Off-Season Reviews: the Day the Sky Exploded (1958)
Growing up, I read the British horror magazine the Dark Side religiously. Bi-monthly, each issue contained an addition to their ambitious A-Z guide to horror movies. I can still remember the first issue I ever bought, an occasion that burnt two images in my mind. The first was the cover of Kerekes and Slater’s landmark Killing for Culture: Death Film from Mondo to Snuff. Today I view a film which received a middling review in their A-Z guide: Paolo Heusch’s the Day the Sky Exploded.
The Day the Sky Exploded has two things going for it: one, its Director of Photography was Mario Bava (here billed “Baja”). Two, its story starts off with an international (American, English, and Russian!) space flight around the moon. This is important as it establishes the film as the only sci-fi flick to be made in the Cold War-era with little partisan bias.
Unless you count the fact that an American, John McLaren (Paul Hubschmid) is chosen to be the pilot as partisan. Also, everyone – all the scientists, journalists, speak English. Some with an obvious Indian, Spanish, or Japanese accent sure, but it’s still English. (Except for one General, whom I’m guessing is Italian, who speaks one line in his native tongue. He’s completely ignored by McLaren, who continues on with his conversation as if the poor General had never spoke.)
After you’ve been thrown off by this unity amongst the nations, you’re then treated to some lovely 50’s sexism. You have to love how Katy Dandridge (Madeleine Fischer) is the only scientist dedicated enough to keep working while John’s in space; rather than drink hard liquor on the control deck. Her work ethic is assumed to just be her playing hard to get, so Professor Herbert Weisse (Ivo Garrani) makes a play at her. By first announcing how he’s going to seduce her over the base’s P.A.
Dandridge, that minx, still refuses his advances!
You have to feel bad for poor McLaren. Not only does his rocket fly into the Sun, after he ejects from it, sending a swarm of meteors towards the Earth, but his wife leaves him shortly thereafter. Presumably to shack up with a astronaut who’s not so cowardly as to fly his nuclear powered rocket into a star.
The best plan the world’s greatest minds can think up is to let the Moon do all the work. La luna’s gravitational pull to yank the meteors (numbered in the thousands) off course. Naturally this does not work.
McLaren finally makes good on being the “protagonist” when he realizes that the U.S. could blast the meteors out of the sky using our nukes! (The danger of releasing such a massive amount radiation into the stratosphere is quickly cast aside.) If there’s any meteors left over, well, Russia’s arsenal can clean those up.
(The film’s one concession to the world’s hard, Cold War reality occurs when the U.S.’ general is asked how many nukes we have. He quickly replies with “a thousand.” When the Russian general is then asked the same question, he pauses, thinks for a moment, and answers, “two thousand!”)
With the meteors arriving, the nuke line of defense is almost undone by a crazy scientist. A scientist who loses his cool, gets a bizarre look in his eye, runs out of the control room and… unplugs the air conditioner. That’s right, the one thing standing between the Earth and its destruction is a air conditioner.
Granted, the Day the Sky Exploded was made back in the days when it took a room to house a computer. Still though, as far as villains go, random crazed scientist isn’t very threatening.
Director Paolo Heusch: Quick! We have five minutes of film left, and we need a villain! You, extra scientist, can you act?
Random Background Scientist: Why yes, I had a full-ride at Juilliard.
DPH: Enough! Muss up your glasses, mess up your hair, and run around dastardly.
RBS: What’s my motivation?
DPH: Motivation? You don’t even have a name! Just do something!… Yes, yes, unplug the air conditioner! The perfect climax!
Someone eventually figures out why the nukes haven’t launched yet, and plugs the A.C. back in. Crisis averted.