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THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE

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Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Janet Munro, Leo McKern, Edward Judd
Director:  Val Guest
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Anchor Bay
Features:  See Review
Length:  99 Minutes
Release Date:  June 12, 2001

Film ***1/2

In the late fifties and early sixties, Cold War and nuclear paranoia were inspiring a number of memorable science fiction classics, from When Worlds Collide to the Godzilla movies.  One of the best from that period was a British film co-written, produced and directed by Val Guest called The Day the Earth Caught Fire.  It was an intelligent, thought provoking, and coldly horrific portrait of the end of the world as brought about by mankind’s own obsessive and destructive behavior. 

As with many of that era’s sci-fi films, Day relies heavily on newspaper reporters for dramatic structure.   In this case, the paper is The London Daily Express, and the reporter is Peter Stenning (Judd), a one-time hot shot who lost his inspiration to write (for unclear reasons), and ended up as an assistant of sorts to another reporter, the droll and cynical Bill Maguire (McKern).

But the news begins to grow more interesting.  Freak storms are occurring across the world, along with heavy floods and thick, hot fog about four feet high.   All of this seems to be happening in a single geological pattern across the earth, in a straight line.  Throw in a freak eclipse and gradual but definite rising temperatures, and the rumors start to buzz.

The truth is terrifying:  joint nuclear test explosions by the USSR and the US, each one larger than had ever been attempted before, has caused the earth to shift on its axis, and what’s more, shift out of its orbit, sending it spiraling toward the sun.   An estimated four months is left before life will no longer be possible on our planet.

That’s the outline of the story, but what makes it more absorbing is the way in which it unfolds.  At first, the warmer temperatures are welcomed.  We see more kids playing in the streets, more business at amusement parks, and more.  But as things worsen and the truth finally comes out, the ugliness of humanity emerges.  Water service to homes and business are shut of in favor of rationing.  People are getting diseases from “black market” water.  People are rioting and partying in the streets like there’s no tomorrow, as indeed, there may not be.  Scenes like these, on top of an already grim scenario, make the picture all the more haunting.

The screenplay, which won a British Academy Award, is superb, towering well above other genre entries of the same period.   The dialogue is lively, smart, and witty, making the characters all the more appealing.  There is no farce at play here, mind you, but the way the people talk is often amusing, dry, and filled with insight.  Even the fact that there’s a love story blossoming between Peter and Jeannie Craig (Munro), a lovely switchboard operation, works because it doesn’t feel tacked on, nor does it take energy away from the main story.  The repartee between Peter and Jeannie also serves the structure, as Peter is simultaneously trying to woo Jeannie and pump information out of her at the same time.

The ending, which I’ll leave for you to discover, is one of the great ones, and is sure to inspire discussion.  It not only begs the most obvious question:  whether or not mankind can reverse the fate it sealed for itself, but a more subtle and pressing one as well:  whether or not we deserve to.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Look for Michael Caine as a policeman directing traffic in the fog.

Video ***1/2

This newly restored edition of the film, presented in anamorphic widescreen by Anchor Bay, should be a real crowd pleaser!   Not only are the opening and closing segments returned to their original orange-hot tinting, but the remainder of the black and white picture is extremely impressive.  Images are very sharp and crisply rendered throughout, with a full range of grayscale employed from bright whites to deep, true blacks.  The print itself is remarkably clean, with only a few noticeable spots or scratches here and there…far, far fewer than you’d expect for a 40 year old movie.   There are some noticeable instances of grain in one or two darker segments…these are very slight and brief, and not distracting at all; merely noticeable.  All in all, this DVD should add to Anchor Bay’s reputation for bringing quality material to fans of cult classics.

Audio **1/2

The digital mono soundtrack is completely serviceable, inspiring neither praise nor condemnation.  Dialogue is rendered cleanly, the music and occasional sound effects lend a bit more dynamic range than with most mono tracks, and there is no distracting noise or hiss.

Features ***

For starters, there’s a terrific commentary track with Val Guest, hosted by Ted Newsom.  The interview-styled format brings out plenty of information about the making of the film, Guest’s career, and even the restoration process.   There is a bio on Guest as well, plus a stills gallery and trailers galore:  a theatrical one, plus several TV and radio spots.  All in all, a nice package.

Summary:

The Day the Earth Caught Fire is a rare jewel of a film from an era fraught with low budget special effect and so-bad-it’s-good science fiction movies.   It involves, it entertains, and it makes you think.  Well written, acted, and constructed, it’s an important and classic movie, and with this quality DVD offering from Anchor Bay, one that no sci-fi fan should pass up.