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asteroid impact poster
Making a movie about the threat of an asteroid impact dates back far longer than most are aware of. (credit: despair.com)

Italian doomsday: killer asteroids in 1958


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If you turn on the Discovery Science Channel on a lazy Saturday afternoon, there is a pretty good chance that they will be showing a “documentary” about killer asteroids. That word should always be used in quotation marks, because many of these shows contain some ridiculous errors. There are easily several dozen of these shows, some of them dating back to the mid-1990s. But if you try to get away by switching to the SyFy Channel, there is a pretty good chance that—if you don’t get stuck with Megashark vs. Giant Octopus—you will run into one of at least a dozen movies about killer asteroids. You know the obvious ones, Armageddon and Deep Impact, both from 1998. You might even be aware of the 1979 Sean Connery movie Meteor! (which sometimes has the exclamation mark after the name and sometimes doesn’t—its presence does not change the general crappiness of the film). But there are a ton of low-budget films that you probably never heard of. There is Meteor Storm, and Meteor Apocalypse, Impact, Without Warning, Meteorites!, A Fire in the Sky, Doomsday Rock, Falling Fire, and Asteroid. Both Meteor(!) and A Fire in the Sky date from the late 1970s. All the rest are from the late 1990s to the present, and were clearly inspired by the 1996 impact of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter. You can bet good money that there will be more, especially as we approach our predicted doom in 2012.

What does make the movie noteworthy is that it contains several of the characteristics of much later asteroid impact movies.

But it turns out that the killer asteroid movie concept goes back farther than the 1970s—much farther. In 1958, Guido Giambartolomei produced The Day the Sky Exploded. You can be forgiven for not recognizing Giambartolomei’s name. He was an Italian producer, and this is an Italian movie, and possibly the great granddaddy of all killer asteroid flicks. It is also a rather lousy film, at times barely watchable, but fortunately only 80 minutes long. It was dubbed into English, sometimes effectively—they used Australian and Indian actors to reflect their native accents—and sometimes not, such as referring to retro-rockets as “retard rockets.”

The Day the Sky Exploded was written by Sandro Continenza and Marcello Coscia and directed by Paolo Hueusch. The cinematographer was Mario Bava, who directed Black Sunday in 1960 and quickly made a name for himself as a director of Italian horror movies. Bava’s cinematography does make the film more visually interesting than one would expect from a really low-budget Italian science fiction movie. Other than Bava, nobody from The Day the Sky Exploded seems to have left much of a mark on film history.

What does make the movie noteworthy is that it contains several of the characteristics of much later asteroid impact movies. This raises the question of where the writers got their ideas. Did they simply come up with them on their own, or were they reading journals or science fiction stories that inspired them, and which ones?

The film starts with a bit of Cold War fantasy: the United States, Soviet Union, and England have all united to build an atomic rocket to launch the first man into space on a trip around the Moon. The rocket is going to launch from Australia, and at the last minute the project leaders announce that American John MacLaren (played by Swiss actor Paul Hubschmid) has been selected to fly the rocket. There are some minor subplots, such as MacLaren’s worried wife, or an icy female scientist who eventually removes her glasses and listens to her heart and falls for a hunky engineer.

Before liftoff, several characters refer to the rocket’s escape capsule, giving strong hints that it will be used. MacLaren launches, something goes wrong, and he has to abandon the rocket in the escape capsule, luckily landing back in Australia. Several of the engineers involved in the program are horrified to hear that MacLaren wasn’t able to shut the atomic rocket off before he bailed.

Soon astronomers notice something has gone wrong in the “delta sector” of the asteroid belt and they put two and two together and determine that MacLaren’s rocket hit an asteroid and exploded… and somehow managed to cause a bunch of asteroids to come together into a single large asteroid 10 kilometers wide, that is now on a collision course with Earth.

There’s a lot of nonsense involved. For instance, somehow all the animals of the Earth start sensing that something is wrong out in space and they begin migrating inland, away from the coasts. Even the engineers’ dog, Geiger, runs away. As one person explains, the animals are more sensitive than the best scientific instruments. Strange halos also begin to appear in the sky.

Yes, it’s not scientifically accurate.

Sometimes scientific concepts have been translated into fiction, but there are also numerous examples where fiction writers have been responsible for ideas later adopted by scientists and engineers.

Eventually the project leaders and members of the military hold a big meeting at the United Nations and discuss the fact that this killer asteroid is going to hit Earth and cause a lot of damage. A scientist shows an image of the Tunguska crater in Siberia where an asteroid hit in 1908 and flattened several thousand square kilometers of forest. (The badly-translated movie refers to this as a strike by a “thunderbolt.” It is worth noting that the film shows an artistic rendering of the Tunguska crater, but in reality that object left no visible crater and exploded in the air.) If this killer asteroid hits in the ocean, it will cause huge tidal waves. The nations of the world agree that they need to conduct mass evacuations away from the coasts.

