by Mel Valentin
Almost fifty years before "Armageddon" or "Deep Impact" depicted the world nearly destroyed by a rogue asteroid, "When Worlds Collide" got there first, but in "When Worlds Collide" there’s nothing that can save the Earth from destruction. Based on a 1932 novel written by Philip Gordon Wylie and Edwin Balmer, "When Worlds Collide" took its inspiration from the Old Testament’s Book of Genesis and Noah’s Ark, in this case a space ark transporting a handful of survivors and livestock to a new, unblemished world. With Academy Award-winning special effects and a compelling doomsday scenario (more plausible then than now, of course), "When Worlds Collide" deserves to be included in any conversation involving the science-fiction canon (albeit with some qualification).A South African astronomer, Dr. Emery Bronson (Hayden Rorke) entrusts David Randall (Richard Derr), a pilot, to deliver a black case to another astronomer, Dr. Cole Hendron (Larry Keating), in New York City. Hendron’s daughter, Joyce (Barbara Rush), meets Randall at the airport. Almost immediately, Randall and Joyce are attracted to each other, but she already has a boyfriend, Tony Drake (Peter Hansen). Joyce assumes that Randall already knows what’s in the black case: proof that the Earth will be destroyed in a cataclysmic collision with a new star, Bellus. Randall sees the proof firsthand when Dr. Hendron gives a presentation, first to other scientists and industrialists, then to the United Nations, where other scientists meet Hendron’s evidence with skepticism and derision. Newspapers deride Hendron as a crackpot.
"A fascinating, subtext-heavy, doomsday flick from the Golden Age of sci-fi."
The planet orbiting Bellus, Zyra, offers a small chance of survival, however. Scientific calculations led Hendron to believe that Zyra is habitable and once the Earth collides with Bellus, Zyra will assume Earth’s orbit. Before Bellus collides with the Earth, Zyra will travel close enough to cause earthquakes, tidal waves, and volcanic eruptions. But getting to Zyra via a theoretical space ark will require massive financial outlays and access to resources Hendron doesn’t have. With the federal government taking the UN’s lead, Hendron turns to a wealthy industrialist, Sydney Stanton (John Hoyt). Stanton, however, is no humanitarian. Wheelchair bound and bitterly cynical, Stanton simply wants to survive, eventually agreeing to finance Hendron’s project in exchange for a place on the ark. Apparently, other arks are being built around the round.
Although cinematographer-turned-director Rudolph Maté (The 300 Spartans, The Far Horizons, The Violent Men, Union Station, D.O.A.) received credit for directing When Worlds Collide, the real auteur behind When Worlds Collide was producer George Pal. George Pal, who would go on to produce War of the Worlds, Conquest of Space, The Time Machine, and The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, had few, if any, qualms in connecting the story of Noah’s Ark to the space spaceship in When Worlds Collide. Pal has When Worlds Collide open on a leather-bound, gold-lettered Holy Bible as an angelic chorus sings offscreen. The cover turns to reveal a few choice lines from Genesis, before shifting focus to follow Randall and Dr. Bronson in South Africa.
Not surprisingly for a film made in 1951, the science in When Worlds Collide isn’t particularly plausible. Since spaceflight was still theoretical sixty years ago, everything Pal and his collaborators did was pure conjecture. Instead of the heavy rocket thrusters that became the norm less than a decade later, Pal’s visual effects crew imagined a rail launcher carved into the side of a mountain that would conserve energy and boost a rocket ship into space or orbit. Add to that several pronouncements about Bellus, Zyra, and distances, and the science in When Worlds Collide is, depending on your mood and willingness to be forgiving, laugh inducing or cringe worthy. But this is now and that was then. Back in 1951, audiences probably found the speculative science in When Worlds Collide sufficiently plausible to allow them to suspend their disbelief, sit back in a darkened movie theater and enjoy an end-of-the-world scenario as escapist entertainment. After all, who doesn't enjoy a good smiting every once in a while?
When Worlds Collide is equally fascinating for how the filmmakers decided to depict race and gender. Forget about seeing any non-white characters, with the exception of the occasional montage that mixes and matches stock footage. There’s zero acknowledgement of a diverse multi-racial, multi-ethnic America. Everyone who makes it on to the ark is white (and young). While there’s a singular mention of space arks being built in other countries, we never learn what countries are involved or how close to completion they are. With the exception of Joyce, who, in keeping with attitudes about gender in the 1950s, has a scientific background, but only “assists” her father, the other female characters in When Worlds Collide don't even have speaking roles. Even in Joyce's case, her actions are limited to helping her father with his scientific research or choosing between Randall and Drake to presumably become a housewife and mother on Zyra.Given the religious subtext, scientific implausibility, and whites-only casting, "When Worlds Collide" has a lot going against it, but despite that, "When Worlds Collide" is still a solidly constructed doomsday flick. There’s plenty of tension, plenty of suspense, decent amounts of actions, and even a moral dilemma or two about who should stay or who should go. Rather than just present an optimistic view of human nature, Maté and his screenwriter, Sydney Boehm, weren’t afraid to show both the best and the worst we're capable of doing, contrasting self-sacrifice with self-interest, altruism with egotism, the nobler aspects of human nature with the most violent. To be fair, Maté and Boehm had an almost surefire premise, one dependent on a countdown to catastrophe to keep tension and suspense high. Add to that state-of-the-art visual effects, high-end production values, and supersaturated Technicolor and "When Worlds Collide" remains among the handful of science-fiction films from the 1950s still worth revisiting.
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originally posted: 02/13/08 18:16:35