Monday, September 2, 2019

The Day the Earth Caught Fire

(1961) Directed by Val Guest; Written by Wolf Mankowitz and Val Guest; Starring: Edward Judd, Janet Munro, Leo McKern, Michael Goodliffe, Bernard Braden and Arthur Christiansen; Available on Blu-ray (Region B) and DVD (Region 2)

Rating: ****½

“When I had written the original treatment of the story, I sent it to the Daily Express, where we shot the film. I sent it to the Daily Express science correspondent…And he came back about a week later with a little note saying, ‘Riveting story, but bloody balls.’ …He’s been proved wrong, because everybody else has proved me right about global warming.” – Val Guest (from DVD commentary)

“They’ve shifted the tilt of the Earth. The stupid, crazy, irresponsible bastards. They’ve finally done it.” – Bill Maguire (Leo McKern)

Our hubris dictates that we can do whatever we want with our planet with no consequences. We carelessly ignore the signs of Earth’s fragile state, with the naïve conceit that everything will somehow work out. Director/producer/co-writer Val Guest’s The Day the Earth Caught Fire takes us out of our comfort zone, imagining a nightmare scenario where we have damaged the world beyond repair, and facilitated our own extinction. Guest, who previously worked on some notable Hammer science fiction films (including The Quatermass Xperiment and The Abominable Snowman), took five years to get his story produced. Several film companies, cold to the concept of a fiery worldwide calamity, passed on his script. Eventually, he used the more commercial Expresso Bongo (1959) as “collateral,” to get his film financed, for the miserly sum of 200,000 pounds.  

In the opening scene, we’re introduced to a newspaper reporter in an abandoned newsroom. Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) dictates what could be the final news story of his career and an epitaph for humanity. The story flashes back 90 days, tracing the beginning of the environmental catastrophe. On separate corners of the globe, the U.S. and Soviet Union perform tests of the most powerful nuclear warheads ever devised, subsequently knocking the Earth off its axis. The climate becomes progressively inhospitable, as the polar caps melt and temperatures soar to unprecedented levels. Stenning soon discovers that the future of the Earth is worse than originally feared, as the planet’s orbit has also changed, sending it closer to the Sun. In a final gambit to set things right, the Soviet Union plans to detonate bombs to correct the course. Will humanity prevail, or is it too little, too late?

The film works so well because it maintains a consistent sense of immediacy. Guest, who started out as a journalist, captures the hustle and bustle of a fast-paced newsroom,* as reflected by the characters’ overlapping dialogue and rapid-fire delivery. The distinct “you are there” atmosphere is reinforced thanks to a documentary-style feel. At Guest’s insistence, there is no musical score (the only music is organic to a handful of scenes). We’re caught in the middle of the commotion (other than a few stray shots of cities around the world), with the action confined to the streets of London.

* Fun Fact #1: Guest added a level of veracity by casting Arthur Christiansen, former editor for the Daily Express, basically playing himself as the paper’s head editor, Jefferson.

The special effects may appear primitive by today’s standards, but they do the job. Given the limited time, money and resources the filmmakers had at their disposal, the visuals never fail to get the point across. Les Bowie’s matte work features some impressive paintings, including shots of a bone-dry Thames and the Taj Mahal with skeletal cattle in the foreground. One of the most striking visuals in the black and white film are the yellow-tinted opening and closing scenes,* depicting a planet that’s burning up. Water is at a premium, limited to strict rationing. Everyone looks perpetually hot to the point of exhaustion, drenched in sweat. Tempers flare and inhibitions, as well as excess clothing, are discarded.** In a moment of unbridled revelry, a group of beatniks tears through a town, creating an orgy of chaos, toppling cars and splashing water on each other. 

* Fun Fact #2: Some prints of the film didn’t include the tinted scenes, which added another dimension. For the movie’s home video restoration, the BFI referenced the original yellow dyes utilized for the initial release.

** Fun Fact #3 Janet Munro’s brief topless scene earned the film an “X” rating in the U.K. and was omitted altogether from the U.S. version.

Nothing sells humanity’s dire predicament as much as the exemplary performances by the main cast members. Stenning (Judd) isn’t our typical hero, but an alcoholic burnout (pardon the pun). He’s fallen into a creative and personal slump, but finds hope for his career in what might be the scoop of the century. He finds additional inspiration in a tempestuous relationship with Jeannie Craig (Janet Munro) a strong-willed government worker. Although Edward Judd was the featured player, Leo McKern* merits special notice as the film’s true star, Stenning’s irascible, sarcastic science editor, Bill Maguire.** McKern inhabits the role as a flesh and blood individual obsessed with reporting the truth. We get the feeling that he practically lives in the newsroom, outside of a few scenes in his favorite local bar (filmed in an actual pub on Fleet Street).

