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The Incredible Petrified World

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When "The Incredible Petrified World" (1957) opens, you may think you've stumbled onto an antiquated undersea documentary, complete with the classic narrator's voice. But soon enough, you discover you've just attended a presentation by a scientist who cheerfully admits he's stolen his brother's design for a diving bell and is developing it for a rival investor. This might seem to be the seed of a conflict, but no—this isn't the kind of movie that exploits potential complexities. Instead, the only conflicts allowed revolve around four young volunteers who climb into Professor Millard Wyman's diving bell only to lose contact with the surface with the cable they depend on for their safe return snaps.

For some of us, director Jerry Warren's approach to storytelling is what makes this film funny: he draws out moments such as a guy listening to the radio in his car and the foursome swimming, swimming, swimming… and misses opportunity after opportunity to spice things up with action that's actually action by easily dispatching the villain who appears well into the film. Let's call these choices quirky.

Warren is well-known to sci-fi and horror fans for his capricious reworks of Latin American movies he imported to the U.S. Reportedly, he cut out whole swaths of dialogue and other material he considered extraneous; if the edited version was too short, he shot replacement scenes and added them in. (Ironically, the replacement scenes were often lengthy exchanges of dialogue.) The results were often downright bizarre. He also liked to create montages—one of which appears in "The Incredible Petrified World" where the two brother scientists fabricate components for a new, improved diving bell. (Keep your eye out for the most important step in the scientific process: drinking some kind of beverage from paper cups.)

The four adventurers survive their underwater ordeal by discovering a network of oxygen-filled caves that are, incidentally, bone dry with the exception of some conveniently located pools of fresh, potable water. The cavern scenes were shot in Arizona's Colossal Cave, which was opened to tourists in the 1930s. According to the Colossal Cave State Park, the cave is not presently growing speleothems (such as stalagmites and stalactites) or other features that depend on the presence of water. Two other notable cases in the park, Arkestone and La Tetera, are "live"—meaning they continue to grow features. To protect their fragile ecosystems, authorities allow only a few researchers access to Arkenstone and La Tetera, a measure that seems wise given that seven new species of fauna have been found in Arkenstone alone, underscoring the value of treading lightly on delicate environments.

The Science

Matt Heumann

Matt HeumannGeologist Matt Heumann of the University of Utah discusses the caves in the film “The Incredible Petrified World.”


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