Friday, 1 July 2016

The Day the Sky Exploded (1958)

The Day the Sky Exploded is an Italian-French co-production and is important as being one of the first European movies to attempt to jump on the science fiction bandwagon. It’s also an interesting anticipation of the “giant meteor about to destroy the Earth” sub-genre. To cult movie fans today its primary interest may lie in the fact that the cinematographer was a certain Mario Bava.

It’s clearly set a few years in the future. The first manned space mission to the Moon is about to get underway. It is a joint Soviet-US-British effort and the spacecraft is to be launched from Australia. The location of the launch site is not specifically mentioned in the movie (at least in the English-dubbed version) but the number of bad Australian accents to be heard gives the game away.

American John McLaren (Paul Hubschmid) is to pilot the spacecraft. Everything seems to be going well until he’s about to leave Earth orbit when one of the atomic motors malfunctions. McLaren is able to save himself by ejecting in the emergency capsule but he doesn’t have time to shut down the nuclear reactor. This will turn out to be an unfortunate oversight.

The now unmanned spaceship is heading for the asteroid belt where it explodes. The explosion causes hundreds of asteroids to cohere together into a single mass that is now on a collision course with the Earth!

The mission scientists in Australia now have to find a way to save the world but it seems hopeless. Oddly enough the obvious solution (obvious to any science fiction fan anyway) does not occur to any of them until the last moment.

The countdown to possible (or probable) disaster manages to build a reasonable degree of tension. The film focuses to a large degree on personal relationships, particularly between McLaren and his wife and between one of the scientists and the female head computer operator. There’s perhaps too much emphasis on the personal relationships angle - it slows things down just a little.

One of the more interesting elements is that while space exploration using “atomic rockets” was common enough in 50s science fiction this is one of the few examples that explores the consequences if something were to go wrong. While the movie takes the opportunity, which no movie of that era could resist, to lecture us about the evils of nuclear weapons there is one piece of supreme irony that may have been quite unintentional - the disaster is brought about by the peaceful use of nuclear power while the only hope for saving us may be those evil atomic weapons.

There’s a very heavy reliance on stock footage of missile launches and disaster scenes. They’re integrated well enough into the storyline but there is the perennial problem with stock footage that the differences in the quality of the film stocks can be distracting.

Paolo Heusch is credited as the director. While Mario Bava did not get a directing credit until Black Sunday in 1960 he had already been utilised several times as a kind of fix-up director, taking over and completing films (such as Caltiki the Undying Monster) that other directors had been unable to complete. As a result there are those who like to imagine they can see Bava’s directorial hand behind various late 50s movies on which he served as cinematographer. There’s really nothing in this film that would support such a theory in this case. There are a few scenes that do certainly reveal glimpses of the Bava touch as cinematographer - scenes in which the lighting is just a bit more imaginative than you expect in a low-budget movie.

There are also one or two special effects for which Bava would certainly have been responsible.

Of course it goes without saying that the one thing a good science fiction films needs is silly science. In that area The Day the Sky Exploded comes through with flying colours. There’s not a thing in this movie that makes any scientific sense.

The Day the Sky Exploded works reasonably well, within the limitations of low-budget 50s film-making. Despite the subject matter it’s less preachy than most sci-fi disaster movies. There’s a message here about international co-operation but amazingly enough the movie assumes the viewer is smart enough to work this out without being bludgeoned with it. There are no speeches!

Not a bad little movie. Worth a look.

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