* Fun Fact #4: Fans of the BBC TV series The Prisoner might recognize McKern as one of the most memorable incarnations of Number Two.

** Fun Fact #5: In one scene Maguire facetiously comments about his glass eye melting, a direct reference to the actor’s glass eye.

Janet Munro is another revelation, as Jeannie Craig, who holds a low-level position, but harbors some critical information that affects the entire world. She’s an independent woman, more than a match for Stenning’s sexist, bullying tactics, forcing him to play by her rules. Munro accepted the role as a conscious choice to shed her wholesome Disney persona (establishing herself in films such as Darby O’Gill and the Little People and Swiss Family Robinson), adopting a more grown up image. She succeeds in her nuanced performance, managing to be headstrong, yet alluring and vulnerable. In an overtly sexual scene that must have given the censors pause, she shares a smoldering (in more ways than one) moment with Judd.

The Day the Earth Caught Fire takes a dim view of the people in charge, questioning their ability to make the right decisions or willingness to disseminate information to the masses. It’s a timeless message that hasn’t lost its relevance. The film ends on an ambiguous note. While the fate of the Earth hangs in the balance, the camera pans across the Daily Express printing room, revealing two opposing newspaper headlines with opposite outcomes. Although the appearance of a cathedral and ringing bells seem to suggest a positive conclusion, the screen fades to black before we can be sure. The filmmakers seem to leave everything in our court, suggesting our final chapter hasn’t been written, and it’s up to us to decide our fate. The Day the Earth Caught Fire is an exceptional example of a “what if” film, which deserves to be regarded as a classic.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Post-Apocalyptic August Quick Picks and Pans

On the Beach (1959) Most post-apocalyptic films provide some glimmer of hope, however slight. Director Stanley Kramer gives the audience no quarter with this grim, star-studded depiction of a no-win situation following a nuclear war. Minus some dubious Australian accents, it’s a solid adaptation (working from a screenplay by John Paxton) of Nevil Shute’s novel. Commander Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck) and his crew of the U.S.S. Sawfish survived the deadly exchange between superpowers, which obliterated most of the world’s population. He heads for Australia, which has avoided initial cataclysm, but is due to receive a deadly radioactive cloud within months.

On The Beach captures the final, desperate moments of Towers and other survivors. Towers grapples with denial over the death of his family in the States, while enjoying a brief, tentative romance with Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner). Fred Astaire portrays a scientist with a fatalistic streak, preparing his renovated Ferrari for one last race. The saddest story is Anthony Perkins as a young Australian officer with a new wife (Donna Anderson) and baby, pondering the best time to end it all before they succumb to the ravages of radiation sickness. An overwhelming atmosphere of dread runs throughout the film, chronicling the last gasp of a doomed civilization. This emotionally devastating film is essential viewing, although I’d wager it’s not something most of us would care to re-visit.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

The Girl with All the Gifts (2016) Director Colm McCarthy’s engrossing film, with a screenplay by Mike Carey (adapted from his novel), ranks among the best zombie films of recent memory. While it has the requisite gory flesh-eating zombie action, it takes a backseat to thoughtful exploration of the ethics of vivisection for the greater good. Melanie (Sennia Nannua), a very special teenage girl, might hold the key to humanity’s salvation. She, along with her peers, are held under lock and key as experimental subjects. Her dedicated teacher (Gemma Arterton) stands in the way of an idealistic medical researcher (Glenn Close) who claims to have the cure (at the expense of Melanie’s life). Nannua’s excellent performance as a young person caught between the human and zombie worlds is the heart and conscience of the film. The Girl with All the Gifts is the rarest of beasts: a tense, ambitious zombie holocaust film that appeals to both sides of the brain.          

