The Night the World Exploded (1957)

There’s been a lot of grumbling this week about the way Trey Edward Shults’s sophomore feature It Comes at Night was marketed as a straightforward horror film, with a lot of people expecting some kind of monster attack based on its title. I want to believe that in two weeks’ time at most, first weekend horror audiences’ expectations will no longer matter and It Comes at Night will still be a fantastic film long after they’re forgotten. Sometimes, the title or the advertising of a film does matter in the long-run, though. Sixty years after its theatrical release, I found myself similarly bummed by the movie promised in the title The Night the World Exploded. I didn’t exactly expect Earth to explode in the picture, but the title does suggest some kind of alien invasion or large scale sci-fi threat, an expectation backed up by its inclusion on a drive-in double bill with The Claw, a creature feature about a giant killer bird. Unfortunately, this world-threatening event is a much more pedestrian kind of sci-fi villainy: earthquakes. It seems that in mocking general audiences for their titular & genre-based expectations, I was setting myself up for a taste of my own medicine. It did not taste sweet; it was, in fact, quite bland.

The Night the World Exploded announces its tedium up front by opening its narration with a weather report. The air was cool, low 50s, in case you’re interested. Three scientists who study the weather are concerned with drastic shifts in air pressure, which is somehow alarming to their unproven invention: a machine that accurately predicts earthquakes before they occur. Government officials don’t believe the validity of this machine’s prediction and refuse to evacuate the area indicated for severe impact. Many die as a result. A machine that can accurately predict earthquakes is still science fiction speculation, but between 70s disaster epics like Earthquake & modern throwbacks like San Andreas it’s an idea that had since become old hat in terms of cinematic depiction. What makes The Night the World Exploded more distinct as a sci-fi film is the source of its disastrous earthquakes. Instead of merely being set off by shifting tectonic plates, the earthquakes in the film are the direct result of a previously undiscovered element found under Earth’s surface that’s harmless when wet, but explodes when dry. Once this source is determined, what follows is an odd version of a 50s sci-fi message movie like Them! or The Space Children where, unlike nuclear war, there’s nothing real life audiences can do to stop its threat, since it’s entirely fictional.

Besides the fear mongering built around a fictional element that could explode the Earth from under us, I admire The Night the World Exploded‘s ambition​ to make its threat a worldwide event despite its budgetary limitations as drive-in schlock. Stock footage of buildings crumbling, newsreels of disaster relief & widespread fires, and even images of war are wrangled by a fast-talking narrator who attempts to tell a worldwide story of scientists & governments in crisis. Its smaller scale story of the three-scientist team that discovers the explosive element in their underground cave explorations is much less interesting. You see, the sole female scientist of the crew is frustrated because she wants to become a wife ASAP, explaining, “I’m a scientist, but I’m a woman too.” She’s frustrated because she’s settling to marry the wrong man, due to her co-worker being too wrapped up in his research to take notice of her romantic desire for him. What a pickle! (Oddly enough, this is more or less the same plot as Doris Wishman’s nudie cutie Nude on the Moon.) I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler say that the world does not explode and the two scientists eventually get their happily-ever-after kiss. What’s questionable is which resolution is more anti-climactic.

It’s likely not fair that I’m judging The Night the World Exploded based on its failings to deliver the sci-fi horror I was expecting based on its title. However, I’d like to think that if the film were an especially well made or deliriously fun version of an earthquake disaster picture I would’ve been able to overcome my expectations. There were moments of stock footage inanity and scientists demonstrating what the explosive element could do to the Earth on a plastic globe that certainly pushed me towards having a good time, only to be routinely deflated by its limp, central romance. Still, the truth is that I was settling in to watch one kind of old fashioned schlock based on the film’s title and was disappointed when I was treated to another. I guess this should teach me some sort of empathy for audiences who settled in for something like Insidious or The Bye Bye Man when they bought a ticket for It Comes at Night and were instead shown a quiet art house reflection on the terrors of familial grief. Those audiences even have the moral upper ground in this situation in that they paid to see their disappointment on the big screen while I, a hypocrite, was just looking for a way to waste a morning on YouTube.

-Brandon Ledet

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