Saturday, 4 April 2009

The Day The Earth Cried ‘Please, No Remake!’

I’ve had it with CGI disaster movies. There, I’ve said it. I’m now officially on the ‘Paintbox Armageddon’ wagon. I shun the catastrophe tourism of The Day After Tomorrow. I eschew the Blair Witch 9/11-ness of Cloverfield. I’m not going to see any more pixelated apocalypses.

All those perfectly captured panoramas of destruction, every droplet of tidal wave water rendered in exacting digital detail, every particle of dust visible as it settles on the incredibly accurate ruins of the city. It’s a bit like running a magnifying glass over a corpse for two and half hours. Enough already. At the same time as taking the pledge I’m also saying a little prayer in the hope that during the current round of WETA-filtered carnage remakes Hollywood’s merchants of computer generated mayhem decide to continue overlooking a possible retread of Val Guest’s magnificent 1961 movie The Day The Earth Caught Fire.

It’s a slender hope; I can see the fat index finger of a studio exec running down a page of Ebert’s Movie Yearbook and at the appropriate point a thought bubble forming over his head like a three-day-old fart: ‘Boys, we got ourselves the basis for a sequel to The Day The Earth Stood Still!’ That’s the last thing we need, believe me. The head-cancer-inducingly awful 2008 remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still is out on DVD on April 7th. If you’re holing up with some viewing matter over Easter and are lucky enough to be a member of a rental shop that doesn’t smell of popcorn, only stock copies of the latest Jason Statham release by the hundred and employ monosyllabic mouth-breathers, then do yourself a favour. Stop short of the Keanu chaos-in-a-basket in the D section of the A-Z and grab yourself a copy of the one where we catch fire rather than stand still.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire charts the fate of the planet following simultaneous American and Soviet nuclear tests that set it spinning off its axis towards the Sun. The story is primarily told through the experiences of Peter Stenning, a hard-drinking Daily Express journalist, for whom the impending global catastrophe is backdrop and metaphor for a personal journey through the loss and partial retrieval of faith in the human race.

Made in the wake of the CND Aldermaston march in 1958 and shortly before the Cuban missile crisis, the inhabitants of London (and thereby Britain), along with their leaders, are shown to be powerless in the face of the impending apocalypse. Practically all of the main characters display a weary, resigned cynicism. There is a sense that people must continue to play out their lives against the background of mounting international tension and likely obliteration, simply because there is little else they can do. However, as fights break out in the water rationing queues, beatniks party riotously and nihilistically in the streets and the evacuation process falters, we witness the gradual collapse of order and the evaporation of the national sang-froid.

Placing much of the drama in the offices of the Daily Express helps to suggest that the country can only report and comment on the crisis from the sidelines and no longer participate in global governance. The sense of lack of influence and loss of power is clearly tied to the erosion of Britain’s imperial role since the Second World War and the difficulty for Britons of coming to terms with having a diminished role in a changing world.

The loss of faith in former national and social institutions is emphasised through the character of Stenning; a borderline alcoholic, his marriage over, his career under threat. Little wonder that he regards the descent into anarchy going on around him with a jaundiced eye. He is propped up by his colleague Bill Maguire, a pivotal, patriarchal character who, as chief science writer for the Daily Express, deals with the crisis with a wry, weary but informed professionalism. He effectively provides the film’s commentary and presents the audience with a way to deal with the crisis in the absence or observed failure of conventional leadership. In some respects his deadpan cajoling provides the closest thing to reassuring stability and continuity, both for Stenning and the audience, in the film.

All rather relevant in the wake of G20. It’s been said before in relation to the film’s foreshadowing of global warming, but it bears restating; with every passing crisis the potency of The Day the Earth Caught Fire continues to abide. So if you want to watch a movie that seriously and intelligently deals with the global consequences of humankind’s actions, with a script that crackles louder than a forest fire and homespun special effects that don’t have CGI’s obliterating effect of spreading so much smooth peanut butter on your eyeballs, you know what to do.

Jez Conolly

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