The Night the World Exploded

The Night the World Exploded. Clover Productions 1957.

Before watching the movie:

Another one I stumbled upon that I know pretty much nothing about. It has something to do with an unknown mineral that’s been present in the Earth all this time igniting and bad stuff happens. I don’t know how the plot is going to set up that this thing can happen and is going to destroy the world if it isn’t stopped if it sounds like setting it off in one place will set it off all over the world, but that’s what I’ll find out.

After watching the movie:

Dr. David Conway and Dr. Ellis Morton have been working for weeks on a machine which can predict earthquakes, aided by their capable assistant Laura Hutchinson. As soon as it is complete, it predicts a devastating earthquake in northern California on a scale larger than the detonation of an atomic bomb within the next 24 hours. The scientists bring their warning to the governor, who is friendly to what they’re trying to do, but as their machine has not yet been proven, cannot risk the political fallout of evacuating on a false alarm. Sure enough, an earthquake hits just where it was predicted to, with a death toll in the thousands and damages in the billions. Now with the attention and backing of nations, David, Ellis, and Hutch localize the epicenter of the next wave of earthquakes to an uncharted level of Carlsbad Caverns, where they discover an unknown mineral that, when exposed to atmospheric nitrogen, swells, heats up, and ultimately explodes, with previously unknown power, but can be neutralized in water, as the hydrogen in water molecules quenches and ultimately dissolves this substance. As this “Element 112” usually either quickly explodes or gets dissolved, it had not previously been discovered, but now a seismic chain reaction is exposing more subterranean deposits to air than ever before, and computer projections show that within a month, enough 112 will be exposed to completely detonate the entire planet, unless radical worldwide action is taken immediately.

There’s often a strong element in sci-fi movies of this era of starting from a place of “what’s a cool science thing we can demonstrate knowledge of?” and then coming up with something completely crazy tangentially related and justified with technobabble that seems extremely elementary by modern standards. This story starts out with what seems like a competent understanding of seismology, and then in the process of justifying how seismologists could predict the end of the world invents a new substance with magical properties that throws a few basic chemistry terms around to make it sound like it makes sense. The effect is pretty funny these days but they play it well and it gets the story moving. I wonder how long it will be before any sci-fi fan will feel the same way about quantum this and dark matter that.

I was wondering why they mentioned Carlsbad Caverns by name, and I assumed it was because it made it sound more realistic, but then I learned they actually shot there, along with the computer they use to predict the final explosion, Electrodata, being an actual computer they went to film at, with its name featured prominently in the establishing shot. So I have to wonder if there weren’t some kind of early product placement arrangements in exchange for charging less to use the location. The cavern scenes are certainly the biggest production value on screen in a movie that’s almost entirely people talking in rooms, except when it’s narration talking over stock footage. The story is told well through those limitations, but the excitement is low until the finale.

Mixed into the mostly procedural telling of an effort to save the planet from itself is an especially lazy love story. When the seismic machine works, Hutch tells Ellis she’s going to quit to get married and Ellis tells her to wait for David to get up the nerve to say something to her in a non-professional capacity, only returning for the planet saving effort because they need someone who understands what they’re doing as well as they do. I don’t think this fiancé is ever seen, but he does get named at least once. He only exists to threaten to take her away from the hero before he realizes what she means to her. David and Hutch have one kind of bonding scene before she gets hurt in the third act and he starts to realize he’s been taking her for granted, in a hospital scene that comes to the edge of making a literal present symbolic of The Present without seeming to realize it.

As a cheap sci-fi adventure to stick around for after the main feature, this is serviceable. It doesn’t reach for great highs, but it doesn’t really stumble either. It just fills some time presenting an idea and solving a fantastical problem. It certainly could have done more with the idea, but for what it was meant to be, it works.


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