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Le Dernier Combat (aka: The Last Battle) (1983) This stellar feature film debut from director/co-writer Luc Besson takes place several years after a war between unspecified countries. The main character (Pierre Jolivet) picks through the rubble, scavenging for anything that will keep him alive a little bit longer. He joins forces with a doctor (Jean Bouise), who’s created a fortified enclave within a hospital, thwarting the attacks of a brutish antagonist (Jean Reno). Besson’s film is virtually dialogue-free, complemented by stark black and white cinematography, which underscores the contrasts of this new, broken society. In this bleak, near-future scenario populated by profiteers and exploitation, there are only two options: survival or death. It’s a harsh world, with harsh choices, where wits might not be enough when battling the witless.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

Young Ones (2014) Writer/director Jake Paltrow’s near-future film, set in the American southwest (filmed in South Africa) envisions a world not ruined by war, but by economic and ecological strife. Ernest Holm (Michael Shannon) is the alcoholic patriarch trying to support his family on his dusty farm, trading supplies to make ends meet. He shows the ropes to his sensitive son Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee), while his daughter Mary (Elle Fanning) succumbs to the charms of her fast-talking, deceitful boyfriend Flem (Nicholas Hoult). Young Ones paints a portrait of the new west that resembles the old west, where frontier justice is the accepted paradigm. It’s a bleak view of a possible future, where vehicles run on alcohol and water is at a premium. Like a flower in the desert, however (perhaps best personified by Jerome), we’re reminded that love, persistence and ingenuity can still prevail.       

Rating: ***. ½. Available on Blu-ray (Region B), DVD and Amazon Prime

Five (1951) In this grim, ahead-of-its-time film, written and directed by Arch Oboler, five survivors of a nuclear holocaust (each avoided the effects of the blast in unique circumstances: one was in a bank vault, one was atop Mount Everest, etc…) take up residence in a house nestled in the mountains (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright). Tensions mount and tempers flare as four of the individuals try to do their best to cooperate and rebuild society. Their efforts are thwarted by the fifth survivor, Eric (James Anderson), a racist malcontent who attempts to sabotage their efforts to support his own selfish agenda. Oboler’s film doesn’t pull its punches in its depiction of the emotional and physical toll that would result from such a nightmarish situation (especially as portrayed by Susan Douglas Rubes as a young mother to be).          

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD and Amazon Prime

Ever Since the World Ended (2001) Co-directors Calum Grant and Joshua Atesh Litle present a future documentary, set in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco, 10 years after a plague wiped out most of the world’s population. The mockumentary, told mostly through talking head-style interviews, illustrates how the city’s population, reduced to 186 survivors, cope with their new reality, forming new alliances and developing a sense of renewed community. The film does a nice job of presenting a cross-section of different voices, although not enough is heard from the older residents, who lived most of their lives in a pre-plague world. We also hear very little about the people they lost or how they manage feelings of survivor’s guilt. It’s obvious that the film was made on an extremely tight budget, so the scope is necessarily narrow. Even if it can’t quite live up to its ambitions, it deserves praise for the attempt.

Rating: *** . Available on DVD

Quintet (1979) I’m not sure if I liked Quintet, but I respected its bold, singular concept. Director/co-writer Robert Altman’s experimental feature depicts a future ice age (filmed in Montreal, around the abandoned Expo 67 fairgrounds), where a life or death game has become the predominant pastime. Paul Newman stars as Essex, a seal hunter, who visits his brother in presumably the last city on Earth. All the residents partake in the game, called “Quintet” (devised by Altman). In a plot that parallels the game, it’s kill-or-be-killed, as Essex navigates his way through the city. It’s a near miss that suffers due to glacial pacing, a lack of relatable characters, and a future society that isn’t fleshed out nearly enough.

Rating: **½. Available on DVD

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Damnation Alley

(1977) Directed by Jack Smight; Written by: Lukas Heller and Alan Sharp; Based on the novella by Roger Zelazny; Starring: George Peppard, Jan Michael Vincent, Paul Winfield, Dominique Sanda and Jackie Earle Haley; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: **½
“There used to be more of us, now there’s less. All the dead are dead, and the living are dying. That goes for you as well.” – Man (Robert Donner)

“How did I feel about it? Well, I felt we did the best we could with the technology that was available…But was I happy? I don’t think we realized the potential from the book in the script because of the problems involved, but today we could do it, and do it well.” – Jerome Zeitman (co-producer)

Post-apocalyptic movies share a strong relationship with road movies, where danger and discovery lie around every corner. The open road represents endless possibilities and the promise of freedom. The Mad Max films entrenched the post-apocalyptic road movie in filmgoers’ collective consciousness, but before Max Rockatansky tore down the highway in his V8 Interceptor, Denton and Tanner traversed the dusty, peril-strewn road known as “Damnation Alley” in their Landmaster. For their adaptation, screenwriters Lukas Heller and Alan Sharp did away with much of Roger Zelazny’s anti-establishment novella, while retaining the basic concept of driving across a transformed American landscape.

