December 21, 2011

Crackpot Science

Crack in the World (1965)

'50s and '60s sci-fi is well-known for its guilty pleasures, and Crack in the World is guiltier than most: guilty of jaw-droppingly bad science; guilty of perplexing character behavior; guilty of an ending that will have you shaking your head in disbelief. But then, let's also give it some credit. In some respects, the film was ahead of its time. The producers obviously realized that audiences wouldn't sit still for the same old invaders from outer space or giant radioactive creatures. Instead, man himself, in the form of an arrogant and heedless scientist, represents the ultimate threat to the earth. Crack's enviro-humanistic message hit theaters at a time when concern for the environment was just a seed some years away from flowering in the national consciousness. Crack also prefigures the public disaster mania that flooded theaters of the 1970s with epics like Airport (1970) and its numerous sequels, The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Earthquake (1974), and many others.

The film begins in a remote area of Africa (actually a remote area of Spain standing in for Africa), at the Project Inner Space base. A delegation of project backers headed by Sir Charles Eggerston (Alexander Knox), arrive to check in on the project. They're escorted by beautiful geologist Maggie Sorenson (Janette Scott), wife of project head and brilliant scientist Stephen Sorenson (Dana Andrews). In a facility miles below the surface (it looks more than a little bit like the technologically advanced lair of a James Bond super-villain), the delegation is briefed by Dr. Sorenson on the final phase of the project-- an audacious plan to shoot an atomic missile down into the depths of the earth in the hopes of breaking through and freeing magma from the earth's core to provide humanity with limitless geothermal energy.

Sorenson tells the group that the potential gains are well worth the small risk. He admits that a colleague on the project, Dr. Ted Rampion (Kieron Moore), is very concerned that such a concentrated nuclear explosion could exacerbate problems with small fissures in the earth's crust already created by atomic testing, with possibly catastrophic results. Conveniently, Rampion is in another part of the world studying a volcano, and is unable to make his case in person (we learn later that the devious senior scientist purposely invited the commission to visit while Rampion was away).

Dr. Stephen Sorenson (Dana Andrews) uses an early
version of Powerpoint to make his case for shooting
an atomic missile straight into the earth's core.
Sorenson emphasizes the revolutionary possibilities of limitless geothermal energy, and the delegation, no doubt with visions of limitless profit, gives Sorenson and his team the go ahead to shoot the missile. Rampion, learning of his mentor's duplicity, arranges an emergency meeting with Sir Charles to try to persuade him to call off the launch. He doesn't beat around the bush:
"Suppose the Macedo trench splits open under the ocean? A crack a thousand miles long, bringing superheated magma in contact with the ocean... Earthquakes, tidal waves, mass destruction on an apocalyptic scale!"
Sir Charles is persuaded, but too late. His call to the project as the countdown proceeds is put on hold. The missile shoots down the miles-long shaft, a tremendous explosion blows the missile tower to smithereens, and, lo and behold, a fountain of magma erupts from deep within the earth. Success! Humanity's energy needs are guaranteed for a thousand years!

The jubilation, however, is short-lived. As the project team admires the magma fountain that they've created, eagle-eyed Maggie spots a cloud of dust in the far distance kicked up by a panicked stampede of animals. They try to figure out what's spooked the herd, to no avail. In the underground facility, the seismographs record large earthquakes in the vicinity. Two African communities have been completely leveled with great loss of life. One has a long history of quakes, but the other-- no history at all. As news of other events comes in, the scientists realize that Rampion was right-- the quakes are taking place along the Mercado fault. It soon becomes evident that the explosion has caused a crack along the fault that is picking up speed and threatens to literally tear the earth apart.

Headquarters of Project Inner Space, or lair of a
James Bond super-villain? You make the call!
With the vindicated Dr. Rampion now in charge, the team attempts to stop the devastation with yet another atomic explosion on a volcanic island in the crack's path. Instead of stopping the crack's progression, the second explosion changes its course, with interesting and momentous results.

Crack in the World looks much more expensive than its relatively modest budget (estimated at $600,000 by IMDb, pretty meager for an effects-laden film even in 1965 dollars). The model work and pyrotechnics, interspersed with stock footage of volcanic eruptions and lava flows, is very impressive. Even with the somewhat ridiculous sight of an atomic-tipped missile hanging upside down from its gantry, ready to be launched into the earth's depths, I found myself thinking through the countdown sequence that, setting aside the fantastic premise, it had almost a documentary feel to it -- this is exactly how it would go if such a hare-brained scheme were attempted in real life. The success of the film's look and feel is no doubt due to the contributions of art director Eugene Lourie. Lourie had a long and successful career in art direction from the 1930s through the 1970s. He also directed some of the most memorable and influential "giant monster on the loose" sci-fi epics of the 1950s and '60s, including The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), The Giant Behemoth (1959), and Gorgo (1961) (and let's not forget The Colossus of New York, 1958, even if Eugene himself wanted to).

Maggie Sorenson (Janette Scott) tries one last time to
get her husband's attention before the world blows up.
Crack is less successful with the human side of the story. The film plays up the intertwined relationships among the three principal protagonists, Dr. Stephen Sorenson, wife Maggie, and professional and romantic rival Ted Rampion. Stephen is a complicated and confusing character. We see early on that he's being treated for a debilitating and possibly life-threatening mystery illness. And, we find out that the project's second-in-command and Sorenson's chief critic, Dr. Rampion, was once Maggie Sorenson's lover. The Sorensons have only been married for a short time, but Stephen is too wrapped up in his momentous project and too worried about his illness to treat his wife with even a modicum of affection or respect. She wants a baby and tries to get him interested, but he coldly rejects her. Later, he impugns her professional abilities and accuses her of still having feelings for Rampion. We're left wondering why he married her in the first place, and why he would torture himself by working so closely with her former lover. As the film races to its climax, Sorenson literally drives his beautiful wife into Rampion's arms. He comes off as more of a obsessed, petulant horse's ass than a tragic figure.

The zenith of Dana Andrews' acting career came in the 1940s, when he starred in such prestigious A-list productions as Laura (1944), A Walk in the Sun (1945), and the Oscar-winning The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Later, as the A-list offers stopped coming in, he got work in some very good B pictures (Curse of the Demon, 1957; The Satan Bug, 1965), and some that were not so good (The Frozen Dead, 1966).

Square-jawed Kieron Moore's other sci-fi, fantasy and horror work includes Satellite in the Sky (1956), Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959), Dr. Blood's Coffin (1961), and The Day of the Triffids (1962). His hard-to-place accent in Crack in the World would not lead you to believe he was an Irishman, born Kieron O'Hanrahan.

Janette Scott also starred in Day of the Triffids with Kieron. Other genre appearances include Hammer's Paranoiac (1963) and William Castle's regrettable remake of The Old Dark House (1963).

In spite of the exasperating and confusing behavior of the main characters and a ludicrous ending, Crack in the World is one of the better sci-fi spectacles of the '60s. Watch it for the rockets, the explosions, the earthquakes, the flowing lava, the train wrecks, and all manner of geologic mayhem. It's finally been released on DVD by Olive Films, and is available on Netflix (streaming or disc).

"Would it mean the end of the world, or a new life for all mankind?"

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