Thursday, 20 December 2012

The Day The Earth Caught Fire, dir. Val Guest, wr. Wolf Mankowitz, Val Guest, st. Janet Munro, Leo McKern, Edward Judd

Val Guest is of course responsible for bringing that other seminal work of British science fiction into the cinemas - The Quatermass Xperiment - but whereas that film owes a debt to American 50s paranoia (and a more literary source in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein), The Day The Earth Caught Fire is an altogether more stoic affair. The 1961 film concerns a team of journalists, who see a story about twin US and USSR atomic bomb test detonations sending the Earth off its axis and spinning toward the Sun, as the ultimate scoop rather than as an opportunity to save mankind. In these dark days of deep mistrust for the press, this rings particularly true. Yet the reporters here are altogether less cynical and more weary than today's McMullans. They carry on reporting, steadfastly attempting to report fact without spin or augmentation because that's what they do, and that's how humanity (but particularly the British) know how to deal with impending doom; get our heads down, keep calm and carry on. Guest also wisely (and unusally) keeps the boffins and politicians off-screen, allowing the course of events to be viewed through less knowing eyes. The film is surprisingly low on action by today's apocalyptic blockbusting standards, but does mirror a growing trend to offer a more existentialist, cerebral and character-driven sci-fi narrative in lieu of green-screen pyrotechnics. The bookended scenes, post-produced in a dark-orange sepia tone, provide a clever and effective way of illustrating the planet's plight, and there are a slew of great performances of overlapping naturalistic journo-banter that sell the tired resignation. For my money, the ending is dampened slightly by Universal's insistence of the addition of sound effects that give a definitive ending to the story, especially when the final image of the movie is strong enough, but The Day The Earth Caught Fire remains one of the more absorbing and seminal pictures of the British science fiction canon.