Posted by David Kalat on April 30, 2011
Sci-fi films of the 1950s and 60s tended to envision an apocalyptically awful future. Thank heaven, the world they predicted never came to pass. Nuclear radiation didn’t engender giant monsters; we weren’t conquered by invading armies of space monsters; scientists experimenting with medical technology didn’t turn injured people into monsters; the advancements in computer science haven’t produced a sentient digital monster. . . basically, no monsters of any kind. But there was a film—a low-budget disaster flick from 1957 mostly forgotten today—that had an unusually prescient idea: a massive earthquake so catastrophic that the Earth itself was shifted on its axis.
The thing about THE NIGHT THE WORLD EXPLODED, though, is that now that this very thing has come to pass, we can see that even the most nightmarish vision of sci-fi has fallen far short of real-life horror.
Produced by Sam Katzman and directed by Fred Sears, THE NIGHT THE WORLD EXPLODED begins with the introduction of a thingamajig that can measure the pressure of tectonic plates, to provide an earthquake early-warning system with the predictive reliability of conventional weather forecasts. (This is a clever idea—somebody really ought to make one of these for real.)
There’s just one problem with this spiffy gadget: the first time Dr. David Conway (William Leslie) turns it on, it immediately predicts an imminent, significant quake. It’s awfully hard to convince decision makers to take your brand-new technology seriously when it spits out doomsday scenarios on Day One, without even having had a breaking-in trial run.
Well, sure enough, the ground shakes just as Conway’s Quake-O-Matic 5000 said it would. In fact, the Earth is now rocking from quakes on a nearly constant basis—enough to throw it off its axis by a few degrees.
(By the way–guess how the scientists can tell that the Earth’s axis has changed? Because chandeliers now hang at a noticeable cant to the walls, that’s how!)
The filmmakers were reliant on stock footage for a lot of this material, and had to make do with what footage they could cobble together.
Overall, for a movie about calamitous earthquakes, the film doesn’t talk much about the effects of the quakes. We are told briefly about refugees from damaged areas seeking new homes in other countries, but it’s a brief mention in a movie that otherwise acts as if the damage is purely cosmetic.
This is a complaint I’ve long had with Godzilla movies and similar giant monster flicks. I lived in the suburbs of Washington DC during 9-11 and the extent of chaos and panic unleashed by the damage to just one building was overwhelming, and lasting. In New York, only two buildings fell, and because of that many thousands of people died, wars were undertaken, and national scars remain a decade later. But in Godzilla movies, entire cities are leveled by monster fights, and we are supposed to believe that everyone was evacuated safely, nobody died, and the city was rebuilt in time for the next movie.
By the same token, action movies depict characters experiencing all manner of gunfights, explosions, and high-stress incidents, from which they walk away with no physical trauma or psychological damage. In the real-world, even soldiers who are trained for such events and go in knowing what to expect, emerge with post-traumatic stress.
So, given the fact that moviemakers don’t really seem inclined to think through the consequences of the havoc they portray, I shouldn’t come down too hard on NIGHT’s thoroughly polite quakes. Still. . .
Conway’s assistant, “Hutch,” is also the love interest of the picture—Dr. Laura Hutchinson, played by Kathryn Grant (no, not the former silent comedienne, but an actress with the same name).
This isn’t my own original observation, but rather something Bill Warren picked up on in his book KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES!, but 50s sci-fi is chock-full of women scientists with butch names. Think Dr. Pat Medford in THEM! or “Nick” from THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. Once you start noticing this strange coincidence, you’ll see it everywhere. Why this is so is anyone’s guess.
The best I can figure is that the depiction of strong, independent women was a moving target—once were forceful women’s roles in Pre-Code dramas, but with the enforcement of the Code those roles dried up. Tough dames started showing up in screwball comedies, but by the 1940s the screwball heroine was being defanged. So, you then see strong women—femme fatales—in film noir, but by the 1950s noir was increasingly deracinated. Hard-boiled women then migrated to sci-fi.
Or did they? The “tough” women of 50s sci-fi may be smart, fearless, and adorned with mannish names, but they’re still just in it to find a husband:
I had a physics teacher once whose experience with institutional sexism in the 1960s and 70s had scarred her: she had been one of the top students in her field in college, but found her professors routinely dismissed her on the openly stated assumption that she was only there to find a husband. Why waste their precious time teaching her about subatomic particles and wave equations when she was, thanks to her double X chromosomes, fated to throw all that away? Some professors criticized her in class for selfishly “stealing” her placement in the school away from a man, who would’ve taken it seriously?
Conditioned by her stories, I tend to be fairly sensitive to this kind of thing. The romance in THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD is deftly played, and treats both partners as equals. But in most of these films, and NIGHT THE WORLD EXPLODED is a prime offender, perfunctorily plop an unnecessary romantic plot into the middle of the action, as if it had to be ticked off some checklist of ingredients but nobody involved in the project cared to flesh it out.
“Hutch” and Conway want to discover why there have been a rash of quakes all of a sudden, and to do so they figure they better go as deep into the Earth as possible—to get as close as they can to the source of these tectonic shifts. So, they go to Carlsbad Caverns.
Yup. No foolin’. The deepest point in Carlsbad is about 750 feet down, so as expeditions go, they’re still far off the mark.
Nevertheless, they hit the jackpot. Deep inside the Earth (a whole 750 feet down!) they discover strange rocks—unique minerals! It’s the find of the century! They’ve discovered a new element!
And, because tradition awards the discoverer of a new element with naming rights, Conway reaches deep into his imagination to dub this rock. . . (wait for it) . . . Element 112!
In the real world, the 112th element of the periodic table wasn’t formally discovered and accepted until June 2009, and has been dubbed “Copernicium.” Also, in the real world, the higher numbered elements are exceedingly unstable things that can only be generated artificially, and which expire almost immediately. Props to the makers of NIGHT for depicting Element 112 as an unstable thing, but if new elements came burbling out of the ground like that, the history of 20th century chemistry would have been much less interesting. (If you want to learn more about the process of discovering and identifying elements, I can’t recommend the book THE DISAPPEARING SPOON highly enough.)
In the movie, Element 112 is the culprit behind all the earthquakes. Turns out this stuff interacts with the nitrogen in the air to, uh, increase exponentially in mass and temperature until it explodes violently.
But don’t take my word for it—here’s Dr. Conway, with a peculiar idea of what constitutes a “carefully controlled” experiment:
Just in case his conference of “all the world’s top scientists” aren’t sufficiently impressed with Element 112’s dangerous properties, Conway stages a second demonstration to drive the point home:
Take that, you globe!
So, now they know what to do—douse all the troublesome Element 112 in water to stop the chain reaction it’s having with the air. Easy as that.
Let’s take a reality check. There are brave people in Japan who have risked their lives to try to put a stop to calamitous radioactive chain reactions. Some of died, some have been irreparably irradiated. The true cost of the disaster may not be known for a very long time, if ever.
I’m awfully glad that the worst-case scenarios of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, GODZILLA, or WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE never came close to transpiring. But I’m coming to the harrowing realization that cinema’s idea of a “worst case scenario” isn’t half as nightmarish as what real life can cook up.
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