July 8, 2020


Starring Edward Judd, Janet Munro, Leo McKern. Directed by Val Guest. (1961/99 min)

Review by Mr. Paws🙀

What's ultimately terrifying about The Day the Earth Caught Fire is that its depiction of an impending apocalypse is probably the most plausible. Worse yet, it's arguably the most timely. In fact, it's entirely possible we're in the midst of such a scenario right now.

Cheery thought, isn't it?

Not that multiple atomic explosions will send Earth spinning toward the sun anytime soon. Like most doomsday films back then, The Day the Earth Caught Fire was simply exploiting society's fears of all-things-nuclear. If people were just as globally terrified of Elvis' corrupting influence on our youth, we might see Earth knocked off its axis from millions of synchronized pelvic thrusts. The real horror of the film lies in how humankind responds...or doesn't respond.

As the film begins, there are already ominous signs that all is not right with the world...floods, torrential downpours, heatwaves, interference of radio communication. These newsworthy events are all investigated and reported by London's Daily Express, as are recent nuclear tests by the United States and Russia. I don't know if it's because everyone is unflappably English, but not-only does everyone try to go about their daily business, most simply seem inconvenienced by the sudden climate changes. In fact, alcoholic reporter Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) resents being ordered by his editor to research sunspots (initially thought to be the cause of the phenomena), preferring to try and get Meteorological Office operator Jeannie Craig (Janet Munro) between the sheets.

Stenning suddenly realizes the "i before e except after c" rule simply isn't true.
It's only after crippling fog, fires, droughts and cyclones wreak havoc on several major cities that Stenning and his colleagues begin to suspect everything is connected to the nuclear tests. Jeannie's news from the Meteorological Office confirms that the tests not-only shifted the tilt of the Earth, it is now heading toward the sun. Only then does the government finally inform the world they're all screwed (though it's suggested they've known for some time). This realization happens very late in the movie, after it's essentially too late to do anything but put their hopes on a last-ditch plan to right Earth's orbit with more nuclear explosions. However, it's obvious nobody really thinks it'll work, and in the film's most chilling scene - aside from the final shot - most of London's young people collectively throw in the towel and party like it's 1999, cheerfully wasting precious water everyone's been ordered to ration.

Granted, it's doubtful that any human intervention could prevent such a catastrophe and The Day the Earth Caught Fire doesn't let the viewer off the hook with reassurance things will be hunky-dory tomorrow. Furthermore, its overall contempt for human arrogance – that Earth is ours to abuse as we wish without repercussion – is abundantly clear. We are ultimately responsible for our own doom, whether we choose to see the signs or not.

The Day Stenning's Pants Caught Fire.
But what makes the movie disturbing even today is you could easily swap-out its sci-fi aspects for something more immediate - like climate change or a global pandemic - leave the rest of the story intact, and still have a scathing commentary on people's inability or unwillingness to acknowledge the trigger effect of human carelessness, despite such ominous signs as melting ice caps or spikes in COVID-19 cases in states where thousands of jackasses flocked to the beach and partied on Memorial Day (mostly young people, just like those in the movie).

But despite its pessimistic view of human nature and open-ended conclusion, The Day the Earth Caught Fire is an entertaining film. It's even quite funny, at times, especially the antagonistic banter in the newsroom, as well as Stenning and Jeannie's playful verbal sparring. While the budget-conscious use of stock footage is painfully obvious, meticulously-crafted matte paintings effectively convey the aftermath of widespread disaster. It's enjoyable freezing the picture now and then just to take-in the details, which look wonderful on this nicely remastered, long-overdue Blu-ray release. The Day the Earth Caught Fire remains a smart, gripping and dark disaster thriller that transcends its decade with timely relevance.

AUDIO COMMENTARIES – 1) By writer/director Val Guest; 2) By historian Richard Harland Smith

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