movie implementation.

Movie #3: Contagion

Contagion reads like a documentary of the COVID-19 Outbreak and subsequent shutdown—only it came out nearly a decade before the pandemic became a reality.

The film documents how an East Asian virus is transmitted through fomites (surfaces) and respiratory droplets to an American traveler. That traveler brings the virus back to the United States, multiplying and spreading. Emergency medical facilities are erected, and the world soon faces an out-of-control biological threat.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh and featuring an understated cast of Hollywood’s top character actors, Contagion depicts its subject matter with almost obsessive levels of detail. From the types of personal protective equipment (PPE) used to handle the plague to the bureaucratic roadblocks in the government Centers for Disease Control (CDC)—it would all soon become very real.

Contagion is also unique for displaying the full spectrum of modern respirators and PPE, from standard N95 and P100 maks to gas masks and full-body Level A suits with self-contained breathing apparatus. From laboratory scientists working with concentrated forms of the virus to frontline medical workers using whatever PPE they have on hand, it’s all there.

There’s even a scene with Jude Law wearing a positive pressure suit, not unlike MIRA Safety’s CM-3M. This movie has it all!

RATING: 10/10 Gas Masks

PROS: It’s difficult to criticize a film like this one, especially when it’s apparent that Soderbergh consulted with experts before ever firing up the camera. Containment protocol is extensively documented, and it’s clear that they’ve done their research here.

CONS: I could’ve done with another scene of Jude Law in that spacesuit.

(Image courtesy of Sandy Batchelor)

Movie #4: The King’s Man

While we love to talk about the best of the best, including one stinker in every list is obligatory. And when it comes to the depiction of gas masks in movies—we’ll go with 2021’s spy action thriller, The King’s Man.

After a fantastic first and even more thrilling second installment, the Kingsman series was off to the races—until it hit a brick wall with this 2021 installment. Too clever by half, this one may as well have been a World War One-inspired musical, down to a host of cartoonishly overdone caricatures and plenty of iffy special effects. It seriously would’ve made more sense if they broke out into song now and then.

At some point in the film’s plodding storyline, young Conrad finds his way onto No Man’s Land during World War One with the Black Watch. He’s confronted by a team of German commandoes decked out with capes and gas masks. And in a moment of pure movie bravado, they all drop their firearms and engage in a medieval melee battle. Hammers, axes, fists, and boots decide the next few minutes of thrilling combat.

RATING: 1/10 Gas Masks

PROS: This kind of imagery:

(Image courtesy of Revolver)

CONS: Literally everything else.

Once again, this movie was a bit of a farce. A fun one but a bit over the top nonetheless.

With this scene, there’s simply no reason for those Germans to wear gas masks. The gas masks are period-appropriate, but unless a friendly attack were imminent, they wouldn’t be going into No Man’s Land with their masks on. Especially when this kind of close-quarters combat would put them at a disadvantage since those old masks limited their field of vision.

I don’t want to wail on this scene too hard because it serves the ludicrous tone of the rest of the film, and it’s not the worst part of the movie either. But it’s the perfect example of Hollywood using gas masks to serve a plot purpose, even if that could give viewers the wrong idea about the gear they see onscreen.

Also, I don’t know about you, but I’m never putting down my rifle. I don’t care if I’m in a Michael Jackson music video. If the enemy starts calmly putting down their guns, I wait until they’re done and shoot. War is war.

Movie #5: Chernobyl

Our final entry on this list needs no introduction, and it’s not technically a movie.

The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986 was the most devastating nuclear accident in history. Within a split second, an overheated nuclear reactor blew the roof off the building and began spewing radioactive fallout into the atmosphere.

At first, the Soviet government denied that anything had happened. And with fallout beginning to make its way through Europe, the Soviets embarked on one of the most significant cleaning projects in history with the “liquidators of Chernobyl.”

Craig Mazin’s 2019 HBO miniseries of the same name is a faithful recreation of the events leading up to and immediately following that disaster. Mazin substantially changed the historical account (including some dramatizations and characters). But on the whole, the series is still a relatively accurate depiction of what happened in 1986.

We’ve covered both the disaster and the miniseries in recent articles. From the accurate depiction of potassium iodide capsules to the rudimentary nature of early detection gear and poor PPE, this show touches on many little details that made the tragedy at Chernobyl so terrible.

RATING: 10/10 Gas Masks

PROS: Chernobyl excels in depicting the lack of appropriate preparation and gear not only in the immediate aftermath of the explosion—when firefighters were struggling to put out the blaze—but also in the months that followed, as liquidators risked deadly exposure to ensure the site was made safe for future generations. In one particularly harrowing scene, liquidators rush out onto a roof to shovel irradiated material off the edge, dashing back in seconds before receiving a potentially fatal radiation dose.

