Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Night the World Exploded

Yesterday morning, TCM showed one of those 1950s B-level scifi movies that was new to me: The Night The World Exploded. It's available on DVD courtesy of Columbia's MOD scheme, and would be worth watching if the MOD DVD releases aren't rather more expensive than a lot of regular-produced DVDs.

Kathryn Grant plays Hutch, a nickname for Laura Hutchinson. She's an assistant to a pair of seismologists, but she's got a boyfriend she's planning to marry. That boyfriend is not Dr. Conway (William Leslie), although it's obvious from the time the two are introduced and Hutch makes her comments about marriage to the elder seismologist Dr. Morton (Tris Coffin) that Hutch really ought to be paired with Conway, if he weren't too wrapped up in his work to see that Hutch would like him. But the three of them, and the rest of the world, are about to have some rather more important things on their mind. The new pressure meter the seismologists have been working on is detecting an unusally high amount of pressure building up in the earth's crust, and that can only mean that a massive earthquake is about to hit someplace not to far away!

The scientists warn the governor (Raymond Greenleaf), who unsurprisinly can't order an evacuation on unproven guesswork. Soon enough the earthquake hits, causing quite a bit of damage. It's enough to convince the governor and scientists that this new pressure meter and its predictions are worth listening to. And dammit, the meter is sensing that some force is causing the earth's crust to bulge outward, creating pressure all over the place and earthquakes in quite a few parts of the planet. But what's causing that pressure buildup? The only way to find out is to get closer to the source of the pressure, which means getting as deep under the earth's surface as possible -- conveniently, there's a nearby access point in the form of Carlsbad Caverns.

Our scientists can't figure out what's causing the pressure buildup, but they do find some strange black rocks in the water at the cave floor the likes of which they've never seen before. In a B-level scifi movie, this is Obvious Telegraphing. We know that these stones are going to have something to with the problems the characters on screen are facing, but they're not going to put two and two together and get four for another reel or two. A park ranger who collects rocks takes one of these stones home with him. His home explodes that night. Nobody can figure out that it had to do something with that rock (we're shown the rock spontaneously bursting into flame) until the scientists down in the caverns nearly have another one explode on them, only to be saved when they get the rock back in the water it came from.

Apparently this rock is made of "Element 112", which surprisingly doesn't kill them all with radioactivity and also has a remarkable half-life, in that it doesn't necessarily seem to decay at all. It does remain inert in water, but when it dries out, it reacts with the nitrogen in the air to become a super explosive. And mining and other activities have been coming close enough to the sources of 112 that some of it is now getting dry and exploding, causing the earthquakes. The world's scientists have to flood it, and quick, or else the world is going to explode!

Bad science aside, The Night the World Exploded isn't too bad for a B science fiction movie. It runs a brief 64 minutes, and even that running time is heavily padded through the use of stock footage showing "earthquake" damage, much of which looks more like war bombing than earthquakes: the buildings falling down are already heavily damaged. Some of the sets are also obviously low budget, such as the styrofoam-like stalactties that we're supposed to believe threaten the folks in Carlsbad Caverns when they fall from the ceiling, or the interior of the military airplane. People who prefer the movies of today might have a problem with the low budgets of the 50s scifi movies and the constraints this imposed upon them, but for those of us who like older movies, The Night the World Exploded is sufficiently entertaining.

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