Thursday 10 March 2016

Disaster Film Olympiad: The Day The Earth Caught Fire

There are two things of which simply no good can ever possibly come: nuclear weapons and the international dateline. When they combine, the overall effect is inevitably catastrophic for all in its path. Unfortunately, these were the precise confluence of circumstances that were to assail the hard-working staff at the offices of The Daily Express in 1961, on a day... THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE!

For years, man has yearned to destroy the Sun...

Typical tabloid hyperbole, that. The Earth did not literally catch fire, but it was nevertheless sickening for something pretty serious. The Day The Earth Caught Fire is an entertaining and considered Cold War fable that warns that the dangers of nuclear weapons - or not checking your calendar - stretch far beyond the obvious. The United States and the Soviet Union, now both building the spiffiest, most powerful hydrogen bombs that modern technology can muster, somehow contrive to each test them simultaneously on opposite ends of the globe without having first checked to see how time zones work. The overall effect throws the Earth off of its normal orbit and into an inevitable collision course with the Sun.

This annoys everybody. The new jaunty tilt of our celestial home causes havoc with the seasons, as drought, heatwaves, storms and floods beset countries quite unprepared to deal with the consequences. The action centres on the newspaper offices of central London, where to call the weather all to cock would barely do the situation justice. The temperature soars, causing a catastrophic drought, ruinously damaging thunderstorms and freak fogs. To be honest, it's pretty similar to what the weather is like in the 21st Century, although it is best to put that thought to the back of your mind since the upshot of all this is: we're doomed. The hardworking Daily Express staffers - motivated by the possibility of a worldwide scoop and powered only by cynicism, lukewarm Coca Cola and a bar tab that looks like Jeremy Hunt's parliamentary expenses claim - do their best to get to the bottom of the story, even though it turns their newspaper into a shrill, weather-obsessed, catastrophe rag. Which obviously could never happen.

It is an unusual disaster film, but it doesn't suffer at all for it: the main characters are reactive, rather than active; resigned rather than rallying. The film neatly captures the constrictive inevitability of a society that has contrived to destroy itself as we all feared it would. There are no heroes, just people being people. Some bad, some mad, but mostly good-hearted. Of course, a film is still always only a film, so a few compromises have to be made: of course our leading man Peter Stenning would take this opportunity to begin a torrid romantic entanglement with Jeannie Craig, a secretary from the Met Office. And naturally he will end up defending her honour from a bunch of feral beatnik water terrorists by engaging in fisticuffs in her apartment. These are things that happen in every film, no matter what the genre or the stakes.

On the whole, however, it is an absorbing and entertaining way to spend 90 minutes. Well, entertaining when one considers the oddly prescient nature of the subject matter: as I watched the film the sky outside was purple and the hail was falling upwards. Particularly pleasing is its ambiguous ending, as the dual forces of science and irony combine to decide the only way to save Earth from a certain fiery demise is to right its place in the heavens with... more atomic blasts. What will happen? The church bell ringers will be putting in for double overtime, if nothing else. It's hard enough ringing bells in normal temperatures and when adequately hydrated. More important still is that I have successfully managed to write the first ever retrospective review of The Day The Earth Caught Fire that doesn't mention it features a pre-super duper super stardom Michael Caine, playing a copper.

Daily Express journalist Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) in The Day The Earth Caught Fire: what would Princess Diana do?

More worthy of note even than the revelation that Michael Caine has to eat food and pay his gas bill are the special effects. Considering the technological limitations of the time they stand up very well indeed. Particularly stunning are the vistas of London as a sun-bleached, dried out and abandoned husk - all made by the matte painting mastery of Les Bowie. Film making has become less of an art since computers came along, in many ways. Sigh.

The Day The Earth Caught Fire gets a smouldering EIGHT out of 10 Disaster Points.

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