They feel the Earth move under their feet.
If you liked San Andreas (2105) and want to see more cataclysmic quakes, here’s a fun hour you can spend watching the Earth move while likable scientists figure out the mysteries of geology and love.
In The Night the World Exploded (1957), William Leslie plays a California scientist who’s finished his new earthquake meter, just in time to detect and predict The Big One. He’s such a workaholic that when it comes to romance, he has zero ability to detect tremors, and so he remains clueless about his assistant Kathryn Grant being madly in love with him. With no reason to stay on now that the gadget is complete, and no sign of interest from Leslie, Grant confides in their associate Tristram Coffin that she’s better off quitting and moving on to some other guy. Coffin tells her to give Leslie some more time.
But time is running out for them and everybody else on Earth. Leslie’s machine next indicates the first Big One will be followed by much bigger ones and in less than a month’s time the world will explode. The cause is found deep below the surface, when the scientists descend into Carlsbad Caverns and discover little black rocks, a new element that, when taken out of the cavern pools and exposed to air, feeds on hydrogen, expands, superheats and finally explodes with the power of several atom bombs. Since this element is neutralized and extinguished in water, citizens and experts of the world unite to flood the hot spots in hopes of preventing the killer quakes. Meanwhile, our doctor remains as dense as the new element he’s discovered; will he see that Grant loves him before the planet goes boom? You’ll have to watch to find out.
Kathryn Grant plays a good strong heroine, smart and brave, with normal jitters and fears. When she has to climb down a rope ladder into what looks like an bottomless shaft to the deepest part of the cavern, she’s terrified but doesn’t want the men around her to notice. They do, and are too gentlemanly to say anything that might embarrass her, which makes for neat little scene. When the ladder starts swinging wildly, she freezes halfway down, so Leslie starts pushing her buttons: “isn’t that just like a woman?” he says, fully knowing she’s no coward but hoping that his pretend sexism will get her angry enough to forget her fear and start moving. Once she’s down he admits he was scared too and through the movie praises her bravery and willingness to go into danger next to him. When the caverns cave in on top of her during a big quake, he goes into full action hero mode to get her out. They make a nice looking pair, their chemistry isn’t as hot as the volcanic rocks they’re handling but their acting is good, and it’s fun to watch them bond as they work together.
Fred Sears (Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, 1956) directs and does the narration. He also does a decent job balancing the mass panic and destruction with the suspenseful action with all the exploring and theorizing. There are deep discussions about damage done to the environment (this is Sears’ sequel, Earth vs. Mankind), the importance of living for the moment, and mankind’s common goals in dire times. A few very phony low budget effects are mixed with a lot of very real and graphic disaster footage, which convinces you of the widespread ruination. I found the ideas and solutions clever, like using the rocks as explosives to blow out a dam (more scary footage of water rushing through highway tunnels there) when a stubborn eruption needs extinguishing.
There is some unintentional comedy in the way Leslie shows world experts how the rocks work with the aid of a tabletop globe hung on a tree, or seeing folding card tables in military aircraft. In the last days’ worldwide TV transmissions, as countries report whether they managed to prevent quakes, poor Greece gets destroyed on live feed as the scientists watch and then basically turn away with a shrug. Then there’s a room-sized supercomputer called the DataTron which sounds so modern and spits out the exact minute that doom will come. Things like that are part of the fun, I’ve seen far cornier, and for me it all worked pretty well. The Night the World Exploded is a fun hour spent watching Hollywood find yet another way to wreck the planet and watching people pull themselves together as things fall apart.