CONS: This series is listed under “Tragedy” on the International Movie Database, so it doesn’t suit to pick apart any flaws or details (though they’re hard to find, if any).

Honorable Mentions: 10 Cloverfield Lane gets the “MacGyver Award”

One of the wildest gas mask scenes in recent years involves Mary Elizabeth Winstead fashioning a gas mask out of household items in 10 Cloverfield Lane. Using 2-liter bottles, cut-up soda cans, and good old duct tape, she can cobble together a respirator to protect her from inhaling alien gases. (spoiler alert, I guess).

There are even National Geographic videos about how to build homemade gas masks like the one in the movie. But don’t do that. Trust us. Never, ever ever, ever do that. Never ever trust a homemade gas mask.

The Tactical Air-Purifying Respirator is a practical alternative you can carry anywhere–at any time. There’s no excuse not to have professional-grade respiratory protection at hand.

None of those makeshift respirators do anything a wet t-shirt can’t do. And they make you look like a goofball, to boot!

I’d also like to give an honorable mention to any movie or television show about the Iraq War, including everything from Jarhead with Jake Gyllenhaal to one of the greatest miniseries of all time, Generation Kill. As a rule, these movies depict the sheer horror of wearing full MOPP gear in hundred-degree weather as you haul ass across the open desert in a Humvee with no air conditioning.

Our third honorable mention goes to The Last of Us. This is another Craig Mazin HBO miniseries based on the famous video game of the same name. The cordyceps spores could be inhaled in the game, so gas masks were crucial for the player to protect Joel. But when it came to the miniseries, experts told Joel that if the spores were airborne, then gas masks wouldn’t even make a difference. As a result, they were left out of the series.

You can read more on that show in Aden Tate’s article HERE.

And finally, the teen dance flick sequel Step Up Revolution also deserves a dishonorable mention for combining gas masks with trendy dubstep music:

At some point, likely, you’d almost instead be gassed.

Our Favorite Movie Gas Mask: The CM-6M from Tenet

Once again, we’re biased here.

But we have to give Tenet the win between the excellent use of gas masks to build tension in the film and the fantastic choice of gas masks in using MIRA Safety staples like the CM-6M and CM-7M.

The film shows how flexible MIRA Safety gas masks can be, easily integrating with helmets, plate carriers, tubes, and standard 40mm gas mask filters to easily upgrade any unit’s capabilities.

The CM-6M’s wide panoramic visor preserves 84% of the user’s field of vision, making it a practical choice for most users. It’s compatible with all standard MIRA Safety gas mask upgrades, including microphones, VPUs, MIRAVision spectacle inserts, and the MB-90 PAPR.

It’s easy to overlook these accessories until you realize that 70% of Americans require some vision correction. And since wearing eyeglasses or contact lenses with your gas mask is not practical, the MIRAVision spectacles have become a needed upgrade, likewise for the microphone, which can be your only practical means of communication in the event of a disaster.

The CM-7M is compatible with all those same accessories.

But instead of a panoramic visor like the CM-6M, it features two smaller eyepieces optimized for compatibility with rifle optics and night vision gear. Another key difference is that the CM-7M is available in three sizes—small, medium, and large to suit every family member.

For comparison, the CM-7M retains 71.5% field of vision. So there’s a slight but noticeable reduction, primarily in peripheral vision.

If you’d rather not sacrifice peripheral vision and don’t mind using a gas mask that hasn’t been in a Chris Nolan movie (at least not yet), then the CM-8M is the ideal choice.

This new mask offers the best of both worlds—with a broader field of vision than the CM-6M and a uniquely contoured visor compatible with optics gear like the CM-6M.

MIRA Safety spent years developing this mask as an exclusive offering, and it’s only recently hit the market. It has the same standardized accessory/filter compatibility as our other MIRA Safety masks and 20-year shelf life.

I don’t think it will be long before you see it on the big screen either:

What are YOUR Favorite Gas Masks in Movies?

I know—I’ve left out some of the best gas mask movies.

Like Outbreak, where Dustin Hoffman and Cuba Gooding Jr. race helicopters through forests with a drugged-out monkey in the back seat.

Or Back to the Future, where Marty’s respirator suit is somehow the secret to ensuring his parents procreate (why does no one talk about how bizarre that movie is?).

Or even Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, where Jack Nicholson gasses downtown Gotham with blimps so that he can kidnap Kim Basinger.

I know. And I apologize proactively.

This is an excellent subject, and we’d like to cover it more extensively. So please sound off in the comments or on our social media to tell us about your favorite gas mask movies—and we’ll feature them here, no matter whether they’re rad or bad.