The Day the Sky Exploded makes liberal use of stock footage, everything from animal stampedes to fleeing refugees to disaster footage. Before the asteroid hits, it passes near the Moon, and this somehow causes massive atmospheric disruptions on Earth. There are scenes of storms and brush fires and general mayhem. There’s a subplot involving MacLaren’s wife and son fleeing to an underground bunker, only to barely escape when it is engulfed in flames.

MacLaren, who should probably be pretty unpopular considering that he’s responsible for dooming planet Earth, manages to redeem himself at the last minute by coming up with a brilliant idea. He suggests that the nations of the world take all their rockets and put all their nuclear weapons on top of them and fire them all off at the asteroid before it hits. Surprisingly, nobody has thought of this before. So the governments all rush to do it and we are then treated to stock footage of lots and lots of rocket and missile launches, followed by stock footage of nuclear explosions.

There’s some last minute drama as one of the scientists, who has decided that the end of the world is a good time to go religiously nutty, shuts off the air conditioning unit that the audience has been told repeatedly is vital to the proper operation of the base computer that is required to calculate the range to the asteroid. MacLaren and a few others rush him, causing him to grab hold of some live electrical wires and accidentally fry himself. MacLaren turns on the air conditioning, the computer works and makes its last minute computations, and the missiles are properly targeted and blow up the asteroid. Earth is saved.

One of my interests is how space-related ideas and themes are generated, translated, and transmitted, from fiction to scientific journals and film—not necessarily in any specific order. Sometimes scientific concepts have been translated into fiction, but there are also numerous examples where fiction writers have been responsible for ideas later adopted by scientists and engineers. And of course fiction can have a powerful effect on shaping peoples’ lives—witness the influence of Robert Heinlein and Jerry Pournelle’s writings on the NewSpace movement, or the fact that many people who were inspired by Star Trek later went to work in the space program. The effects can be both good and bad, and it is possible even for noble and inspiring ideas to have a negative influence on real world activities.

An obscure, long-forgotten, and not-very-good Italian science fiction film somehow connected a number of dots in 1958 that were still scattered throughout scientific literature, to the extent that they existed at all.

We can guess where these Italian writers and director got some of their ideas. In 1951 George Pal directed the classic When Worlds Collide, which was based upon a book from 1933, and it seems likely that the director was influenced by this well-regarded American movie from earlier that decade. Pal’s film undoubtedly established the idea of preceding the big impact with a series of natural disasters to whet the audience’s appetite, something that was later copied in Meteor in 1979 and Armageddon in 1998. The later films had swarms of smaller asteroids taking out cities prior to the Big One with humanity’s name on it. Scientifically, this is a load of baloney, but it provides audiences with lots of disaster porn to ooh and aah over, and build up tension for the climax. The Day the Sky Exploded doesn’t mention earlier meteors, and it’s never clear just how all the destructive weather phenomena are caused. But there’s a lot of other unscientific gobbledygook in the movie as well, so this is not that surprising.

But where did the movie’s creators learn about the Tunguska explosion? And where did they come up with the idea of an asteroid impact causing widespread destruction on Earth? And where did they come up with the idea of using nuclear weapons atop missiles to take out the asteroid? Perhaps only an Italian science fiction film historian might be able to track down the answers.

The idea that asteroids could pose danger to human life is one that evolved slowly, over many decades. The giant Meteor Crater near Flagstaff, Arizona was not scientifically connected to a meteor until Eugene Shoemaker published his study results in 1960. The connection of an asteroid collision to at least one major extinction event in Earth’s history did not come until several decades after that—and the details are still under dispute. An obscure, long-forgotten, and not-very-good Italian science fiction film somehow connected a number of dots in 1958 that were still scattered throughout scientific literature, to the extent that they existed at all.

It is probable that the writers got their ideas from somewhere else. Perhaps they read a popular account of a scientific journal article, or even a science fiction story from the mid-1950s. Certainly the idea of meteors killing astronauts in spacecraft was popular in 1950s science fiction, and the aliens in the book, radio program, and later movie The War of the Worlds landed on Earth in what were initially reported to be meteorites. But it still seems slightly surprising that these ideas showed up in a cheesy movie such as The Day the Sky Exploded. Of course, none of the movies that have followed and used this same essential plot have been much better than this obscure 1958 film. You will probably never stumble across this movie on cable television, but despite that fact and its overall poor quality, it probably deserves greater scrutiny than it has gotten so far.


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