Harder than it looks

This weekend I watched a British film I’ve long been curious about, The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1962). Not only did it live up to its reviews, it had me thinking that it’s a much more challenging feat than it appears.
The story: A rash of freak weather around the world has Fleet Street science reporters (Fleet Street was, at the time, the heart of British journalism) Edward Judd and Leo McKern checking with the government meteorological service for explanations, and whether two simultaneous major nuclear bomb tests could have something to do with it. The “Met Service” stonewalls. After a lot of digging and more freak weather, the guys learn why: The tests have skewed Earth on its axis (an anti-nuclear worry of the time), changing the climate. Worse, they’ve also shifted Earth’s orbit, so that four months down the road, we’ll come too close to the sun to live.
The reporters follow the increasing drastic changes (total water rationing) and the efforts to fix things, while Judd also romances Met Service office girl Janet Munro. At the end, the cast awaits the result of a counterblast that will hopefully restore the Earth (it’s not confirmed, but strongly implied that we succeeded).
What makes it challenging is that this is written a straight newspaper drama with SF elements, and that kind of mix frequently goes off the rails.
In many cases, we wind up with what I call Drawing-Room SF, where people sit around the drawing room (or the board room) and discuss the amazing concepts the writer has come up with and the amazing implications … and very little actually happens (the film Crack in the World is a good example of this—which is to say, a bad movie).
It can also come across as what a friend of mine calls a Just Enough, where the SF elements are tacked on to a straight drama/suspense/crime story to improve marketing and could easily be removed. This can actually be amusingly bad in movies, but I’ve read a few novels like that too (Dan Simmons’ Song of Kali, for instance) and even if they’re good non-genre works, that’s not what I signed up for, so I feel cheated.
There’s also the risk of what the SFWA calls Chekhov’s squid—having the SF elements simply overwhelm the human drama.
Day the Earth Caught Fire avoids all of those.
In the first place, it’s a very good newspaper drama with a good cast (McKern in particular). The guys react like believable reporters and their efforts to find the truth and the government’s responses feel plausible. And the personal drama—burn-out Judd’s coming back to life as he realizes what a story he’s found—if not brilliant, is certainly workable.
As Keep Watching the Skies (the definitive book on fifties/early sixties SF films) notes, just picking reporters as protagonists was the perfect choice. They aren’t involved in the usual plot of these films (figuring out how to save everyone) but they are required to stay on top of the story. It’s the perfect perspective.
Second, the film is not drawing-room SF: It has a lot of location footage that adds to the realistic feel.
Third, the SF isn’t just tacked on. Even though the movie is about the reporters and Munro, it couldn’t possibly be told without the science fictional aspects. They never, however, overwhelm the picture.
The end result is that the film bypasses all the traps of merging genre and turns into a first-rate entertainment. Well done, chaps!


Filed under Movies

7 responses to “Harder than it looks

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