The Magnetic Monster

The Magnetic Monster. United Artists 1953.

Before watching the movie:

I’d never heard of this movie before I stumbled across it in back catalogs looking for B-movies. The title didn’t sound particularly interesting, but the blurb threw a lot of sincere sounding superlatives around for a movie I’d never heard of.

Supposedly this has one of the most accurate portrayals of nuclear radiation, but the combination of most movies treating radiation as “field of evil chaotic magic” and the plot apparently having something to do with a monster with magnetic abilities, I’m not expecting much scientific accuracy.

After watching the movie:

The Office of Scientific Investigation maintains a department known as the “A-Men” for atomic investigations. Dr. Stewart and Dr. Forbes get a call to investigate a local appliance store where all the clocks have stopped, and most metal objects have been magnetized. They quickly determine that there is a lingering field not only of magnetism, but also of radioactivity. They deduce that the epicenter of this event was the office above the store, but whatever caused it had gone, though the dead body of a research assistant remains. Putting out a call for citizens to report cases of spontaneous magnetization, they trace the motion of the phenomenon to an airplane where Dr. Howard Denker, fighting through radiation sickness, intends to take something in a heavy briefcase he won’t let go of out of the city. Catching the plane in time, the A-Men are able to talk to Dr. Denker only briefly before he expires, and he confesses to having created an artificial isotope that he experimented with by bombarding it with alpha particles for days. The resulting substance is now not only radioactive, but has a cycle of instability where every 11 hours it draws enormous amounts of energy from its surroundings and converts it into doubled size and mass, throwing off radiation and magnetic energy in the process. Left alone, it draws that energy through an enormous implosion, but the reaction can be sated with a staggering amount of electrical current, already requiring the entire output of a small city for half an hour. And at its rate of doubling, in just a few weeks it could knock the Earth off balance and spin the entire planet into space.

I was expecting a campy B-movie, but this is a surprisingly grounded procedural, reminding me of the tone of movies like The Andromeda Strain. It was fascinating at first, watching the hyperrealistic investigation into the unexplained phenomenon, but then once they found the cause and got it into their lab, an overlong sequence began that stays entirely too faithful to just how boring scientific rigor can be. They take all the measurements they can take, they key it into a computer, and they wait for the computer to process a model of how to predict what it will do. Thankfully, this ends when they finally figure out what they need to do to prevent implosions and strategize what to do with the isotope before it becomes a bigger problem.

The “monster” notion is a bit overplayed. They discuss the isotope like it’s alive, but it’s clearly just a nuclear process. It feeds on energy, it grows, and its effects are menacing, and that’s about where the comparison ends. This is especially overhyped in the original promotional material. A fire is more alive than this sample. That’s the main degree of camp to this story.

The most engaging part is when they move from investigation to action, and their plan involves joint cooperation with a Canadian research project, which is for some reason run by a pair of doctors who have English accents. Having used the full power of scientific reasoning to understand the nature of the unnatural thing, they leave the plausibly possible into the much more magical world of the fictional isotope, complete with a human antagonist without much sense.

If you’re looking for a way to make 75 minutes feel like two hours, this movie is a great choice. Fascinating depiction of scientists investigating mysterious radiation, but I’ve seen more exciting recounting of procedure in documentaries of very real nuclear incidents. Without the camp absurdity of most sci-fi movies of the era, it just doesn’t keep that interest very much.

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