Crack in the World
(SPOILERS) Inconceivably, Time Out’s review of Crack in the World attempted to convince the wayward viewer that it was “Infinitely better than the appalling The Day the Earth Caught Fire”. There can be no doubt David Pirie was smoking something potently bamboozling when he came up with that deranged view. Which is not to suggest that Crack in the World is bad per se – as a nipper it had me fretting like nobody’s business over its depicted eventuality – but that The Day the Earth Caught Fire is a bona fide, sweaty mood-piece masterpiece.
There are undoubted conceptual similarities between the two films – even more so between Crack in the World and 1970 Doctor Who classic Inferno (well, aside from the fascistic parallel Earth and hairy ape men devolved by the green slime sluicing up from the depths). In both The Day the Earth Caught Fire and Crack in the World, the Earth is set on the path of assured destruction due to experimental use of nuclear weapons… and in both, the only solution to this fix anyone can come up with is setting off more nukes!
As such, both do their dutiful bit to bolster the relentless bogeyman that is nuclear dread, possibly the best fear experiment ever created (well, until invisible germs began attacking us from every quarter, anyway). If the Cuban Missile Crisis in the real world and Dr. Strangelove in the Oscar-feted one commanded most of the attention, Crack in the World was aiming squarely at the unadulterated, beckoning pulp apocalypse; when I first saw it, a good decade and a half after it was first released and in the realist era of The China Syndrome and Silkwood, it still had a profound effect.
And that’s in spite of a fairly ho-hum plotting, direction, characterisation and performances. Director Andrew Marton does an entirely serviceable job, ensuring he gets the best results from a limited budget (Marton was best known as a second unit director of the likes of Ben Hur and Kelly’s Heroes, but he made a popular version of King Solomon’s Mines (1950) with Stewart Granger and was one of a roster of directors on both Seven Wonders of the World (1956) and The Longest Day (1962)). The effects are generally quite capable, whilst calling upon some inevitable stock footage. Writer John Manchip White (co-credited with Julian Zimet) had also worked on The Day of the Triffids and penned early Avengers episode Propellant 23. His decision to create a love triangle at the heart of the picture isn’t perhaps the most original, but I can’t help think it would have played better with more sympathetic casting.
Dana Andrews was well past his 1940s heyday by this point, settling into supporting roles. Here, he’s Dr Stephen Sorendson, the jealous husband of Maggie (Janette Scott, also of The Day of the Triffids – the common link being producer Bernard Glasser – and the sweetly pretty object of Terry-Thomas and Ian Carmichael’s competing attentions in School for Scoundrels). He’s solid if stolid. Andrews could fit quite smoothly into the Leslie Nielsen role in a disaster movie spoof and the manner in which his – unnamed – cancer debilitates him over the course of the couple of the days depicted in the movie, from diagnosis to a bandaged hand, to bandaged hands and sunglasses and then a pair of white gloves, is unintentionally funny. You half expect him to start laughing maniacally at any moment. Professor Sorensen - the same name, give or take a vowel, as a mad scientist meddling with nature in another Doctor Who story ten years later, The Planet of Evil – is as unswerving in his dedication to his drill project as Professor Stahlman in Inferno. Both scientists are convinced there’s untapped energy to be found beneath the Earth’s crust, and both end up wearing gloves to conceal their deleterious conditions.
Both also have to deal with the strenuous objections of a junior who thinks no good can come of all this. Keiron Moore is definitely a weak link as Doctor Ted Rampion. He has developed the Rampion Theory, “that the crust has already been cracked by the numerous atomic explosions set off by the nuclear powers in their years of testing” (bafflingly, Sorensen then proceeds to “disprove” the theory by scaring his audience of peers – those who will approve his use of a nuclear warhead in the drill hole – silly, smashing a piece of reinforced glass with a hammer. More bafflingly, after that shock, his red-hot knife through butter seems to convince the witless group). Moore – also in The Day of the Triffids, as Scott’s husband, no less – isn’t really much as an actor, but he only has to look desperate here and there and woo Scott, so he doesn’t exactly flounder. You’re never really rooting for him either, though.
And you should be, as rotter Sorensen made sure Ted was out of the way on a professorship in Tokyo so he could steal Maggie away. It’s not as if Stephen and Maggie have any sex life by the look of it either, so it’s all about the getting and brooding over it with him. Inevitably, all this torridness gives way to Maggie ending up with her real love – she even darns his socks; no really – while Sorenson remains at Project Inner Space (centre D’Energe Intra Terrestre) to record the final events, whatever they may be.
Ted: Where the land masses split, the oceans will be sucked in and the colossal pressure generated by the steam will rip the Earth apart and destroy it.
It all sounds exceedingly grim; there are some nice false dawns in the movie, such as the initial explosion doing nothing adverse. Even Ted is convinced it has been a success. But then the escalation begins, with earthquakes and tidal waves signalling “mass destruction on an apocalyptic scale!” When liquid hot magma starts geysering up, there are facile cries of “Hooray!” Once the extent of the situation is understood, it’s Ted who comes up with the nuke answer (“How do you start up a volcano? With a nuclear bomb.” I mean, yeah, Why not?)
An effective sequence follows in which Ted descends into the volcano (although, at one point he appears to start coughing when enveloped in gas/steam despite wearing a pressure suit). It looks as if this gambit has been a success, but oh no, the titular crack doubles back: “The crack is moving twice as fast as before”. There are two fissures now, resulting in a huge chunk of the planet – globe model, I assume – being thrown into space. Barkingly – unless you’re Rudolf Steiner – this chunk proceeds to become the Earth’s second moon. Hooray!
I’m not entirely sure I thought the Earth was definitively saved on first viewing – I certainly prefer The Day the Earth Caught Fire’s ambiguous “maybe” – perhaps because of that hellish red filter splashed across the churning events. These days, Roland Emmerich would add considerable spin but probably not much more conviction to the dramatic beats. He has, after all, gone to similar places with The Day after Tomorrow and 2012. Disaster porn has been cinema’s bread and butter since DW Griffith (Noah). Emmerich’s skill was making these movies move; the problem with most of the 1970s disaster genre was that they just tended to sit there. Crack in the World is better than most, but it doesn’t move a lot, and it doesn’t have the edge in plot development or character to take up the slack.