Damnation Alley begins on a somber note, with global thermonuclear war. A large portion of enemy missiles, presumably from the U.S.S.R., are destroyed, but not enough to prevent most of the United States from becoming a wasteland. The opposing country is dealt an equally devastating blow, with the combined atomic explosions knocking the Earth off its axis. The planet plunges into climactic upheaval, with massive changes to the weather and large areas left uninhabitable. A California missile base manages to avoid obliteration, along with its staff, and for a time they continue to maintain the semblance of normalcy. When the base is destroyed in an accident, the survivors set off toward Albany, New York, where life might still exist.

Unlike the original story, which placed nihilistic antihero Tanner front and center, the film focuses on two leads, Tanner* (Jan Michael Vincent) and Denton (George Peppard). Compared to his literary counterpart, Tanner is toned down considerably. Instead of an anti-establishment criminal with oppositional defiant disorder, Tanner is presented as a former Air Force officer, who has a problem with taking orders. The character in the original story was an antihero, living outside society’s norms, with a violent and sadistic streak. He only accepts the mission because he’ll be granted a pardon from his crimes (much closer to Snake Plissken in John Carpenter’s 1981 film, Escape from New York).
 Denton (George Peppard) is given a much more prominent role in the movie. He appears briefly in the original story, to present the stakes to Tanner, but quickly steps aside. In the cinematic version, it’s Denton who stays in charge. The screenplay adds additional characters to the mix. The most notable addition is Paul Winfield as Keegan. Like Tanner, military life doesn’t quite suit him. He’s an artist at heart, and the most likable character of the bunch. Along their journey, they’re joined by Janice (Dominque Sanda), a would-be Las Vegas lounge singer, and Billy (Jackie Earle Haley), a scrappy orphaned teenager with a penchant for rock throwing.

* Fun Fact: In a 2011 interview, stunt coordinator/effects designer Dean Jeffries stated that Steve McQueen was considering a role (presumably Tanner), but the studio wouldn’t pay his $2 million price tag.

Few would dispute that the real star of Damnation Alley is the hulking Landmaster all-terrain vehicle designed by Dean Jeffries. It’s built to dish out punishment as well as take it,* armed to the teeth with rockets and machine guns, and a unique configuration of four three-tire pods, to tackle the ever-changing topography. Although the Landmaster** doesn’t match the vehicle’s description in the book, it’s close enough to the point that any objections would seem like nitpicking.

* Another Fun Fact: Only one full-scale Landmaster was built for the film. According to producer Paul Maslansky, despite its rugged appearance, the vehicle wasn’t capable of traveling more than 10 miles without breaking down. It was also supposed to have amphibious capabilities, but Maslansky commented that it “sunk like a rock” in Flathead Lake in Kalispel, Montana, and had to be dragged out.  

** Personal Note: I have fond memories of seeing the Landmaster parked next to the 101 freeway near Universal City, where it was a fixture for many years, before being sold to a collector.  

The film falls short in its depiction of the mutant creatures Tanner and Denton encounter along the way. In one scene, Tanner evades giant scorpions while riding his dirtbike on sand dunes. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to see the scorpions aren’t occupying the same three-dimensional space. Any tension from the scene is undermined by the arachnids’ transparent appearance, recalling the giant lobster scene from Teenagers from Outer Space (1959). Another pivotal scene with mutant creatures involved thousands of killer cockroaches. To the filmmakers’ credit, 300 Madagascar hissing cockroaches were imported. They were augmented, however, with 5-6,000 fake cockroaches, pulled along on a mat to appear as if they were attacking en masse.

The film’s plot follows a dubious course. In the original story, it’s a race against time because Tanner is transporting a vaccine that will eradicate a plague that’s ravaging Boston. In the film, Tanner and Denton are going to Albany, New York, to see if anyone’s left alive. Without the plague as a plot point, there’s no sense of urgency to reach Albany. (SPOILER ALERT) Adding to the script’s poor choices is the Polyanna ending, which suggests there are idyllic pockets of Americana left untouched by the cataclysm, and that the ruined climate would correct itself (contradicting a line of dialogue spoken by Billy earlier in the film).

In his commentary, co-producer Paul Maslansky admitted he didn’t read the book and didn’t care for science fiction in general (not exactly a good basis for overseeing the production). He also conceded that the results were a “B” effort, and the film could have been handled better today. Despite these concerns, Damnation Alley is a competent, if unremarkable film, featuring some decent performances, a few nice bits of dialogue, the aforementioned Landmaster, and a good score by Jerry Goldsmith. If you want to see the movie that Damnation Alley should have been, you’re better off watching Escape from New York. The original material begs for a remake, although the irony is that a more faithful adaptation might appear to those unfamiliar with Zelazny’s story, as a rip-off of John Carpenter’s film.