Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Cap'n Howdy's (Back)Log: The Night the World Exploded

 The Night the World Exploded is a bit of an odd bird as movies go. Had a friend not asked me about it out of the blue, I probably wouldn't know it existed. I'm guessing most of you have never heard of it, and it's not surprising necessarily: the film comes from dependable cast and crew members who you probably haven't heard of but have definitely seen before. For example, director Fred F. Sears made movies like Teen Age Crime Wave, Apache Ambush, and Cha-Cha-Boom! - he worked a lot, but if you've seen anything he made, it was probably Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, even if you didn't catch the director's name. He worked reliably and consistently, but perhaps not notably.

 Similarly, stars Kathryn Grant and William Leslie appeared in a few movies you might have heard of: she appeared in Anatomy of a Murder and had an uncredited cameo in Rear Window, and he has a small role in John Ford's The Horse Soldiers. The Night the World Exploded is what would fall into the classic description of "B-Movie": the second film to play in a double bill with a more prestigious picture, and at barely over an hour long, it would fit nicely after some cartoons and short films at a Drive-In. In fact, according to IMDB, it was the "B" picture to legendary Summer Fest flick The Giant Claw.

 Dr. David Conway (Leslie) has been working on a high powered seismograph in order to better predict earthquakes with his colleague Dr. Ellis Morton (Tristram Coffin) and research assistant Laura "Hutch" Hutchinson (Grant). One night the machine gives them readings of a quake of serious magnitude about to hit the west coast, but their warnings fall on deaf ears and calamity ensues. It turns out only to be the first of many massive earthquakes, first in the U.S. but eventually all over the world. When strong seismic activity appears deep in Carlsbad Caverns, Dr. Conway, Hutch, and Dr. Morton head down to find the source and discover a natural phenomenon that threatens the entire world...

 I'm not quite sure what I have more of a problem with in The Night the World Exploded: the "bad science" or the rampant sexism towards Hutch. Early in the film, Dr. Morton tries to talk Hutch out of leaving as Dr. Conway's assistant because she's planning to marry the never seen but often mentioned "Brad." His argument is, I kid you not, that she should wait for Dr. Conway to realize he's in love with her because "why settle for something rather than expect the best?" Mind you, he's not asking her to stay because she's a valuable team member - which is actually why Dr. Conway wants her to stick around - but because eventually she'll be seen as a romantic object by the male lead and that should be good enough for her. It's far from the last time that pervasive sexism is directed at Hutch in the film, but it gives you a good idea how The Night the World Exploded is going to approach women in the scientific field.

 The "bad science," on the other hand, is pretty funny: the cause of the earthquakes as a new element (dubbed "112") that's been pushing itself up to the earth's surface. When in water, element 112 is dormant, but when exposed to air it increases in mass and heats up, eventually exploding (as a Carlsbad Caverns guide / amateur rock collector unfortunately discovers). Hutch suggests that "maybe the earth is fighting back after all of the mining we've been doing" which, it turns out, is exactly what's happening - all of the worst quakes seem to be based in areas with heavy mining.

 The solution is actually just as comical: Conway manages to pull the world's scientists together and get all of the disparate governments in line to fix the problem by flooding these areas, largely by bombing the ground to create new rivers and with weather machines to generate rain. When that's not working fast enough, a volcano appears out of the ground in New Mexico and Conway and Hutch have to blow up the nearby dam to stop it from erupting. I did not make up that last sentence. It's the climax of the film, as a matter of fact (SPOILER). They go to the dam despite the toxic fumes from the volcano and bring along some acid, which "escalates the reaction of element 112" in order to blow up the facility faster, only the acid is spilled and they have to run out and barely make it to the helicopter in time. But it's all okay in the end because even as large parts of the world are flooded, Dr. Conway realizes he loves Hutch and they're together at the end and that's what counts.

 I'd like to mention something that stood out to me in an already silly and mostly inaccurate movie (I watched it a second time with a scientist who confirmed that The Night the World Exploded, like The Happening, wasn't the least bit plausible). While in New Mexico a few years ago, I went to Carlsbad Caverns, and as a result I could tell immediately that the people who made this movie had seen pictures (maybe) but had mostly just heard about it. The rock formations were largely correct, but even by Hollywood conceits, the "caverns" were way too well lit and, well, small. Carlsbad Caverns is a prehistoric undersea cave, absent the "sea" part. The caverns are massive - so much so that 99% of the pictures I took failed to convey any sense of scope because there isn't enough light to do it justice. Once your eyes settle, you can make out just how large the space is, but the only photos that came out at all were ones taken very close to a rock formation or near a large source of light that indicates where the walkways are headed. The "Great Hall" that Conway and Hutch are standing in is, at best, a tenth of the size in any direction of the real Carlsbad Caverns. I appreciate the attempt to use the location, but like many things in The Night the World Exploded, it just doesn't do the real deal justice.

 The Night the World Exploded is available from Sony as an "On Demand" DVD-R, or you can find it on YouTube. It's exactly right for some harmless Saturday afternoon shenanigans with friends if you're in the mood for some 50s cheese. Pair it up with The Giant Claw for even more fun - in fact, I think I might do that in the near future...

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