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Reeling Backward: When Worlds Collide (1951)
Though it's a tad hokey and the special effects are embarrassingly dated, this sci-fi disaster flick is more contemplative about the nature of mankind than you'd expect.
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I invited my boys to watch “When Worlds Collide” with me, though it took some convincing. I told them it was an old science fiction film about the end of the world, which piqued interest, though they nearly bailed when I told them (erroneously) it was in black-and-white.
The 9-year-old said the neon-Technicolor look and spaceship models turned him off, though he stayed through the whole thing. The 12-year-old liked it, as did his old man.
The 1951 movie is cheap-looking, even for its day, and the spaceships do indeed look exactly like the models they are. Possibly the worst special effect is actually the last shot of the film, in which a few dozen humans land on an alien planet, rendered as a candy-colored matte painting that looks like it was pulled straight from a Disney animated movie of the era.
But I was surprised the film, directed by sci-fi/fantasy pioneer Rudolph Maté (“Destination Moon”) from a screenplay by Sydney Boehm, based on a serialized novel by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie, manages to raise some deep, contemplative questions about the nature of mankind while it puts us through the paces of a standard end-of-the-world plot.
The set-up is that a sun, Bellus, and its orbiting planet, Zyra, are hurtling through space at something like a million miles an hour and will pass into our solar system. The near-miss of a like-sized planet in about eight months will cause massive earthquakes and tidal waves, but then the star will crash-land into Earth 19 days later, destroying it.
A group of scientists try to warn the United Nations but are scoffed at. So they begin their own project to build a spaceship capable of taking off before the impact and landing on Zyra, which they have found to contain vegetation and are hoping will be habitable for humans.
So it’s essentially a Noah’s Ark story, which the filmmakers underscore in heavy-handed Biblical quotes that start and end the movie. The ship is also to be loaded with plants, animals and other supplies to help restart the human race.
Well, at least the white race — no people of color being depicted as part of the escape project. Hey, it was 1951.
Now, the metaphysics of the movie are absurd, of course. Like, how could the scientists detect anything about Zyra while it was still a billion miles away? And shouldn’t they take off before it scrambles the Earth’s surface, not 19 days later when it presumably will be somewhere around Uranis?
And the biggest one: don’t solar systems rotate around the axis of the galaxy, not hurtle around laterally smashing into each other like some celestial mosh pit? It seems like even if the humans’ desperate ploy works — spoiler alert: it does — wouldn’t Zyra be destined to soon crash into something else and they’d have to repeat the process all over again?
I’ll fall back on the same excuse I gave my youngest: it was 1951, and they were doing the best they could with what they had.
Of course, because it was that time they also had to insert romance into the story. In this case, Joyce Hendron (Barbara Rush), the daughter of the leading scientist (Larry Keating), falls for rapscallion pilot David Randall (Richard Derr). His only involvement in the affair was being selected to transport the photographic evidence of Bellus/Zyra from a South African observatory to the States. Joyce convinced her dad to find a reason to keep him around, and eventually guarantee him a seat on the ship (which resembles a bloated jetliner of the time).
This also means ditching her fiancé, Dr. Tony Drake (Peter Hansen), who’s at first irritated at Randall elbowing in on his girl, but eventually steps aside out of a sense of selflessness. Though there is a scene where they fly a helicopter to help some of the people impacted by the Zyra-induced flooding, and Drake briefly flies off to abandon Randall and then reconsiders.
(Why the good doctor is flying the chopper and not the pilot is a good question the movie conveniently ignores.)
Randall struggles with being guaranteed a spot on the ship owing only to the affection from Joyce rather than any particular need for him. This causes a strain in their budding affair as he makes several attempts to refuse.
Representing the polar opposite of this sense of altruism is Sydney Stanton (John Hoyt), a wealthy businessman who agrees to fund the rest of the spaceship project if he’s allowed to pick the passengers, which will be limited to 40 to 50 people because of fuel/weight considerations. Dr. Hendron talks Stanton down to just getting a seat for himself.
Stanton is the clear antagonist of the piece, even placed in a wheelchair to make him seem more otherized. And yet, he is the one who correctly predicts that the rest of the world will eventually realize their doom and fight for a place on the ship. (Others are reportedly also being built in other countries, though we never see or hear from them.)
In particular, the task force constructing the ship runs to about 600 people, most of whom will labor to save mankind but not themselves. Hendron and the other lead scientist, Dr. George Frye (Stephen Chase), come up with a lottery system that’s supposed to be random and fair. But in the final hour, as Stanton predicted, the losers take up arms and attempt to seize the ship.
There’s even a mushy bit about a pair of young lovers (Rachel Ames and James Congdon) working on the project, and when he gets a winning number and she does not, he turns his in. (Which Stanton’s lickspittle assistant, played by Frank Cady, attempts to commandeer.)
Of course, the cerebral scientists take heart and agree to let the couple come on, along with a young boy they rescued and even a stray pup he finds.
I have to admit I tend to have a little more respect for Stanton’s logical but Machiavellian mindset than Hendron’s empathetic, aspirational one. Survival instincts tend to override morality pretty quickly in most desperate situations, despite what we’d like to think.
Hendron eventually has to admit to Stanton that he was right, sacrificing both of them to ensure the spaceship gets away from the mob in time.
And the notion of selecting people randomly in a lottery virtually guarantees that some critical skillsets will be missing in the population that survives. You could wind up with 16 mechanics and no farmers or physicians. And, as we already learned from “Dr. Strangelove,” to ensure the propagation of the species, you’d need a higher female-to-male ratio than the 50/50 depicted.
The budgetary and technological restraints do legitimately detract from “When Worlds Collide.” The ship resembles a child’s plaything, balanced on a runway track that goes up a mountain to help it escape the planetary gravity. Zyra is never seen in the sky, and Bellus is just a big, stationary orb that slowly grows on the horizon.
The actual destruction of the Earth is barely seen, just a puff of fire on a video screen aboard the ship, which nobody witnesses because they’re all blacked out from the g-forces upon takeoff.
Randall is at the helm, of course. Dr. Drake tricked him into going, saying Dr. Frye has a cardiac condition that makes it unlikely he’d survive the flight. It was a lie, of course, but rather than restarting his moral conflict, Randall beams a thankful smile and goes out with Joyce to explore their new world.
Speaking of, in that awful matte painting, you can see off to the left a structure that’s clearly hand-made. (Or, tentacle-made, or what have you.) I wonder if the filmmakers put it there to suggest an unexpected challenge and set up a sequel where the humans must vie with an alien species. Though technically, in that scenario they would be the off-world invaders.
Hmmm… a movie where humans are the aliens who come to destroy somebody’s world rather than the victims. Now there’s an idea.
The novelists actually did write a follow-up, “After Worlds Collide,” where the space pilgrims discover the remnants of an extinct race and reignite the same factionalism sowed on Earth, with a Communist/East contingent lining up against a Capitalist/West one.
It was never filmed, probably because people don’t like too much reality in their science fiction.